The history of sports broadcasting has been a steady stream of the unremarkable, which, thankfully, has been punctuated by eruptions of the brilliant, the virtuosic, and the sublimely idiosyncratic—broadcasters who seem to effortlessly confer maturity, dignity, sagacity, and emotion upon sporting events of every kind. I’m talking about guys like Vin Scully, Red Barber, Curt Gowdy, Harry Caray, Al Michaels, Chris Berman, Bob Costas, and Jim McKay. These are household names; adored by fans across the nation; each dazzling in his own way.
But, as much as I respect and appreciate all of those guys, I want to talk about someone else: Howard Cosell.
“I’m Just Telling it Like it Is”
In his prime, Cosell was easily the most polarizing figure in sports television. He was loved and loathed; sometimes both at once. Before he even opened his mouth, viewers were confronted with that ghastly hairpiece, that unrestrained schnoz, that billowing cigar, that omnipresent and ludicrously yellow ABC Sports blazer. And then Cosell opened his mouth, and out came that voice—that declarative baritone bark, saturated with the nasality of his Brooklyn youth—and the rhetorical flamboyance of the words it voiced were…well…unforgettable. The words were also intelligent, erudite, passionate, and opinionated, which just spread the schmear on the bagel.
Yeah. No one, I think, ever did the job quite like Cosell. Over his career, he called just about every major sport, including stints on the 1972, 1976, and 1984 Olympic Games, was one of the original hosts of Monday Night Football and Monday Night Baseball But he was never better than when calling boxing. His cry of, “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!” during the1973 fight between George Foreman and Joe Frazier, epitomized the level of genuine excitement Cosell could bring to an event. When I was a kid, Howard Cosell seemed to be the very embodiment of TV sports.
Cosell understood completely how he was regarded by big slices of the TV audience, not to mention many of his colleagues. He simply didn’t give a damn. Once, when queried on the subject, Cosell replied: “Arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, verbose, a showoff. There’s no question that I’m all of those things.” He did exactly what he was going to do, in exactly the way he wanted to do it.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the civil rights movement (at long last) boiled over into the sports world, Cosell was among the first announcers, and the first announcer of his stature, to give a voice to black athletes when few wanted to hear what they had to say.
When Muhammad Ali refused, for religious reasons, to serve in Vietnam and had his heavyweight championship title revoked, Cosell leapt to the champ’s defense with a televised interview and a series of powerful, outraged public statements. He performed a similar service in support of gold medalist Tommie Smith, the sprinter who raised his fist in the “Black Power” salute on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics.
In an interview with Playboy, Cosell defined his own broadcasting philosophy: “I have sought to bring to the American people a sense of the athlete as a human being and not as a piece of cereal-box mythology.” He succeeded, a thousand times over.
And Now, This
All of that being said, I want to discuss one more reason why I am so fond of Cosell.
Howard Cosell was, you see, a drinker. Vodka was his tipple of choice. He preferred it on the rocks, but, never the sort of fella to be diverted by trivialities, was content to take it straight from the bottle.
Drinking was an important aspect of his professional and private lives, but if it is spoken of at all, it is typically used as a vehicle of derision by his biographers and former colleagues. It needs to be pointed out, though, that Cosell came up at the tail end of an era when, if you were a reporter, especially a sports reporter, you drank. You drank before the game, during the game, after the game; breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Between 1945 and 1970, Toots Shor’s restaurant(s) in Manhattan were actually upholstered in newsmen. I mean, hell, the athletes drank. Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin, Paul Hornung, Joe Namath; any of these names ring a bell?
In those days, cocktails were the lubricant of the social contract. Offering a visitor a drink was civility at its most basic. A few martinis with lunch? Sure! Booze kept you frosty, and sharpened your game, whether it was punt returns, free throws, or column inches. And there were damn few busybodies around to stick their meddlesome beaks and squinty eyes in your business. Howard Cosell was a product of those times; and to perdition with your faultless hindsight and weaponized prudery.
Sure, sure. The booze got Cosell into trouble from time to time. The most memorable occurrence came during a 1970 MNF broadcast, during which Cosell (allegedly blitzed to his ear lobes) blew his groceries all over “Dandy” Don Meredith’s boots, resulting in Cosell’s removal from the booth, and prompting the former Cowboys quarterback to quip, “Well, folks. Something’s come up.”
I’m going to come to an actual point, here in just a sec, but first I need to relate my all-time favorite Howard Cosell story.
The Art of Drunken Diplomacy
In 1981, Cosell was in Kansas City with his broadcasting partner, a young Al Michaels, to call a game between the Royals and the Yankees for Monday Night Baseball. The night before the game they went out to dinner. Cosell had already been into the potato juice, and at the restaurant he consumed as many as six more, and those prior to the appetizers. Throughout the meal, Cosell kept knockin’ ‘em back, one after the other. As Michaels says: “Cosell could hold his liquor very well, but by the end of dinner he’d had an aquarium’s worth.”
After the meal, Cosell and Michaels climbed inside their limousine for the trip back to the hotel. Along the way, in a less than stellar neighborhood, the limo stopped at a red light, at which point the men heard a commotion. Out on the sidewalk, a pair of teenaged boys (Michaels remembers them as being “16 or 17 years old”) were engaged in a full-blown slobberknocker; just beating the crap out of each other, while a bunch of their associates clapped and cheered. And before Michaels or the limo driver could say otherwise, Cosell threw open his door and strode up to the crowd.
Almost instantly, the fight stopped. Heads rotated to face Cosell, and from those heads, eyes bulged. Cosell had their full attention. A troop of purple extraterrestrials couldn’t have done better. And, because he was Howard Cosell, he had no choice but to start talking.
“Now listen,” he barked. “It’s quite apparent to this trained observer that the young southpaw does not have a jab requisite for the continuation of this fray. Furthermore, his opponent is a man of inferior and diminishing skills. This confrontation is halted posthaste!”
The kids stared at Cosell. Cosell stared at the kids. Then, as Michaels continues:
“[O]ne kid said, ‘Howard Cosell? Howard Cosell!’ An instant later they were all dancing around him as if he were a maypole. From somewhere a pen was produced, and Cosell signed autographs and patted the kids on their heads.”
Cosell got back in the limo and lit a cigar. The driver, a middle-aged woman named Peggy, rolled down the glass partition and eyeballed him.
“Mr. Cosell,” she said, still obviously freaked out. “Excuse me, but I have to tell you something. I have been driving for 25 years. I thought I had seen everything! I have never seen anything like that.”
Cosell puffed quietly on his cigar for a long moment, then said:
“Pegaroo, just remember one thing.” He paused. “I know who I am.”
The Actual Point
Could any ol’ random celebrity have diffused the above situation as Cosell did? Maybe. Could any ol’ random drunk have done it? Bet not.
No, getting those kids to cease pounding on each other required a combination of things.
1.) Cosell’s celebrity. There is no denying it played a part.
2.) The identity of the celebrity in their midst was hugely important. The combatants and the onlookers were, by all appearances, sports fans, and so were very familiar with Cosell. They reacted to him differently than they might have another famous person. Think about it this way. Pick an arbitrary celebrity from the early ‘80s and ask yourself: Would, say, Gavin MacLeod have had the same success? I kinda doubt it.
3.) Cosell’s state of general shit-facedness, and its affiliated infusion of drinky chutzpah. Both were major elements to how things turned out. Remember, Al Michaels, and others who have recounted the tale, have indicated that the neighborhood wasn’t one of Kansas City’s finest, references that, when decoded, suggest a neighborhood that was urban and full of (scary; potentially violent) minorities. How many sportscasters of that day would have strolled without hesitation into the middle of that sidewalk brawl? Especially if they were sober? Well, there were two sportscasters there that night. One got involved, and the other remained in the limo.
Drunken diplomacy, folks. Sauced savoir-faire. Pickled perspicacity.
Howard Cosell left his ineradicable imprint on sports broadcasting. And it matters exactly Not At All that his noggin was a-slosh with ardent spirits.
As sources for most of the above material, I am indebted to the following:
Sound and Fury: Two Powerful Lives, One Fateful Friendship by Dave Kindred.
You Can’t Make This Up: Miracles, Memories, and the Perfect Marriage of Sports and Television by Al Michaels and L. Jon Wertheim.
Howard Cosell: The Man, the Myth, and the Transformation of American Sports by Mark Ribowsky