- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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The tale of how NFL owner Art Modell bolted Cleveland for Baltimore, changed the team's name from the Browns to the Ravens, then dared to set foot in Cleveland only once again has been revisited during Super Bowl week as the Ravens prepare to play the San Francisco 49ers. But the little-known story of the power lunch that was intended to block Modell's move and hilariously went off the rails instead? Not so much, even though it could've altered dramatically both cities' sports histories.
Suffice to say, by the end of that under-the-radar summit in Washington, D.C., between cantankerous Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke and Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, an insulted Angelos had forgotten his hopes of adding to his sports empire and was now bellowing "Why, I'm gonna give it right back to this sonuvabitch!" The furious, 82-year-old Cooke was wearing some Chardonnay instead of drinking it. And Maryland congresswoman Helen Bentley, who had brokered the 1994 get-together? At one point she thought the same thing Angelos was thinking as Cooke was screaming "Helen! HEL-len! HEL-LEN!" and she was whispering "Peter! Peter! Peter! …"
"He wanted to hit me," Angelos later told me. "In fact, I think he said he was gonna hit me."
"Yep," Bentley, now 89, and still working as a Washington lobbyist and consultant, said in a phone interview this week. "I remember it well. I called the meeting to see if we could get these two blockheads to talk together and make some sense so that we could get a football team back in Baltimore."
It probably won't now soothe Clevelanders' wronged hearts to learn that had the effort succeeded, it might've robbed Modell of the soft landing spot in Baltimore that he needed. And if that had happened, then maybe Baltimore -- not Cleveland -- would have been the jilted city that had to start over in 1999 with an NFL expansion team. Maybe Cleveland would be reveling this week in its team making a second trip to the Super Bowl instead of remaining one of only four NFL cities whose team has never played in the game.
Subtracting the three seasons the Browns were in mothballs after Modell left, poor Cleveland -- perennially picked-on Cleveland -- is now 0-for-44. And that stinks.
At the time, Angelos identified with Cleveland's anger. He had designs on getting a team back in Baltimore since Robert Irsay spirited his Colts out of town in the middle of the night to Indianapolis, and adamantly believed that a local man -- not an outsider like Modell -- should be the one to do it. He is not a man who sees much as impossible. He worked at his Greek-American father's tavern to put himself through law school at night and later made a quixotic run for mayor of Baltimore. He bought the Orioles from Eli Jacobs at a bankruptcy auction he helped force (that's another story) after making a fortune by doggedly fighting until a 14-year class action suit his firm brought against the asbestos industry resulted in settlements approaching $1 billion.
Angelos' hope was that the equally cantankerous Cooke -- whose aristocratic bearing, status in Washington high society, and colorful habits like swanning into Redskins practices with Coco, his cocker spaniel, prancing beside him had earned him the nickname The Squire -- would help him in NFL circles rather than try to block another team from moving so close to the Redskins again or support Modell.
Or at least that was the hope.
"The meeting was in my [Washington, D.C.,] office in the Longworth Building, Room 610, and congressional offices are not very spacious, as you know," Bentley says. "These two gentlemen are about the same size -- they're both short. And both very cocky. I have this bottle of Chardonnay I'm serving in these plastic glasses because that's all I had. So, we're sitting in my office, and one of the first things Jack said to Peter was, 'Where'd you get that suit, Peter?' And Peter [growling a bit] said, 'My suit? I bought it off the rack, Jack.'"
Cooke triumphantly shot back, "That's what I thought!"
Then, looking at Angelos while thumbing his own suit lapel, Cooke added, "You see this? Savile Row, Savile Roooow.' You probably don't even know what that is."
"Jack went on to say that he bought his suit on Fleet Street in London," Bentley recalls. "And it went on from there. It lasted maybe a half hour." How much of those 30 minutes did they fight? "I'd say 20 minutes," Bentley says, laughing. "The big mistake that I made was that I didn't record it."
Angelos told me the rest of the story when I was reporting a profile on him that later appeared in Sports Illustrated, and his version went like this:
"So Helen is sitting there -- she brought all these crab cakes and things, and she was hosting us -- and [Cooke] is giving me all this crap," Angelos said.
"He said he'd had detectives following me. He said, 'I know more about yooooou than you know about yourself. You think you're so smart.' He said, 'I've checked you out, and I have more money than you'll ever THINK of having.' So I said, 'First of all, let's get something straight: You're nothing but a goddamn carpetbagger.'
"Well, when I said that, he got all mad and he started shaking and he said, 'HEL-LEN!' I will not sit here and talk to this CUR!'… I said, 'You're a carpetbagger. You've never paid any taxes to the state of Maryland. Who are YOU to start dictating to the people of Maryland?' And I'm really on his case. Helen had these plastic wine glasses, like champagne glasses, and we were drinking this wine, and he's squeezing his glass, his plastic glass. I'm making these various statements to him, and he's furious!
"He went on and on about how he made all this money as an encyclopedia salesman. I was still telling him he should remove his objections to a Baltimore team, and he said, 'I want it all.' That's what he said: 'I ... WANT ... IT ... ALL.' And he's still squeezing the glass. Now, I'm looking at it and all of a sudden it's becoming elongated and I'm thinking, 'Oh, look at that' -- and suddenly it goes crack! And wine goes all over his trousers. His Savile Rooooow. I take out my handkerchief and I run over and put my arm around him. And he didn't want me to even touch him. I said, 'Oh, my. All over your Savile Row suit.'"
Bentley still recalls that scene as well -- "Jack absolutely did not want Peter to touch him. It was like he was poison" -- and then how Cooke angrily stalked out, forgetting his umbrella. But when I reached Cooke at the time for SI, he indignantly said nothing of the sort happened.
"Completely untrue. Ridiculous. Why, this is the most preposterous thing I've ever heard!" Cooke roared. He disagreed with everything but the characterization that he and Angelos didn't get along very well. When I asked what might account for his and Angelos' drastically different version of events, Cooke boomed, "Why, he's a congenital liar!"
Then he cooed, "But you, you're a darling to call!"
Angelos sent Cooke a box of Godiva chocolates the next day as a gag, with a note that said he hoped their meeting didn't leave a bad taste in Cooke's mouth. Cooke sniffed and told me he slid the candy off to one of his secretaries because "chocolate's no good for you." Not many months after their power lunch, Modell -- not Angelos -- officially became the man who restored the NFL to Baltimore. Angelos didn't respond to several requests this week for an interview to revisit the story.
By the time of Modell's death in September, he was portrayed as a man who became as beloved by Baltimore sports fans as much as he's still loathed in Cleveland.
The Browns recently switched owners again and hired their sixth head coach in 12 seasons. Say hello to Rob Chudzinski.
While the Ravens will try to knock off the 49ers on Sunday, Cleveland still waits for its first Super Bowl trip not knowing what to expect next. Or what might have been.
Cleveland didn't have to lose the Browns to Baltimore. But Peter Angelos' attempt to get Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke to oppose Art Modell's move failed spectacularly.