Howard Cosell (1918-1995)

cosell2From the 1960s through the 1980s, the reigning dean of American sports journalism was Howard Cosell (1918-1995).  Known for his intellectual demeanor, his distinctive voice, and his catchphrase, “I’m just telling it like it is,” he would become one of the most prominent figures in all of professional sports.

He was born Howard Cohen—he would only change his name to Cosell in 1940, claiming that it had been the family name before his grandfather, a Russian Jew, immigrated to the United States in 1880.  Howard was born in 1918 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, but grew up in Brooklyn, New York.  He graduated with a degree in English literature from New York University, and then went through NYU law school, but only to please his father, who was financing his education.  The young man quickly found that it took him little effort to excel in academics—he would later claim to have a photographic memory—allowing him plenty of time to pursue his passion for sports.

Although Cosell passed the bar exam on his first try in 1941, he had little interest in pursuing a legal career, and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor he quickly enlisted in the army.  He applied for, and was accepted into Officer Candidate School, but he never served overseas.  Instead, by an extraordinary stroke of luck, Major Howard Cosell was assigned to the New York Port of Embarkation in Brooklyn, where he oversaw a civilian workforce of some 65,000 men.  It was during this time that he met and married Mary Edith “Emmy” Abrams, the daughter of a prominent corporate executive.  When they first met, Emmy was a private in the Women’s Army Corps, working as a secretary for another officer.  Although her Episcopalian parents objected to her marriage to a Jew—indeed, neither her mother nor father attended the wedding, and for the first two years her father refused to speak to her—the two would remain happily married until Emmy’s death in 1990.

When World War II ended in 1945 Howard expected that his wartime management experience would open plenty of doors for him in the corporate world.  However, his efforts to find work fell flat, a circumstance which he blamed on the fact that he was Jewish.  It was also around this time that he first considered a career in the media.  He auditioned for an on-air job at radio station WOR, but ironically he was rejected for his Brooklyn accent and nasal tone.  “With that voice,” he was told, “you’re never going to make it.”  Ironically, these were the very vocal qualities that would one day make him famous.

Frustrated by his failure to find more satisfying employment, Howard reluctantly joined a small law firm in Manhattan.  But although he found the practice of law as dull as its study, his work as a lawyer did prove lucrative; soon he was boasting an annual salary of $30,000, at a time when the average American’s income was less than one-sixth that.  More importantly, Cosell’s law practice provided him with new opportunities.  As a specialist in union law, he worked with a number of professional athletes, including Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson, and he provided legal counsel for the Little League of New York.  It was through these contacts he won his first broadcasting job.  In 1953 ABC Radio asked him to host All League Clubhouse, a weekly show in which Little League players asked questions of professional athletes.  Network executives were impressed, and soon offered him twenty-five dollars per show to give ten five-minute sports updates every weekend.  Three years later he gave up his law practice to pursue broadcasting full-time, and from 1961 to 1974 he served as the main sports anchor for WABC, the flagship station of the American Broadcasting Company. 

It was in sports broadcasting that Cosell found his true calling.  In an age when most radio sports coverage consisted of little more than broadcasters reading the scores that came in off the wire, Howard insisted on looking for the stories behind the scores.  Throughout the 1950s he could be found at virtually any sporting event with a seventeen-pound reel-to-reel tape recorder strapped to his back.  He would boldly approach any athlete he could find, shove a microphone in his face and ask the most penetrating, personal questions—and he got answers.  Traditional sportswriters were amazed, and more than a little perturbed; after all, they had been the ones traditionally involved in sports analysis.  To them, this Brooklyn Jew with the nasal accent and staccato delivery was an unwelcome intruder into their domain.

untitledWhen covering sports events Cosell’s style was equally revolutionary.  He spurned the traditional play-by-play coverage which, he quipped, “parrots can do.”  Instead he offered deep analysis and context; in other words, he sought to employ the methods of professional journalism.  He approached sports in an intellectual light, as if he were reporting world events; it is for this reason that he was sometimes referred to as “the Edward R. Murrow of sportscasting.”

Although Cosell was doing well in radio, he longed to try his hand at television as well.  Unfortunately some of the network’s senior executives actively disliked him, and almost no one wanted to risk putting someone with such a thick Brooklyn accent before a national television audience.  However, his inimitable style had caught the attention of Roone Arledge, a young producer for ABC’s unexpected hit series Wide World of Sports.  He began by using Cosell to cover weekend baseball games, which attracted very few viewers, but within a few years Howard became a familiar presence on Wide World of Sports, covering events from track and field to boxing.

It was through his involvement with Wide World of Sports that Cosell began a long association with the heavyweight boxer Cassius Clay, who within a few years changed his name to Muhammad Ali.  Recognizing the young fighter’s amazing talent, Howard developed an unusual rapport with Ali.  The banter in their post-match interviews was almost as entertaining—and popular—as the matches themselves.  Moreover, when in 1967 Ali was stripped of the heavyweight championship for refusing to be inducted into the army, Cosell was virtually alone among sportscasters in publicly defending his right to stay in the ring.  His defense of Ali, however, was deeply unpopular among many sports fans, who regarded the boxer as a traitor to his country.  This would be the original source of his reputation as the sportscaster that America loved to hate.

If his association with Ali made him a celebrity, Monday Night Football made Cosell a superstar.  The program was the brainchild of Roone Arledge, who by this time was president of ABC Sports.  Arledge recognized that in order for a sporting event to succeed in prime time its coverage had to appeal to a much broader audience.  What happened on the field, he concluded, was only part of the overall drama of the game.  He would use an unprecedented number of cameras, allowing his production team to capture reaction shots from coaches and team members on the sidelines, as well as from the fans.  In addition, the commentators in the booth would do more than report what was happening on the field—they, too, would be part of the drama.  Who better to provide the dramatic element, Arledge quickly realized, than Howard Cosell?

Monday Night Football debuted in 1970, with Howard joined in the broadcast booth by veteran sportscaster Keith Jackson (replaced the following year by former New York Giants  star Frank Gifford) and former Dallas Cowboy Don Meredith.  Although initially panned by critics, who disliked the commentators’ three-way banter, it was an instant hit among the television audience.  Within weeks the show ruled prime time Mondays, while movie theaters and bowling alleys reported that Mondays had become their slowest nights, as their regular patrons stayed home to watch football.  Indeed, more than any other factor it was Monday Night Football that made ABC—which during the 1960s had often been sneeringly referred to as the “Almost Broadcasting Company”—into a true competitor against the older and better-established networks NBC and CBS.    Cosell himself began appearing on non-sports related programs such as the sitcoms Nanny and the Professor, The Odd Couple, and The Partridge Family.  He even had a cameo role—playing himself—in the Woody Allen film Bananas.

Yet while Monday Night Football brought him to the pinnacle of his fame and success, Cosell by the late 1970s had become highly discontented with his status as the man America loved to hate.  He had always been sensitive to criticism, and was increasingly disgusted with the behavior of sports fans—especially when they jeered him at games. His relationship with his costars had gone downhill as well.  What began as witty repartee at the beginning of the decade was becoming more pointed, and occasionally downright nasty.  “Faultless Frank” Gifford, Howard claimed, was incompetent, while “Dandy Don” Meredith was simply lazy—and Cosell was convinced that both men were plotting against him.  He began to complain that sports broadcasting was dominated by a “jockocracy” made up of former athletes who had been undeservedly hired as commentators on the basis of their performance on the field.  Behind all of this was a growing sense on Cosell’s part that he was meant for bigger things than sports.  He repeatedly urged Roone Arledge—by this time president of ABC News as well as ABC Sports—to consider him as an anchor for the network’s evening news broadcast.  He even talked about running for the U.S. Senate.

By the early 1980s Cosell’s insistence on speaking his mind had made him one of the best-loved and most-hated figures of postwar America.  It also led him, step by step, to give up the career that had made him a celebrity.  In 1982, while commenting ringside at a brutally one-sided boxing match between Larry Holmes and Randall “Tex” Cobb, he became enraged when the referee refused to stop the fight.  “I wonder,” he told the audience in a now famous quote, “if that referee is constructing an advertisement for the abolition of the very sport that he is a part of?”  Afterward he announced that he would never again cover another professional boxing match as long as he lived.  Indeed, he would soon be appearing before a congressional committee to call for a legal ban on the sport.

The next year a controversy erupted during a Monday Night Football game, when Cosell referred to Washington Redskins wide receiver Alvin Garrett (who was black) as a “little monkey.”  The inevitable accusations that he was a racist stung the commentator deeply, as he counted Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali among the men he most admired.  His use of the term “monkey,” he insisted, had nothing to do with Garrett’s race, but rather his quickness and agility.  He had used the term before in reference to others who weren’t black, including his own grandson.  After a few weeks the controversy died down, thanks largely to the fact that a whole series of prominent African-Americans, including Jesse Jackson, Bill Cosby, and Rachel Robinson (Jackie Robinson’s widow) rallied to his defense.  Nevertheless, the incident convinced him more than ever that he needed to reassess his priorities.  Over the years he had repeatedly threatened to leave Monday Night Football.  Near the end of the 1983 football season he actually did so—and for good.

By this time Cosell was sixty-five years old, and sought more than anything else to spend time with his wife, his two daughters, and his grandchildren.  He did not retire altogether from sports journalism; he continued to cover baseball games, and did a daily program called Speaking of Sports for the ABC Radio Network.  However, throughout the rest of the decade he gradually gave up these responsibilities as well.  After the death of his beloved wife Emmy in 1990 he became a veritable recluse in his Manhattan apartment, shunning all visitors except for family members.  He died in 1995 of heart embolism, at the age of seventy-seven.

Sources:

Roone Arledge, Roone: A Memoir (2004)

Howard Cosell, Cosell (1974)

Howard Cosell, I Never Played the Game (1985)

Howard Cosell, What’s Wrong with Sports (1991)

Mark Gunther and Bill Carter, Monday Night Mayhem: The Inside Story of ABC’s Monday Night Football (1988)

Dave Kindred, Sound and Fury: Two Powerful Lives, One Fateful Friendship (2006)

 

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