Selling history, piece by piece Browns fans gather for the 'Final Play' at Cleveland Stadium

September 22, 1996|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

CLEVELAND -- In one of the oddest estate sales in memory, officials began selling off yesterday the remnants of 50 years of Browns history -- from Art Modell's luxury toilet to splintered bleacher seats -- to clear the way for the arrival of a new franchise in three years.

Thousands of the Browns' legendary fans and some of their old players trooped through the carcass of Cleveland Stadium, paying their final respects and sifting through mounds of memorabilia that will be auctioned off next week.

Catalogs, available for $23, listed hundreds of items for sale, with the proceeds going to the city's recreation department. Among the unique keepsakes up for bid: the stadium's massive scoreboard, sections of weathered seats, trough urinals, the cell door to the stadium's lockup and the latrine from the team's executive offices.

The two-day event, dubbed "the Final Play -- Foundation for the Future," was designed to cauterize the still-raw wounds opened by the Browns' departure to Baltimore last year and begin the NFL's long process of rehabilitation in one of its most passionate markets.

"The reality is it is time for the people of Cleveland to get closure of the past and look to the future," said Bill Futterer, who, as president of the Cleveland Browns Trust, is charged with keeping the embers of football burning here during the three-year football winter. The NFL has promised to place a team in the city by 1999.

The Browns Trust was a co-sponsor of the "Final Play," which ends today and symbolically will lay to rest a quirky, 65-year-old fixture of the city's skyline and object of endearment. Demolition is scheduled to begin in November, and the last of the trademark yellow bricks will be hauled away in February. The bricks, too, will be sold.

Organizers expected up to 100,000 people to mill around the field and participate in the "NFL Experience," a mobile road show sponsored by the league that allows couch potatoes to try to kick a ball through goal posts, run an obstacle course of stuffed tackling dummies and otherwise live out their free-agent fantasies.

Banners hung from the upper deck represented every NFL franchise except one: the Ravens.

Booths ringed the field selling such hard-to-find gifts as surplus Browns lawn signs for $5 and a $15 poster of John "Big Dawg" Thompson, the two-ton volunteer mascot and "guardian of the Dawg Pound."

For $22, fans could order a framed photograph of the scoreboard with the message of their choice in lights. A "We the Fans" compact disc, featuring the twangy, country-and-western ballad of brokenhearted Browns fans called "Help Wanted," was $10. Sales of commemorative wooden brick holders were going briskly until someone asked if the holders came with actual stadium bricks. They don't.

Fistfuls of grass were free, and the giant, orange Browns helmet sprayed on the field as it was on game days looked as though it had been nibbled by locusts. Some fans pried masonry souvenirs from cracks in the stadium walls.

Other visitors were more intent on quietly taking in their last moments in the stadium, an architectural ugly duckling with a fierce emotional hold on generations of Clevelanders who packed the place to watch everything from heavyweight boxing to the Beatles within its bulging concourses.

"It's an emotional time, because, in my book, this whole thing is just totally unfair," said Laura Massie, a former Clevelander who was taken to her first Browns game at age 11 by her mother.

Opened in 1931, Municipal Stadium is a relic of the days when capacity mattered more than sight lines. The years and the harsh weather blowing in off Lake Erie have not been kind. Its brick facade is cracking, cement is crumbling, beams are rusting and the aluminum superstructure -- designed to blend gracefully into the Cleveland sky -- has blackened with age.

Ravens owner Art Modell blamed the stadium's poor condition and the city's faltering attempts at renovation for his move of the renamed franchise to Baltimore.

But for thousands of fans like Massie, the stadium was a timeless and uniquely Cleveland icon.

"Sure, it's an old rattletrap, but it's our old rattletrap and I love it," said Massie, 36, a public relations specialist at George Mason University who lives in Fairfax, Va.

Browns games, she said, "represented a coming together of people from all walks of life, black and white, rich and poor, and we were all united by our love for the Browns."

Ralph Anderson, a retired meat salesman from Canton, Ohio, saw his first Browns game in 1948, when he, the franchise and quarterback Otto Graham were young. He said he's not sure the new team, playing in a new stadium jammed with corporate amenities, will produce the same experience.

Sitting with two grandsons in the "Dawg Pound," a bleachers section renowned for its beer-swilling, dog-biscuit-throwing fans, Anderson looked about the cavernous stadium and recalled the Browns' upset victory over the Baltimore Colts for the NFL title on a bone-chilling Sunday in 1964.

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