Some time ago, Billy Crystal was on “Late Night” promoting his new memoir. A highlight of the story was his encounter with a more than tipsy Howard Cosell while hosting the “Tonight Show.” Even today, Howard Cosell’s persona is an indelible memory for the baby boom generation, though his significance has been often discounted and forgotten. A huge presence in the cultural history of his time, much of what is seen on sports television today began with his work. He was the first person to actually attempt to apply journalistic techniques to covering the games we play and are obsessed with.
From the 1960s through the mid -1980s, Howard Cosell was the most controversial figure in broadcasting. His mantra of for “telling it like it is,” joined with an inimitable voice, polysyllabic pronouncements, and urban Eastern demeanor, made him one of the most prominent figures in the landscape of American television. To those who witnessed his most prominent work, it seems difficult to believe that he’s been gone over twenty years, much less beginning to be forgotten. For Howard Cosell was one of the fathers of broadcast journalism, the first to cast daylight on the power structure of American sports.
“LIKE IT IS”
Though associated with the accents and rhythms of New York City's speech, Howard Cosell was born in 1918 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, then growing up in Brooklyn. He graduated in English literature from New York University, then the NYU Law school. Howard's photographic memory served him well academically, allowing him to easily pass his bar exam.
Never interested in practicing law, he entered Officer Candidate School when war came. The newly minted Major Cosell oversaw a civilian workforce of some 65,000 men, at the New York Port of Embarkation in Brooklyn. During this time that he met and married Mary Edith “Emmy” Abrams. As was typical for the era, Emmy’s family fiercely objected to her marriage to a Jew, but the two were happily married until Emmy passed away in 1990.
At war’s end, Howard’s efforts to find work fell flat, a circumstance which he blamed on anti-Semitism. He auditioned at radio station WOR but was rejected for the same Brooklyn accent and nasal tone, that later contributed to his mass success. He was told, “With that voice, you’re never going to make it.” Cosell reluctantly joined a small law firm in Manhattan, becoming a specialist in labor law.
Through the contacts he developed in his practice, he ultimately did get a broadcasting break. In 1953 on ABC Radio, Cosell began hosting “All-League Clubhouse”, a show in which Little League players asked questions of Big League players. ABC offered him twenty-five dollars per show to give ten five-minute sports updates every weekend. Three years later he finally was able to pursue broadcasting full-time, working as the sports anchor for WABC, the network’s Owned and Operated Station in New York.
In an era of “rip and read” sportscasts, where little more was said than what appeared in a box score, Cosell approached his work as a print journalist would do covering hard news. In an age where technology was primitive, Cosell would appear at events, carrying the heavy equipment of the day. His approach scandalized the sportswriters of the day, in an era where there was already tension between print and broadcast news operations. His legal background defined his style, which was to ask probing and difficult questions and not accepting the common vague and empty answers.
Traditional sportswriters and broadcasters were often paid shills for their local sports franchise owners. There was very little analysis in stories, and seldom was anything printed or uttered that challenged anything easily found in a press release. Add in the usual prejudices of the day against the sons and daughters of Catholic and Jewish immigrants, and the sight and sound of a “New York Jew” with the regional accent and delivery was an unwelcome intruder into their clubhouse.
Howard’s rejection of the easy path and opposition to simply regurgitating what was seen on the field was a threat to the empty sports journalistic canon of his times. He saw the business of sports as culturally important enough to demand analysis and the application of accountability.
With the advent of public financing of stadiums and arenas, big-league sports became an enterprise that increasingly was a public interest. In the case of the four major team sports, franchises were big businesses demanding publically financed facilities from their communities. Given the developing place of sports in the context of the broader events of the nineteen sixties, he understood the economic impact and policy implications of the games we play and pay to watch.
His broadcast persona was not one that traditional network suits would have ever considered placing on TV play by play. But as the sixties began sports television began to claim broader swatches of airtime. In an era where ABC was considered barely a half network, the one area the paradigm had shifted was in the area of sports. Despite the lasting anathema, Cosell’s abrasive style had evoked among network executives, his style had caught the attention of the innovative producer Roone Arledge, a young producer then seeking content for ABC’s new sports anthology series, Wide World of Sports. Arledge began by using Cosell to cover ABC’s low rated baseball games, while using him to cover a variety of events on Wide World of Sports, with an emphasis on boxing.
Cosell’s specialization nurtured his long association with the fortunes of the young Cassius Clay, who within a few days after winning the Heavyweight Championship, had changed his name to Muhammad Ali while joining the Nation of Islam. Recognizing Ali’s transcendent talent, and his developing courage and conviction, Howard developed a famously electric on-air rapport with Ali, while defending his right to worship as he pleased, to take another name if he wanted. When Ali was stripped of the heavyweight championship for refusing to be inducted into the army, Cosell virtually alone, defended Ali’s right to earn a living as his court case wound its way upwards to the US Supreme Court. His defense of Ali was based on his professional understanding of the law, and his position was proven correct in 1971 when Ali’s case prevailed in the High Court.
In an era where both racism and the war in Vietnam were wedge issues in American politics and culture, both Ali and Cosell became deeply unpopular among sports fans, who regarded the boxer as a traitor to his country, and the voice of a deeply threatening cultural change in terms of race. Cosell’s defense of Ali, his support of Curt Flood’s challenge of the “reserve clause” in baseball, and his correctly perceived liberalism created his reputation as the sportscaster that America loved to hate. Much of lunatic America certainly did, given the death threats that greeted Cosell, as he traveled around the NFL as ABC embarked on its next revolutionary step, Monday Night Football. As seen with Fox nearly 25 years later, the acquisition of rights to the NFL made it into the leading national network.
Monday Night Football began in 1970, with Cosell in the broadcast booth with the veteran sportscaster Keith Jackson (ex-player Frank Gifford came onboard in 1971 ) doing “play by play” and former Dallas Cowboy Don Meredith. Although initially unwanted by any of the networks, NFL football on Monday Night’s was an instant hit in the ratings. The show not only ruled the Nielsen’s, long-held American behaviors were altered on Monday nights, decimating Mondays for restaurants, cinemas, and bowling leagues. Cosell’s banter with “Dandy Don”, referred by the comparatively bland Gifford, made Cosell a Superstar.
His apogee came in the mid-1970’s when he hosted a short-lived variety show on Saturday Nights. By then, Cosell had become increasingly worn down with his status as the man Red State America loved to hate. Hypersensitive at best to public opinion, he was increasingly distressed by the downside of his fame, often accompanied by open displays at games, and the occasional death threat. His relationship with his co-workers degraded, and remarks that seemed humorous at the beginning of the series seemed bitter and mean. Cosell began to complain of a “jockocracy” of former athletes, who had been hired as commentators on the basis of their athletic careers. Driving this was a belief he was wasting his life on broadcasting sports, driving self-speculation he was a viable candidate for the U.S. Senate.
By the early 1980s, Howard became an increasingly polarizing figure on air, and behind the network scenes. He started to bite the hand that fed him, by openly criticizing first boxing, then the National Football League. While ringside at a horrifically awful fight match between Larry Holmes and Randall “Tex” Cobb, he became enraged when the referee incredibly refused to end the fight, saying “I wonder 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, appearing before a Senate Committee to call for an end to the sport.
Further troubles came later in 1983 when Cosell referred to Washington Redskins wide receiver Alvin Garrett as a “little monkey.” The ridiculous accusations that he was racist hurt to the core, even after a host of African-American leaders, came to his defense. He had threatened to leave Monday Night Football for years, near the end of the season he did so. Though he continued his daily radio show, “ Speaking of Sports” for a time, the weight of years and continued feuds and controversy ended his career. After the death of his Emmy in 1990 he became a hermit in his Manhattan apartment, shunning all visitors. The sad decline ended in 1995 when Howard Cosell passed at the age of seventy-seven.
“Above all, he was sui generis, an unalloyed original who, as a homely Jewish lawyer from Brooklyn, brought to television what one writer called "the grand slam of network liabilities." Upon arriving on the national scene in the 1960s, Cosell got swept up in the political currents quickened by the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. Unlike his buttoned-down peers, who ducked social issues and lied at the first whiff of controversy, Cosell waded into every major battle of his time, cutting his way against the grain. He allied himself with Curt Flood in the player's challenge to baseball's hoary reserve clause, and he championed Muhammad Ali in his fight against the draft, setting fire to the national shirt by insisting on calling Ali by his Muslim name. Many of his pen pals remained anonymous when they addressed him "You nigger-loving Jew bastard...."”
William Nack- Sports Illustrated
MANY BLESSINGS- NOEL
PS- One of the most enduring memories people of a certain age have is the night that John Lennon died. We had no social media and CNN was in the infancy of the 24 hours news cycle. Here is a great piece on how Howard Cosell broke the news to the world.
Here is the HBO documentary on Howard Cosell:
Howard's interview on "Outside the Lines"- 1991