Thursday, April 23, 2015

This Day in Sports History (Howard Cosell, Broadcast-Booth Mouth, Dies)

Apr. 23, 1995— Howard Cosell, perhaps the best known—and certainly most controversial—sportscaster of his time, died at age 77 of a heart embolism at the Hospital for Joint Diseases in New York City. Even as the strength in his body had faded in the last few years under the assault of multiple diseases, the memory of him had faded from a public that once tuned in to hear his outrageous utterances (or, as he put it, “telling it like it is”) on TV prizefights or with partners Frank Gifford and Don Meredith in the early years of “Monday Night Football.”

Cosell might have initially thought of himself as a sports journalist, but as he grew more famous, his fame extended far beyond those confines—a fact he abetted and reminded everyone about, on every conceivable occasion. 

In the early 1970s, Woody Allen spun comic gold from him in not in one but two films. In Bananas, Cosell made a cameo, giving a play-by-play narrative of the honeymoon night of Allen’s character, Fielding Mellish. In Sleeper, the humor was more pointed. A historian shows a tape of Cosell to Miles Monroe, Allen’s cryogenically frozen visitor from a century before: “At first we didn't know exactly what this was, but we've developed a theory. We feel that when citizens in your society were guilty of a crime against the state, they were forced to watch this.”

“Humble Howard,” they nicknamed him at the height of his fame, with irony as obvious as the toupee he wore on TV. He not only admitted to his egotism, he owned it. “Arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, verbose, a showoff,” he once said. “I have been called all of these. Of course, I am.”

Sportscaster Jimmy Cannon put it far more hilariously and, of course, concisely: “If Howard Cosell were a sport, he’d be roller derby.”

In the mid-1970s, a relative of mine bought the live LP, Sinatra—The Main Event, in which Cosell introduced the Chairman of the Board. From a generation that worshipped The Beatles and Bob Dylan, I was aghast at the thought of purchasing anything by Ol’ Blue Eyes. But anything with Cosell constituted double grounds for temporary insanity.

“Not just Sinatra, but Cosell,” I asked my relative, staring at the LP. “What did you do?”

“It was a BIG mistake,” my relative allowed.

It’s hard to explain to anyone below the age of, say, 35, who came of age after Cosell receded from the limelight, what he had been like. I can say that when I was a kid, some of my friends took to mocking him. “THIS is How-ard CO-sell,” they would say, clutching an imaginary microphone, “speaking of sports.”

I might have thought better of Cosell if I thought he might be a bit bothered by the impromptu parodies of him by me and my friends. After all, it might be said that he got into sportscasting partly because of his advocacy for children.

Into his mid-30s, Cosell had been a sports attorney, with enough famous clients (including the young Willie Mays) to have become at least moderately successful. But at one point, while helping a client form a Little League with the novel idea of young ballplayers interviewing major leaguers, Cosell decided it would be even more fun—and, more important, lucrative—if he did so.

By 1956, Cosell was doing so well with sportscasting and commentary for ABC Radio that he was able to quit the legal profession.

The title of Cosell’s 1985 autobiography, I Never Played the Game, was a double-entendre. The meaning he wanted readers to get was that, unlike the “jockocracy” he endlessly railed against, he wasn’t a dimwitted cheerleader for a sport. But the other, literal meaning of the title was also true, albeit in ways he didn’t like to think about: He had never participated in the games he announced, as player or coach, and, therefore, brought no special insight into what to watch on the field or court, or in the ring.

The stands that Cosell took were less noble than he gave himself credit for. It wasn’t Cosell who was taking himself away from his livelihood in his prime, but Curt Flood when he battled baseball’s reserve clause all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And it wasn’t Cosell who lost the greatest honor in his sport by following the precepts of a dimly understood religion by refusing to go to war in Vietnam, but Muhammad Ali (the former Cassius Clay).

After leaving "Monday Night Football" in 1984, Cosell gradually scaled back his activity, retiring for good in 1994. By the time Robert Lipsyte got around to writing in The New York Times about a visit to him for his 75th birthday, I had practically forgotten he was even still around.

Lipsyte’s piece, written two years before Cosell’s demise, shocked me—and, I suspect, a number of other readers—in its unsparing depiction of a man who—outside of the limelight he once courted, beset by cancer, heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes, mild strokes, still absolutely bereft by the death of his beloved wife Emmy—seemed to be awaiting death impatiently:

“He does not get out of the apartment much. His daughters, Jill and Hillary, are concerned that physical activity, crowds, pressure of any kind could exacerbate his various ailments. The many medications he takes tend to leave him dopey and smiley. And with few real interests since his wife died three years ago -- he watches little TV and does not read much anymore -- the need to keep his eyes open diminishes.”

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