The Mouth That Roared
updated 05/08/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 05/08/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT
It was surely the vainest of efforts. No one, during his 40 years on the air, was ever able to turn Howard Cosell off. Or even lower the volume. The most celebrated and controversial sportscaster in television history, Cosell—who died on April 23, at 77, of a heart embolism—was the signature voice of ABC-TV and radio sports from 1953 to 1992. And what a voice he was! Booming. Nasal. Hectoring. Straight out of Brooklyn. But during his 13 years on Monday Night Football, Cosell became a good deal more: a cultural icon, the first TV broadcaster to bring sports into the real world, the man who, in his quest to "tell it like it is," explored such serious issues as drug use among athletes and racism.
"I think he'll be seen as the broadcasting pioneer who changed the way people listen to and watch sports," says Shelby Whitfield, ABC radio's sports director. "When Howard came on the scene 40 years ago, no one criticized referees or coaches or players or anybody. But he was a lawyer, and that went to the core of everything."
In fact, Cosell brought a j'accuse mentality to the previously sanitized world of sports broadcasting. In 1967, when Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the Army, Cosell attacked the New York State Boxing Commission for stripping him of his heavyweight title. He went to bat as well for John Carlos and Tommie Smith, the Olympic sprinters who outraged many Americans when they raised their fists in a black-power salute as they were awarded medals during the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City. It scarcely mattered to him that the network was deluged with hate mail. "I never sacrificed truth in the name of friendship," he said—rather too grandly for many of his peers, who felt Cosell thought himself bigger than sports, and certainly bigger than them.
Writer David Halberstam called him a bully for attacking everyone who disagreed with him, and columnist Jimmy Cannon said Cosell had no business setting himself up as the arbiter of truth. "This is a guy," said Cannon, "who changed his name, put on a toupee and tried to convince the world that he tells it like it is."
Cosell's real name was Howard William Cohen. The son of Polish Jewish immigrants, he grew up in Brooklyn, and his mother once recalled that he started talking at nine months. Cosell aspired to be a reporter, but Isidore and Nellie Cohen wanted their boy to have a profession. So he got a law degree from New York University. But his heart was not in the law. Then in 1953, he got his big break: ABC radio asked him to produce a panel of kids to interview athletes on a weekly radio series. Cosell quickly wowed his bosses, getting the Yankees' Hank Bauer to bad-mouth manager Casey Stengel on air. "We made news with that show!" Cosell gloated. In 1956, the network offered him $250 to do 10 five-minute sports broadcasts each week, and Cosell dropped his law practice.
Former sportscaster Marty Glickman remembers Cosell during his early years. "He was just breaking into radio, and he was doing interviews with anyone he could talk to," Glickman says. "He was not nearly as noisy, as aggressive, as he became later on. But he was persistent." He was also smart enough to hitch his star to Ali, then a rising heavyweight known as Cassius Clay. Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee, speaks warmly of Cosell. "How did we get along? Like bread and butter," he says. "I went on a lot of trips with him. He used to rib the heck out of me. He'd say to me, 'Look at that wife of yours, she can't take her eyes off me.' And I'd say, 'Howard, my wife needs glasses.' I'm telling you, it was joy knowing this man."
By most accounts though, the joy in Cosell's life was fleeting—subject to his own manic rhythms—and by the end it had largely disappeared. In the '80s he turned his back on boxing as irredeemably crooked and wrote several self-aggrandizing books criticizing his colleagues on Monday Night Football. In 1991, he had a cancerous tumor removed from his chest. But he suffered the greatest blow of all the year before: He lost Emmy, his beloved wife of 54 years, with whom he had two daughters, Jill and Hilary. "The last time I saw him was about eight months ago," says writer Frank Deford. "He was very frail. He was not the same person after Emmy got sick and died. A great deal was made about his mean-spiritedness toward the end. But I think a great deal of that was the loss of Emmy. He was a very lonely man."
Most friends and admirers choose to remember the icon. "Something about Howard that people cannot understand today," says Peter Bonventre, a former Cosell producer, "is that in the '70s and early '80s he had to be the most recognizable man in America. You couldn't walk down the street anywhere with him and not have everybody know him—kids of 5 or 6 and little old ladies. They would scream, 'Howie, tell it like it is!' And he would say, 'All these sportswriters write about how everybody hates me, and see how these people hate me?' He was a huge, huge celebrity."
MARY HUZINEC and NANCY JO SALES in New York