INTRODUCTIONA GIFTED ONE
In endless variations and permutations, jokes about Howard Cosell’s outsized ego and nonstop verbosity proliferated during much of his lifetime. It may be surprising to those who were not alive then, or were too young to know, but his presence so dominated popular American culture that it was virtually impossible not to know who he was. During those heady times, especially during the late 1960s and 1970s, it was hard, in fact, to find someone who didn’t take a whack at the world’s most inflated ego. Yet nobody laughed more than Howard Cosell did himself, knowing full well the hold he had on the media-driven culture he had helped define and cannily exploited for thirty or so years. Indeed, the more Cosell’s detractors twitted him, the bigger he became. Too big, way too big. If, in the modern vernacular, Wall Street is too big to fail, Howard Cosell was exactly the opposite—he was too big to not fail, which is why this biography isn’t merely an examination of the media phenomenon called Howard Cosell but something of a modern fable, complete with shadings of Greek tragedy.
The main reason I decided to undertake this work was to fill a vacuum that has existed for the last two decades since his final, and surprisingly quiet, exit from the stage. It doesn’t seem to make much sense, given the giant that he was. That a mainstream biography of his life hasn’t been previously undertaken might be construed as inevitable: Perhaps Cosell dug his own historical grave, ensuring neglect of his achievements, because what he did he did so well, and so obviously, was outrageously singular. In retrospect, it’s easy to dismiss him in the epitaphic words of one of the few sportswriters he held in high regard, Red Smith, who said, “Howard Cosell doesn’t broadcast sports, he broadcasts Howard Cosell.” Guilty as charged.
We can call his time the Age of Cosell, so total was his saturation of American sports and popular culture. Now, in his absence, it has been far easier for people in the sports universe to treat him as if he were a passing freak show: fascinating, but in the end just a circus performer who overshadowed the athletic purity of the games. This may or may not be true, but such an assumption seems to be a way to grant themselves immunity for their lack of conviction, perspective, and stomach for fighting the fights he did. That mindset has surely meshed with the post-Cosell times, when network sports executives have pretty much determined that a Howard Cosell not only is no longer possible in the world as we know it, but is no longer needed. That is the unkindest cut in the legacy of Howard Cosell. What’s more, they are wrong. Clearly, we do need a Howard Cosell. In fact, we need one real bad.
We always need people like Cosell, people who are not only transitional but transformational figures. Through them, old dissolves into new in response to a cultural void; the new order is hammered into place and given its character. There are a blessed handful in the modern sports culture who made and left those kind of transformational traces, most notably Muhammad Ali and Joe Namath, both of whom challenged the norms and confines of their sports, which required challenging the norms and confines of the world beyond the stadium gates, at a time when such sedition was actually a risk. And then there was Howard Cosell, who transformed sports despite, as he was never loath to point out, the fact that “I never played the game,” a condition that he knew may well have been the biggest obstacle he had to overcome as a sportscaster. For this reason, Cosell’s transformational influence, while not as important in the sociopolitical context as Ali’s, was just as broad—and, for him, just as risky. Boil away the endless layers involved in the transformation he created and ponder a simple question: Has any other sports announcer ever needed armed guards, as he did, to protect him from avowed death threats upon entering and exiting a stadium, or as he did his work inside it? In this light, Cosell wasn’t a sports announcer; he was an outlaw. That was what “telling it like it is” could get you back then. Little wonder we see and hear so little of it today.
That the generations that came after him have only hazy memories of Cosell borders on tragic, considering the blood, sweat, and tears he contributed to his art, but it is understandable given the truncated attention span of postmodern culture. The irony is that sports—a business so big and so inextricably bonded to the bigness of TV because of the transformation Cosell helped bring about—is by its very bigness a circumspect, a too comfortable beast, itself too big to fail. By contrast, never during Cosell’s time did anyone, least of all him, not fret that failure was right around the next corner. It gave those men a brazenness proscribed in today’s timid TV corporate sports environment. A major objective of this work is to acquaint younger sports viewers with those intrepid times that made sports-watching not merely routine but daring and, might we even add, fun, and this when sports events were a lot fewer in number and actually important. To appreciate the tone and texture of, say, an Ali fight during the years he was deemed an enemy of the state, or of the upstart Jets’ 1969 Super Bowl win over the proxy of NFL invincibility, the Baltimore Colts, one needs to appreciate who and what Howard Cosell was, how important he was, and his story is. Through his voice, the hard yielding of individual freedom in the outside world began to seep into sports. At a time when America was being torn apart by issues like war and racism, he walked a delicate line as a representative of a major corporation with the power to frame images and debate on its airwaves. He did it, nimbly but not without being branded as subversive himself by many sports fans and recalcitrant media voices. Some of us can remember that; too many of us have no clue about it, and for that, the blame lies with a culture all too willing to forget him and his times. As this book will demonstrate, that omission is damn near a crime.
As a mission statement, it should be obvious that this work is far more than a biography of a dramatically important, even heroic man. It is no less than the story of the transformation of American sports, and the media through which it has grown to corpulent corporate dimensions. There never was before Cosell, or has been since him, anything of his sort in sports, media, or the culture—by way of quick clarification, loud voices do not mean brave or intelligent voices. It is as if, with Cosell having bared claws and fangs to turn sports broadcasting from a lap dog of network TV to the tail that wags the entire dog, this instinct is somehow irrelevant now, when heroism and importance are not part of the job description of a sports announcer. Cosell would not have stood easily for these terrible ironies. He would crave paving the way for another transformation, challenging the new reality that there simply could not be room for him today—indeed, there wasn’t room for him late in his life, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Things had changed by then, beyond his control and to his chagrin. By then, he could only look back. And that is what we all should do, to the Age of Cosell, when a sports announcer could be a king.
When Cosell was entrenched, he was thundering, blustering, utterly compelling proof that TV had become not a silent Cycloptic eye on the world but the cynosure of Marshall McLuhan’s “hot” medium, the message in itself. What was not, however, in the McLuhan theory was the missing link that was Howard William Cohen, who would achieve fame and fortune as Howard Cosell, his name change being not insignificant. His voice itself, for those too young to recall him, was like a pealing, staccato diesel engine, driving you nuts as you drove on the highway. For three decades, it was the very soundtrack of sports, so omnipresent, so omni-hated, so omni-riveting, that within the general societal framework little was heard or seen that didn’t bear some trace of him. In fact, when The New Yorker got around to noticing this phenomenon in the mid-seventies and presented a very highbrow treatise about the new, egocentric media, the avatar was one Howard Cosell.1 It was why Woody Allen always found him so fascinating. In fact, Allen was so taken with Cosell that he put him in three of his movies, in which he played nothing but himself, to stupendous effect.
Of course, Cosell’s life stretches far, far beyond caricature and mere ego. It was an endless churn of self-serving playacting intertwined with a ferocious conviction that he was on earth to set things straight in a Potemkin village of bogus norms and heroes with clay feet. The classic outsider, as clownish as he was loud, Cosell was never boring or ignored, and he was rarely wrong. At a time when sportscasters were pleasant, nice-looking gents who bowed to the royalty of sports leagues and the sanctified memories of Babe Ruth and Knute Rockne, his views, emanating from a deeply entrenched stand of great moral offense, rewrote the narratives of sports. Sports could be corrupt, he said, the province of bloated corporate sultans stealing their athlete employees blind while posing as men of leisure. He had seen men just like this keep other men, like Jackie Robinson, out of baseball back when he was an ambitious lawyer in Brooklyn. Indeed, his image of team owners—at least until he began to see them as elitists of his own cloth—was carved in stone when Walter O’Malley smiled, assuring Brooklyn that he wouldn’t take the Dodgers away, and then did just that.
When Cosell first turned his sights on sports in the late 1950s, no one was supposed to be angry at the things he said on the radio or on that nascent invention called TV. At that time of his genesis, he was a lonely voice in the wilderness, so it was safe to regard him as a crank. Yet decades later, he felt it had been almost all for naught, after he had taken his leave. And he was right, as usual, because what remains now of Howard Cosell is not the advanced evolution of sports fused to advocacy journalism. What remains, simply, is the singular voice of Howard Cosell.
Such becomes evident in current times, in small, disjointed ways. During the researching of this book, there was an endless stream of visits to the microform room of the New York Public Library, in which a hardworking, underpaid librarian became very well aware of the guy with the salt-and-pepper hair and sunglasses, which never came off, who was there to cull every piece ever written about Cosell in the newspapers or magazines, plundering the microfilm argosy contained in sturdy filing cabinets that lined three of the walls. Finally, this librarian who had performed the archival searches on Howard Cosell looked up from her computer monitor to ask a pressing question.
“Are you going to write about the Odd Couple he did?” asked this kindly woman in her fifties, quite earnestly. “I remember he was with a kid who won a ‘Why I Want to Be Like Howard Cosell’ contest.” She laughed easily. “I don’t know why I remember that. I don’t know a thing about sports. I just remember him on The Odd Couple.”
Actually, he did three Odd Couple episodes, each screamingly funny, as was always the case when he moonlighted across the media corridors, for no other reason than that he always played himself, and nothing was funnier than that because he did it so well—his parting in one prefaced by this flawlessly turned valediction:
“And so, another long day’s journey into night for the gifted one, when he had to surmount the mediocrities around him. But at least on this occasion, the exposure to the whole American public of the utter paucity of talent of a given sportswriter and a given photographer. To paraphrase John Keats in his final letter to Fanny Brawne, ‘Fare thee well, friends. I could never gracefully bow.’ ” It was a line he wrote himself—but then, who else could have?
Gifted, indeed. He was likely the most overcaricatured human ever seen on a television screen—a “ferret-faced man” (Sports Illustrated) with a “pipestem neck,” a “drooping face and stooping figure” (Newsweek), a “tail of a pony” (Muhammad Ali) glued on his bald head, a voice “like a clogged Dristan bottle” (Encyclopedia Britannica) or that of “a guy behind a Brooklyn delicatessen counter reciting Leviticus” (Baltimore Sun). No one ever caricatured him as well as he did it though, and when he did, he could never quite inject enough satirical leavening of the hardening crust of the character he had created to keep away the tragedy that lay within him. Normally, overachieving and overarching men like Howard Cosell get to watch themselves anointed, aggrandized, and copied. This has happened with a handful of high-visibility TV lions who, as did he, left the broadcasting universe bigger and bolder than when they arrived. Cosell, though, was not anointed but cursed by his own ineffable success; he was, in the parlance of mythology—a realm where he actually belongs—Icarus flying into the sun.
No one else in his feral business ever flew that high, or receded so quickly into a hazy mnemonic memory. Always monumental, he was never anointed by his peers for his work when he was living, and rarely since. Some never forgave him for sticking his proverbial big nose where it didn’t belong, mainly on the side of what the larger population considered uppity black men who weren’t satisfied making lots of money by the good graces of the sports overlords. But that he made such things part of the sports dialectic was a remarkable feat, and one that made people want to hear him, need to hear him, and that was everyone. Beano Cook, then a CBS publicist, nailed it in 1981 when he observed that “the two biggest liars in the world are the people who tell you they don’t watch [the CBS prime-time soap] Dallas or listen to Howard Cosell.”
Granted his license for oratorical excess by his sapient ABC Sports boss, Roone Arledge, Cosell delivered numbers, big numbers, no matter the sport—and he broadcast pretty much all of them—no matter the trivialized melodrama. Unlike the fictional character much like him, Peter Finch’s mad newsman Howard Beale in Paddy Chayefsky’s serrating satire Network, he never gave anyone a chance to kill him off for the crime of “lousy ratings.” He could only kill himself, which he did, slowly but surely.
Some of US may be unaware of his lingering presence, but the truth is that he never really went away. For example, when ESPN’s Chris Berman goes into his “He . . . could . . . go . . . all . . . the . . . way!” shtick, or growls something about “the Raid-ahs!” while showing football highlights, he is paying intentional homage to Howard Cosell, who did precisely the same shtick narrating halftime highlights on Monday Night Football, the program Cosell stamped into the American cultural identity. There was, too, the 2007 ESPN miniseries The Bronx Is Burning, its title said to be cropped from one of a thousand and one memorable Cosellisms, this during a 1977 World Series game at Yankee Stadium when an aerial camera found a blaze raging a few blocks away and, reaching for apocalyptic alluvium, Cosell supposedly intoned, “There it is, ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning.” The last seven words would be used as the title of Jonathan Mahler’s 2005 book on which the TV film was based, retro-codifying New York City of that era as the ninth circle of Dante Alighieri’s descent into hell. Just as Cosell intended it when he said it—or rather, as the producers of the 1972 documentary The Bronx Is Burning intended it, literally, in their mosaic of fires in the Bronx in the early seventies.
But did he, in fact, say these lyrical words? Or did the words find their way into his mouth because Mahler put them there, where they just seemed to belong, given that Cosell was the perfect metaphoric prophet of his times? There seems to be no surviving videotape of the moment, and Mahler has since admitted that—like myself, people who were in the booth with him, and the executive producer of the film—he never heard Cosell say it nor found any witness who could back it up, but he went with it anyway. Not that it matters, because Mahler wrote a fine book, and the phrase is now owned by Howard Cosell, even if in myth, too much him for it not to be.
Like Freddy and Jason and all those other scary pop culture mutants, he has a habit of reappearing in sequels. For a decade after he died on April 23, 1995, his memory lived, albeit decreasing in intensity, in the ongoing legacy of Monday Night Football, which had prospered for over two decades in no small part due to his gargantuan presence—if only because millions wanted to yell at their screens for him to shut the hell up. In his tenure, MNF was finite. There was no football on Sunday or Thursday nights, no satellite game, no NFL Network; until the seventies no cable, much less an iPad. MNF was the royal crown of the sport, of sports, of TV. That was must-see TV. But the cosmos changes, and that was underscored when ABC could no longer in an endless sports universe afford to broadcast the network’s longest-running show. It was also a sentimental evergreen: one of the biggest gambles in television history that had become the rocket fuel of ABC’s rise from last to first in the ratings. But on that day, MNF went to ESPN, as a reduced-calorie product.
That day, it can be argued, was when Howard Cosell died a second time.
“Oh, this horizontal ladder of mediocrity. There’s one thing about this business: there is no place in it for talent. That’s why I don’t belong. I lack sufficient mediocrity."
“The networks [have] forfeited their rightful prerogative in the field of sports by allowing agencies and sponsors to dictate which announcers would be used, what might be said—and not said. Let the announcers violate those laws and his departure is imminent.”
He said those seditious things in 1967 and 1968, respectively, just as the vast majority of America was coming to know who he was. Not yet completely secure in his job, he had no qualms about letting the world know that he was spectacularly different (read: better) than the rest of the mediocrities in the sportscasting crowd. In truth, he was exactly the same guy he would become decades later, when he wrote proudly, “Arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, persecuting, distasteful, verbose, a show-off. I have been called all of these. Of course, I am.”6 Shy and retiring fellow that he was, Cosell once ventured that he belonged in a kind of holy trinity with Carson and Cronkite as the biggest TV icons of his time. (At other times, it was he, Carson, and Richard Nixon who were the most recognizable names in the country.) The lingering mystery is: How? How did he get there? He was, after all, a performer with no acting skills, a sports denizen who boasted that he never played the game, and an ex-attorney who used magniloquence in describing how grown men beat on or tackled each other or hit horsehide balls with sticks.
His contradictions, creating a balancing act between audacity and parody, made him compelling, and explain why people felt guilty about enjoying him so much—we were supposed to hate Cosell, so we did, while always making sure we tuned in to hear what he said. Because he was that different. He had the highest Q rating in television, always sitting atop lists of America’s most known, most liked, and most hated people, which might be hard to fathom now, when his fame seems almost ephemeral and he is so unknown to a younger generation. Back then, it was the kind of schizophrenia only a Howard Cosell could fashion. He was inspired and/or insipid, but always with perfect timing and delivery—“I tell it like it is”; “Witness the adulation” (upon seeing the stir he had created in a crowd); “My footprints are cast in stone” (upon being told his footprints were cast in sand); “I’m impressed by the continuity of his physical presence” (of a certain quarterback). He meant every one of them, though his swagger lasted only until someone of inferior stock insulted him, as everyone did. There were the jaw-gaping constructions and misconstructions of the English language—or, as Jonathan Yardley once dished it back, “his penchant for sesquipedalian oratory”—that worked only for him yet baffled everyone else, to his delight. There was the pompousness, the name-dropping, the presumptuous overfamiliarity (“My guest today, Alvin ‘Pete’ Rozelle”). There was the confrontation. There was the heavily nasal intonation that began with the profound, needless prologue, overly slow, staccato syllables punching the air: “This is HOW-id Cyo-SELL . . .”
Everyone tried to imitate him; no one really could. Even Mad couldn’t satirize him any better than Cosell satirized himself. In a 1972 spoof, the Cosell character harangued a fictional washed-up quarterback, “I want you to tell me, once and for all, straight from the shoulder . . . exactly why do you stink as a passer?”7 Yet this was tame by the standards of the real Cosell, who once pressed an immortal but aging Johnny Unitas, “People want to know if you can still throw the long ball.” Worse was his merciless browbeating of embattled U.S. Olympic track coach Stan Wright in 1972 for the screwup that kept the best sprinters off the track, which was reviewed as “cruel and unnecessary.”
To call Cosell a sportscaster is to call Muhammad Ali a prizefighter. As Ali dwarfed any fight, Cosell dwarfed any sports event. Little wonder the two men, both reflexively labeled “big mouths,” made such a perfect marriage. Many are vain, self-important, narcissistic, solipsistic, any or all of the above. Cosell was all of them, but not enough of any to think he could get by on bluster—he was, as we now know, a helluva sports journalist and a helluva sports celebrity, somehow interweaving the two. But he was also arguably the most insecure man in the public eye, and one given to fitful bouts of depression and self-erected isolation, with constant anger toward critics he claimed were dim-witted louts who made him doubt himself. And all of it caught up with him. As his most knowing observer, his near-sainted wife, Emmy, once foretold, “Howard will go to his grave thinking that he never accomplished all that much. He’s satisfied only that he provided well for his family.”
Preposterous, yes. But also layered with many impulses, derivations, and ingredients that helped make him both preposterous and grating, and preposterously and gratingly brilliant. And, as he well knew, absolutely a product of and a necessary commodity for his times. At his peak, he must have felt invincible. Only he could have started a commercial—with the sponsor’s blessing—by saying, “I’d like to tell you about a snack you may not like.” Though the analogy wasn’t his—but rather the stately sports columnist Red Smith’s, cribbed by Cosell—only he could have said, “Sport is the toy department of human life in this sense: It doesn’t really matter who wins or loses a game. The contest in the arena fulfills the primary function of sport, which is escape. In the face of the stress and complexities of daily existence, people have to have escape.” Or, at considerable risk, “I think that every time they run up the flag and fly the airplanes and everything else, they should also hold an antiwar demonstration on the field. I don’t buy any of it. I don’t equate professional football, major-league baseball, or any other sport in this country with motherhood, apple pie, and patriotism.”10 In 1975, he wrote a piece for Ms. entitled “Why I Support the ERA.” Try finding someone, anyone, in a sports capacity who would say or do things remotely that audacious today.
It is often said that Cosell changed the face of broadcasting—but the truth is that he merely changed it for himself, and in his own time, one that has been called, rightly, the golden age of network sports. The irony is that while it might actually be easier to take stands like these today, given loosened media boundaries, examining broad issues in sports seems not to be worth the effort, if it is done at all. Have all the battles been won? One suspects that if he were around, Cosell would find a few. Back then, he found them all over the map. Indeed, that he thrived during a new age of social tumult and questioned authority was not incidental. “The ’60s,” he once said, “were really my birth. The time of the anti-hero. The ’60s were just right for me,”11 though hearing him, a product of an earlier generation, spout things like “Let it all hang out” and “What you see is what you get” was downright painful. His signature “I tell it like it is” credo seemed not hip but mocking, of those he implied neither could nor did.
He surely was capable of audacity—such as when he told Ali to his face that he had no chance against George Foreman in Zaire. So too was he capable of farce. As Cosell would admit, needlessly, “There is a good deal of put-on in my personality.” But both he and Ali would win out—big-time—when things turned very serious. That, of course, was when Ali refused to be drafted into the army in 1967 and Cosell joined the liberal literary cognoscenti and backed him, with passion and cogent legal reasoning about the Fourth Amendment. This posed a monstrous dilemma: maintaining the relationship at the risk of imperiling his career. ABC was deluged with hate mail and telephone calls, including several threats on his life. Cosell once described some of the letters as an attempt to “get that nigger-loving Jew bastard off the air.” In time, ABC had to assign bodyguards to Cosell and his family. It was hairy, and yet to a country—and a broadcast industry—in transition, it likely made Howard Cosell a man of high importance, who really mattered. The effect was seismic. It still is, although the irony was that as his star became cosmic because of Monday Night Football, the celebrity began to outweigh, and suffocate, the journalist.
In his prime, he roamed freely across the media meridians, leaving his mark on TV, radio, movies, and print. He didn’t get to that level of pop culture on his own. Cosell’s career would thrive on the whims and mercies of Ali and Arledge, both of whom welded his future to boxing’s mercantile explosion in the sixties and seventies. As a blow-by-blow man, his frenetic calls gradually became the gold standard. His call of the Joe Frazier–George Foreman fight in Kingston, Jamaica, on January 22, 1973—a quaking Cosell’s gritty-throated “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!”—was Cosell at his peak, proving just how good he was on his feet at ringside, and it is among the greatest calls sports has ever heard. By then, he was of such altitude that the new champ’s first words were “I’d like to credit this championship to Howard Cosell,” who had predicted Foreman would win. He also called the Ali-Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle,” the Ali-Frazier “Thrilla in Manila,” and all of Ali’s remaining bouts. But when Ali began a sharp slide downward in the mid-seventies, even the hardheaded Cosell seemed to understand he was going down with him. Cosell lived in anger and agony, it seemed, but never more so than during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, an epiphany on many levels for him that, typically, also caused him some embarrassment. He had finished up his boxing duties on September 5 when word broke that five “Black September” Arab terrorists had taken eleven Israeli athletes hostage, holding them in their rooms for almost a day. Throughout the tense siege, while the tersely dramatic Jim McKay related events in a calm and professional manner, an agitated, inebriated Cosell continually urged Arledge to put him on the air. Roone, however, wouldn’t let him get anywhere near an open microphone, and Cosell brooded about it, never more self-pitying and insensitive.
He never forgave Roone for it, the man who had allowed him to go to the summit in sportscasting and even allowed him, against all reason, to host a Saturday night variety show, an epic disaster. But no defeat could ever knock him off stride. On December 8, 1980, during an MNF game, Cosell was informed through his earphone that John Lennon had been murdered. Now it would be Howard Cosell, not Jim McKay or Peter Jennings or anyone else, who would break the news to the country, and he did so with an economical, pitch-perfect elegy. There were some in the media who gave him his due. One, Frank Deford, wrote in 1983, “Cosell isn’t television. He’s not audio. Howard Cosell is sports in our time. Feel sorry for the people who turn off the sound [on Monday Night Football]. The poor bastards missed the game.”12 But encomiums like that were always too few.Because so much of quotidian sports paled next to these epochal battles he had fought, he grew bored by much of what he saw from the broadcast booth. In 1980, referring narrowly to Monday Night Football but with a much broader context, he said, “Do you think I take any of this seriously?”13 Not long after, by the early eighties, his mind and body in serious deterioration, he was pretty much done—as was Ali, whose last few bouts Cosell could barely watch from his broadcast perch at ringside. Then, at the mike on November 26, 1982, in Houston, when Larry Holmes gave Randall “Tex” Cobb an unmerciful battering for fifteen lopsided rounds, Cosell vowed never again to call another fight, the inevitable riposte to which, voiced by Cobb, was that “I’d go 15 more rounds with Holmes if I thought it would get Cosell off football broadcasts.”
That wouldn’t be necessary. The infamous, and absurd, contretemps about him calling Redskins receiver Alvin Garrett a “little monkey” on September 5, 1983, dogged him until the end. Never able to laugh off criticism, he felt a sharp knife behind every inference that the man who had put his neck on the block defending Ali was somehow racist. Angered, bored for years with his football chores, seeing conspiracies against him in the booth, he was drinking heavily, affecting his work. He now had his opening to get out, and he left MNF shortly before the start of the 1984 NFL season, but not before justifying the exodus by claiming that the NFL had “become a stagnant bore.” His duties were greatly reduced, his sports news program called SportsBeat canceled after a four-year run in which the show won three Emmy Awards, though not for himself; the only one of those he ever got came just after his death, perhaps easing the consciences of those who had neglected to honor him when he was alive. That was a posthumous Sports Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995.
Arledge allowed him the customary “retirement” rather than an outright firing just before the 1985 World Series, baseball being the only sport he would consent to do now. ABC released him shortly thereafter. It was quiet news, if for no better reason than that he had ridden the act to painful redundancy, and also because he had alienated just about everyone he’d ever known, leaving himself without courtiers.
Nonetheless, Cosell did have his radio show and the love of his life, the woman who could reduce him to a little boy with one cross look. As trite as it sounds, he still had his Emmy, and she had him. Remarkably, even with cancer, a serious heart and kidney condition, Parkinson’s, and a long pattern of alcoholism, he could get himself together and hold spirited group discussions on his radio shows. But in 1990 Emmy died, and he began to live out his life as a sad recluse in his apartment on Manhattan’s East Side. When he died five years later, beyond the mandatory obituaries few mourned his passing with great emotion. If there was a sense of loss, it was for one’s own youth, not Cosell, who for many had been dead for years.
Thus began a decade of devolution that preceded this book, which, beyond the story of how transformational a force he was in the cultural and media evolution of his time, is a primer of a career far more brilliantly conceived than the caricature he craftily concocted, and that others concocted around him. There are, indeed, many branches to the story; one aspect, for example, is how Cosell agonized over the smear that because he changed his name he somehow had turned his back on his Jewishness. In part, that was true; as a young man he rebelled against his father’s religious litmus tests, even marrying out of his faith. But “Cosell” was actually a form of the original family name, even if his return to it was no more than a favor to his grandfather. Also true is that while he was hypersensitive to anti-Semitism all his life, he never embraced Judaism until the horror of Munich; even then, he never really did beyond contributions to Jewish philanthropies, and never had the stomach to confront the anti-Semitism he stared down. One more truth is that as fearless as he was about Ali, he was so invested in him that he refused to call out Ali for not rejecting rising Black Muslim militancy. Sometimes, playing it safe was more prudent than telling it like it was.
He was, to be certain, a complicated man. Something that Emmy once told him about Ali—“As long as you know him, you’ll never really know him”—actually applies more to Cosell. Certainly the enormous viewing audience he bred didn’t. Not even two of the nation’s finest actors, Jon Voight and John Turturro, each buried under layers of prosthetic clay and a beaver of a toupee, could get him right. In Will Smith’s Ali he was a surly, macabre cadaver; in the TV movie adaptation of the 1988 book Monday Night Mayhem, a gumbo of psychoses. In neither case was he human. Yes, he was strange, he did make people uneasy, even unhinged, and despite the hippodrome he played there was nothing really lovable, or even much endearing, about him. The erudite writer David Halberstam renounced his esteem for him in a 1982 Playboy profile that alleged Cosell endured as a mere “clown” and a “bully” who had become the very beast he had railed against; that “his insecurities, which had once made him interesting and irrelevant, now made him seem heavy and ponderous.”More sadly, Cosell probably knew all this was true.
In his writings, Cosell stamped himself heroic; he was, he said, “a unique personality who has had more impact upon sports broadcasting in America than any person who has yet lived,” although one reviewer of his last book called it out for “paranoia, condescension and hypocrisy.” What else, after all, could explain how Cosell could have the gall to dub Don Meredith in that book as “Texas Cruel” for his “mean streak”? All of those failings can be gleaned from these pages, but so can the fact that his most noble quality, his heroism, is, even if it can be found, hardly a qualification for employment in the sports media these days. This is partly because his generation is dying out. Roone Arledge, Jim McKay, Don Meredith, and, at least in its historic incarnation, Monday Night Football are all gone. So too is boxing, not only from ABC but from all except the cable networks, and the sport itself, especially the heavyweight division, is moribund, dwarfed in popularity by kickboxing, a sport that once would only have been low-grade fodder for Wide World of Sports—which itself is now no more than the name of a theme park in Florida. Sports journalism is fairly moribund—night and day is the difference between his eloquent defenses of Ali and those shrieking ESPN hosts cast in his image. Muhammad Ali bears the cruelest irony he or Cosell could have imagined, almost as grim as death: the inability to speak, having taken too many blows Cosell described so vividly. And at a time when no one on the sports beat is either loved or hated, just sort of there, the “jockocracy” in the broadcast booth that Cosell railed against is very much alive—with not a single non-ex-jock, besides the play-by-play man, in any broadcasting booth. It is as if Howard Cosell never existed.
He lives again in these pages, the vital center of American cultural history, a man almost eponymous with post-fifties sports and its media confluence. The not insignificant conclusion is that he was as great as he said he was. After all, being adored and abhorred at the same time was no small achievement. An era that taught us so much about ourselves and our clay-footed heroes irrevocably ended when the gifted one finally went off into the good night, with not so much as a graceful bow.