How is it possible that 16 years have passed without a definitive biography of Howard Cosell?
Mark Ribowsky (author of a superb book on Satchel Paige, Don't Look Back) may have lost something by waiting so long after Cosell's death in 1995. A generation has grown up thinking that ESPN's Chris Berman invented Cosell's signature call — "He could . . . go . . . all . . . the . . . way!" — for a breakaway touchdown run. (Was there an American male who watched Monday Night Football from its inception in 1970 to Cosell's final broadcast in 1983 who didn't do an impression of the man?)
But Ribowsky also gained something: perspective. Howard Cosell: The Man, the Myth, and the Transformation of American Sports is an exhilarating look back at a man and a time that are inextricably entwined with each other.
It may seem Cosell-like hyperbole when Ribowsky writes, "There can be no overestimating how unique and even unprecedented Cosell's fame was by the middle 1970s. He had done no less than make himself a one-man industry by turning scabrousness into an endearment." But that must have been the way we felt about Cosell, because even when we cursed him we kept on watching. Even Woody Allen was a fan, giving Cosell guest spots in three of his movies — playing himself, of course.
Arrogant, tempestuous and brilliant, Cosell dragged sports journalism kicking and screaming into an era when electronic media replaced print. Born in 1918 to Isidore and Nellie Cohen and raised in Brooklyn, Cosell studied law at New York University and floundered for years to find his niche. He finally found it in 1956 with a radio show, Speaking of Sports, sponsored by a relative who owned a shirt company.
After waiting so long for his break, Cosell pursued stardom with a vengeance, bringing the big guns of a scathing, contrarian wit and bludgeoning pomposity to bear on sport's sacred cows, such as International Olympic Committee head Avery Brundage and baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn.
He made more enemies than friends with his aggressive interviewing style; New York Yankees manager Ralph Houk famously compared Cosell to excrement, telling him "You're everywhere." Cosell didn't care. A tireless self-promoter, he ignored his critics and pressed onward. But there was, as Ribowsky points out, a hard kernel of integrity in his bluster.
Cosell wasn't alone in supporting Muhammad Ali in his legal battle with the U.S. government over the draft and Curt Flood, who sued the baseball establishment in an attempt to become a free agent, but he made the most noise for their causes. For several years, the public practically saw Ali and Cosell as an act; Ali actually told Cosell to call him a racially offensive name in public so that "They'll think we hate one another."
The irony to Cosell's life is that he yearned for the more serious journalistic work that would surely have stifled his individuality. He lost ABC's Wide World of Sports job to the far less abrasive Jim McKay, and he never got over his bitterness when his longtime supporter at ABC, Roone Arledge, passed him over for the coverage of the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics (again for McKay). Sportswriter Jerry Izenberg, who often served as ghostwriter for Cosell's radio and TV commentary, thought, "It ate him up that he wasn't the focal point when it happened."
Cosell was so truculent — to use one of his favorite words — that when ABC arranged a farewell dinner for him in 1986 he informed the network head, "I don't want to be honored. If you want to talk about my departure, talk to my lawyer."
"His coda," Ribowsky writes, correctly I think, "more than anything else, is his singularity — a long lost quality in the postmodern culture that has wiped men like him off the slate." Howard Cosell made his own mold, and then broke it.
Allen Barra's next book, "Mickey and Willie: Mantle and Mays, The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age," will be published in 2012 by Crown.