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Hall of Fame
November 15, 2017

Howard Cosell: Hall of Fame Tribute

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There are a million Howard Cosell anecdotes. Here's one:

Cosell was in a limousine in Kansas City one night, cruising back to his hotel. As the limo headed through an African-American neighborhood, Cosell glanced out the tinted windows and spotted a street fight in progress. Directing the driver to stop, the famed sportscaster promptly disembarked and stepped directly into the middle of the fracas.

The hostilities ceased instantly.

Cosell remained there a moment, elucidating the folly of fisticuffs, then signed a few autographs and went on his way.

Such is the power and charisma of Howard Cosell. Of course, one might argue that it was simple fame that awed the combatants, but one would be wrong. There is nothing simple about the fame of Howard Cosell.

The Kansas City incident, Cosell stepping uninvited into the middle of conflict to deliver a statement, is a good metaphor for the man's singular career. It is, after all, exactly what he did for a living — only the conflict was called professional sports. If you think back to the many great sports moments of the late '50s through the '80s, often as not, Cosell was there, stepping right into the thick of things and … elucidating. Or irking, goading, kidding, outraging, doing whatever was necessary to probe deeply into a given story; to reveal the machinations behind the headlines, however glorious or ugly.

As his good friend, National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern put it, “He was a trailblazer of what now is commonplace, the story behind the story, the legal issues that affected everything from collective bargaining to Muhammad Ali's refusal to be inducted into the draft, from investigations into boxing to relationships between teams and players in contractual matters. We take this type of sports reporting for granted today.”

Cosell was not a second baseman, or a catcher, or a quarterback, or a tackle who turned to the microphone as a second career. He was a one-time stickball-playing kid from the streets of Brooklyn, a lawyer in his mid-30s who had labored in New York for 10 long years, supporting a wife and two daughters. He was an educated, literate man who loved the poetry of Keats, Shelley and Coleridge. He also, however, loved the poetry of a Jackie Robinson slide, a Rocky Marciano uppercut, a Bob Waterfield bomb, a Bob Cousy lay-up. Enough that he decided to make it the stock-and-trade of his life.

Howard Cosell walked away from his law practice in Manhattan in 1955, and never looked back. By the mid-'80s, long after he had achieved the status of phenomenon, or legend, or institution — or whatever you call people who have gone so far in their professions that labels are inadequate — Sports Illustrated had to grope for a new word to describe him:

“He has become a dynasty,” a 1983 S.I. article reads:

Dynasties are all but gone, gone with the Kennedys, gone with the Yankees, Packers, Steelers, Celtics, Notre Dame, UCLA, Nicklaus and Ali. Only one dynasty is left in sports, and that's Cosell, up there in the booth, an emperor in earphones.

“It would not be fair,” the magazine continued:

to say that Cosell has transcended the games and the stars he has covered, but it is quite correct to say that by now, to most people, he and sports are inseparable. Howard Cosell has come to stand for sports in the latter part of the 20th Century in the U.S.

Cosell's bluntly stated appraisals enraged some, thrilled others, commanded the attention of all. He understood that he was not merely in the business of describing games; he was reporting, interpreting, and revealing real drama; telling tales of real men and women engaged, all-out, in dedicated struggles to achieve excellence in life. This was hardly a normal sportscasting approach in the mid-'50s, when he first persuaded Ray Robinson, editor of Real magazine, to publish a sports column, “Cosell's Clubhouse,” or soon after when ABC Television hired him to host a cute little show called Little League Clubhouse, where little leaguers met their favorite major leaguers; or when he hosted his first TV interview program, ABC's Sports Focus, in 1957. Sportscasting had been comparatively innocent, a domain, more or less, of rah-rah housemen before Cosell stepped into the conflict, determined to cover sports like it was, well, news.

He might not have invented his trademark phrase, “Tell it like it is,” but he certainly made it his own. As former Los Angeles Rams/New York Giants great Andy Robustelli, a close friend of Cosell, said, “I think we grew up in a false atmosphere in sports. I think we were sheltered from criticism, and I think it was not fair that people couldn't say, ‘Well, that was a lousy play and he should have caught that football,’ or ‘He should never have missed that tackle.’ And Howard was the kind of person that would just tell it like it was! And that's what he said,  ‘I'm going to tell it like it is.’ I think it had a tremendous impact. It put sports where it should be. You call a strike a strike and a ball a ball and an out an out.”

Stern summed up Cosell's presence this way: “Howard redefined the role of sportscaster. He refused to just take stories at face value or adopt the party line. What he did was seek the truth of the situation and amplify it, whether other people liked it or not. I'm suggesting integrity. I mean, it doesn't need another adjective. He is a man of integrity.”

Cosell will forever be remembered most for two things: his gritty, humanizing coverage of boxing for ABC's Wide World of Sports, the center-piece of which was his hilarious and touching rapport with Muhammad Ali; and his 13 years as co-host of Monday Night Football, something that (largely due to his presence) became an American ritual shortly after debuting in the early '70s.

The image of Ali, with mock-hysteria, challenging “Howuhd” to a fight at the end of an interview, always eliciting a charming, involuntary smile from the usually stone­faced Cosell, is one of those enduring 1960s iconographic images. Cosell's (almost lone) defense of Ali's conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War was controversial and brave. Cosell the lawyer had no choice but to speak in defense of what he saw as basic Constitutional rights of due process and freedom of speech and religion. Many years later, the ever-principled journalist had no choice but ultimately to denounce boxing as barbaric, notably after the pain of seeing his great friend, Ali, afflicted with Parkinson's syndrome. He went on to testify before Congress, pleading for federal regulation of the sport.

His years with Keith Jackson, Don Meredith, and later Frank Gifford, Fran Tarkenton, Alex Karras and others on Monday Night Football are all indispensable to the Cosell saga, and, in fact, to the rise of football's popularity in the 1970s. It is hard to imagine a commentator more adept at bringing out both the heroism and absurdity of the sport. Less memorable, but no less important, was his work on Monday Night Baseball, his coverage of the 1968, '72, '76, and '84 Olympics, the 1984 Kentucky Derby, and his syndicated talk radio show, Speaking of Everything. In the '80s came his undeservedly less well-known Sportsbeat show, which won three Emmy Awards. Along the way, he cranked out four books: Cosell by Cosell, Like It Is, I Never Played the Game, What's Wrong With Sports. Two became national bestsellers. He retired from broadcasting in January 1992.

Now living quietly in Manhattan at age 74, in frail health from a heart condition, Cosell — a man infamously never at a loss for words — was unavailable for interview. Yet from conversations with Stern, Robustelli, and other dear friends Russ Francis and New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon, aspects of the man emerged that are not part of his public image.

“I once asked Howard if he would be willing to talk to the student body at Brown University,” said Wilpon, who created a Howard Cosell Journalism Scholarship at Brown for needy students.  “It was an awful February day, and he showed up on time and in place, despite having the flu. He drove up from his home in Connecticut. He was sick as hell. He gave a speech to about 2,000 people. You couldn't get any more people in the auditorium. And without a note in front of him, he spoke for one hour and mesmerized the entire audience.

“And he wasn't just talking about journalism, he was talking about life, and what's important, and how you evoke from other people loyalty and allegiance by giving the same. Friendship. Love. That's just one instance of him doing that; I've seen him doing that time and time again. Of course, at any of these things, often aimed at helping children or sick people, he'd never accept a dime. He spent literally years of his time doing this.”

(Among many charitable pursuits, Cosell and his wife worked to found the Howard and Mary Edith Cosell Center for Physical Education at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.)

It's not terribly colorful or even interesting, perhaps, to mention that Cosell was profoundly devoted to his beloved late wife (and fairly constant traveling companion), known familiarly as Emmy, who died in 1990, his two daughters, Jill and Hillary, and his grandchildren. No, not terribly colorful, but as integral to the character of Cosell as candor and panache. It is possibly the only point about Cosell that no one could ever argue over.

“The rough Howard,” said Stern, “was the public Howard. But Howard the husband, father, grandfather, was absolutely extraordinary.” Cosell's fatherly quality could extend beyond family. Consider his devotion to helping 14-year NFL running back Russ Francis make the transition to broadcaster.

“He had a show, Sportsbeat, and we made the announcement that I was leaving football, and that was at the peak of my career,” said Francis, now hosting a sports radio show syndicated out of Eugene, Oregon. “I was 27 years old, and it was kind of an emotional moment for me, because it was the first time I had come to grips with the fact I was leaving. You know, ‘I guess I'm saying it nationally, and I'd better do it.’

“The moment that the show was over, Howard said, ‘Okay kid, now sit in your chair, read this copy, look right into the camera.’ He started right there. He said, ‘We're going to get you on at ABC, and you've got to start now.’ Later, after I'd been on the air for a while, we were flying to New York together on a private plane, and he gave me evaluations. And he was brutal. He said, ‘You mumble. You don't say what's on your mind. You're saying what everyone else is saying. You're not a dumb jock, and you're sounding like one.’ He was right.”

Francis quit football after the paralysis of his teammate Darryl Stingley. Cosell was a bulwark of support.

“In many ways,” said Francis, his voice unsteady with emotion, “I don't know that Howard understands the powerful effect that he had on my life and so many others. And because Howard Cosell is Howard Cosell, many of us have never expressed our gratitude. When I heard he was sick, I called him up and just wanted to thank him for all the positive things. Just that he knows that I love him, and that he did have such a positive effect, and a very deeply felt one. He's a lot gentler of a man than people could ever imagine.”

It's the brash side, however, that has provided the most fun — and made Cosell one of the towering television figures of his day (ABC at one point had plans to make him coanchor of the evening news). Take, for instance, Cosell's penchant for delivering — in his hesitant, staccato, baritone play-by-play voice – a travelogue for anyone riding in his car. An example, as Stern remembered, “And there's the Stratford Hat Com-pan-y, founded in eight-teen SEV-en-ty two. … ”  Or the man's self-satirical side, like the time a Las Vegas TV anchor interviewed him on a set that only had one chair. In order to appear at the same height level as the seated Cosell, the anchor had to stand on his knees. “My God,” the anchor said, off-camera, “I'm on my knees to interview Howard Cosell!” Responded Cosell, perennial unlit cigar clenched in his teeth, “As … it … should … beeeee.” Remembered the former anchor, “We both laughed. He was great.”

Or another of those million anecdotes about Cosell, this one from Stern:

“I was general counsel of the NBA, and Howard was covering disputes between NBA and the Players' Association. I have a particularly amusing memory of being invited over to some really important negotiation in the midst of the most intense bargaining that had totally broken down. We were getting together for a secret meeting that no one knew about, and as I walked in to the office of Larry Fleischer, head of the Players' Association, the drinks were set up, and Howard was pouring! I was not quite experienced in the ways of the media then, but I was stunned that Howard Cosell was sitting there. But he kept the confidence of the situation.”

Just what was he doing there?

“He was just Howard,” Stern laughed. “He was just there. To lecture the two sides as to why they should stop all this, make a deal, and stop wasting everybody's time, especially his!”

In other words, stepping into the middle of a conflict, making a statement, doing things on his own terms. His life's work. It brings to mind a little throwaway quip he made in the mid-'80s on Late Night With David Letterman. Letterman had just mentioned that Cosell was still doing ABC radio, then asked, “And what else do you do?” The great sportscaster's response was flippant, meant to cover only that moment, but it could have applied to his entire approach to life.

“What else do I do?” said Howard Cosell, without missing a beat. “Exactly what I want.”

This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Howard Cosell's induction in 1994.

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