Book excerpt: Al Michaels reflects on his time with Howard Cosell
From YOU CAN’T MAKE THIS UP: Miracles, Memories, and the Perfect Marriage of Sports and Television by Al Michaels with L. Jon Wertheim. Copyright © 2014 by Al Michaels. To be published on Nov. 18 by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
The first time I met Howard Cosell, I wound up replacing him. It was in San Antonio in March 1977, at an event called the United States Boxing Championships. ABC had made a deal with promoter Don King and The Ring magazine to stage a tournament to determine the best fighter from the U.S. in each weight division. But after the tournament was under way, signs of improprieties and shady dealings emerged. (In a Don King enterprise? Really?) Soon it would be determined that King was using the tournament to sign the best fighters to exclusive contracts. Furthermore, The Ring was falsifying records and inflating rankings to get a number of fighters into the tournament for King. Word circulated that Congress was about to launch its own investigation.
The night before the next installment of the event, ABC was leaning toward taking its best-known boxing commentator -- a man who prided himself on scrupulous morals -- off the coverage. That announcer was, of course, Cosell. I was flown in at the last moment as his potential replacement.
Cosell was already in San Antonio. When I arrived that evening, I had dinner with him and the production crew. It wasn’t my first experience in boxing. Back in Hawaii, where I got my start in sportscasting in 1968, I had announced some small cards put on by a local promoter with the unforgettable name of Sam Ichinose (pronounced itchy-NOSE-ee), as well as some cards promoted by Harry Kabakoff, a real showman from the mainland. To help publicize one event, Kabakoff suggested that I spar with Jesús Pimentel, the Mexican bantamweight who once fought for a world title. The session would be part of a goofy feature for my sports report on the six o’clock news at Honolulu station KHVH. I was in my mid-20s and felt I was in good shape. This would be fun. But after I danced in the ring with Pimentel for 45 seconds, giving and taking some gentle jabs, my tongue was hanging out. I was completely out of breath. It became my no más.
Years later, at the dinner in San Antonio, Cosell was very friendly. I was the new kid on the block, having been hired by ABC two months earlier, and it was apparent that Cosell had had enough of his other ABC colleagues. With me, there hadn’t been time for familiarity to breed contempt. Sure enough, the next day the ABC brass decided that Cosell should be kept off the telecast. I would be ringside calling the action.
Cosell had left a law career in the 1950s to get into broadcasting, initially on ABC radio. Later he’d risen to fame on ABC-TV’s Wide World of Sports with his frequent interviews of Muhammad Ali. But it was on Monday Night Football that he became a megacelebrity. Working with him from 1977 through ’85, I learned what a charming, brilliant, bitter, complex and maddening man he could be -- sometimes all at once.
Cosell held few of his colleagues in high regard. He used to mock Jim McKay. When Israeli coaches and athletes were taken hostage at the ’72 Olympics in Munich, ABC Sports president Roone Arledge picked McKay to anchor the coverage. Cosell deeply resented that he wasn’t chosen, and he never let it go. He’d refer to the 5' 5" McKay behind his back as “the diminutive one” and “the one who shouldn’t have been there.” McKay, meanwhile, won an Emmy for his Munich coverage -- in the news category!
Cosell thought Keith Jackson was a bombastic announcer of little substance whose only legacy was expressions such as “big uglies in the trenches.” Cosell also had little esteem for Chris Schenkel, as fine a gentleman as you could meet. And he loathed his longtime Monday Night Football partner Frank Gifford. “The human mannequin,” Cosell called him. He resented everything about Gifford, especially his close friendship with the boss. “Roone’s bobo,” he’d call Gifford.
Cosell was O.K. with me, however. He saw that I was willing to question authority and that I wasn’t reticent with my opinions, even if they sometimes went against the company line. We would have some great times together. I enjoyed his company for the most part, especially in the early years. I liked his wife, Emmy. And while Cosell irritated plenty of broadcast partners by smoking cigars in the booth, it never bothered me. When my father had taken me to Ebbets Field and Madison Square Garden decades earlier, the air had always been filled with cigar smoke, so that smell took me back to my childhood.
When Cosell was on the road, he usually took only one jacket: the Tweety Bird–yellow blazer that ABC Sports inexplicably decided would be the signature piece of our on-air wardrobe. He wore it everywhere. Here was one of the most recognizable men in America, going around with a blazer you could see from the next state. He’d complain that he couldn’t go anywhere without being recognized, but really, that was the way he wanted it.
Cosell and I worked together on a number of Monday Night Baseball games in the late 1970s. Our pairing became more regular in ’81, the year that the players went on strike in the middle of the season. Days before the work stoppage we were in Kansas City for a Monday-night game between the Yankees and the Royals. Cosell and I both arrived at the Alameda Plaza Hotel on Sunday afternoon. The phone rang in my room, and I heard that unmistakable voice: “Alfalfa. What are you doing?”
Of course it was Cosell, using the nickname that Bob Uecker had conferred on me. “Nothing,” I said. “What’s up?”
“Dinn-uh. Let’s go to the Savoy Grill for dinn-uh.”
As usual, he consumed four or five glasses of vodka on the rocks before the food came. Cosell could hold his liquor very well, but by the end of dinner he’d had an aquarium’s worth.
In Kansas City the basic limos of the company that ABC used were stark white and twice the average size. We also had a regular driver there, a woman in her mid-50s named Peggy. Cosell and I finished dinner around 8:45, still twilight. We got into the backseat of the limo, and Peggy began to drive us back to the hotel. The route took us through a gritty neighborhood, and soon we came to a traffic light. On the sidewalk to our left we saw two boys, maybe 16 or 17 years old, in a serious fistfight, surrounded by other teenagers egging them on. Cosell opened his door and began to get out of the limo. Peggy screamed, “Mr. Cosell! Mr. Cosell! No!” I tried to grab him. It was too late. He was out of the car and onto the sidewalk.
I had a wife, an 11-year-old son and a seven-year-old daughter. Would I really fight a pack of teenagers to stick up for Howard Cosell? Should I tell Peggy to drive away? There were no cellphones in 1981; you couldn’t call a cop. Cosell was standing on the corner -- toupee on his head, cigar dangling from his mouth, ridiculous yellow blazer making him impossible not to notice. Suddenly the fight stopped. The kids looked at him dumbfounded, their eyes and mouths wide open. It was as if everyone was thinking, What the #%$*&?
Then Cosell spoke: “Now listen. 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!”
Total silence followed. Then one 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.
Reality officially had been suspended.
Cosell then reentered the limo and leaned back against the headrest in total satisfaction. Peggy was still in a state between shock and disbelief. I was just happy to be alive.
Peggy drove off, and about a block down the street she said, “Mr. Cosell, 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 took a long drag on his cigar. He looked straight ahead. “Pegaroo,” he said, “just remember one thing. I know who I am.”
Often when Cosell and I worked baseball together, we were joined in the booth by Uecker. He was supposed to play the role Don Meredith did on Monday Night Football. Johnny Carson, who had Uecker on as a guest close to a hundred times, once said that Bob might be the funniest man ever. He’s certainly in the conversation. To this day almost anything out of Uecker’s mouth makes me belly-laugh. A lot of his great stories revolve around how inept a player he was during his career in the 1960s. (“I hit a grand slam off Ron Herbel,” he says, “and when his manager, Herman Franks, came out to get him, he brought Herbel’s suitcase.”) And Uecker has always been quick with a rejoinder. That came in handy when he was in the booth with Cosell.
Cosell’s knowledge of baseball might best be described as shallow. He thought he knew everything about the game, but he really knew very little. If he was in the booth for a Monday-night Yankees game in May, with the opposing team leading 8-1 in the third inning, he might say the Yanks should bring in Goose Gossage to put out the fire. There was little use in explaining to Cosell that, no, in the third inning, with the Yankees trailing by seven, it would border on insanity to call on their best reliever, a future Hall of Famer. To Cosell the conventional analyst was just another dumb jock. He was Howard Cosell! He knew better.
Once, in the early ’80s, Cosell, Uecker and I were doing a game at the Astrodome. At one point in the late innings Cosell called for a bunt even though it was a situation in which no one would ever bunt. Uecker wanted to mildly chide Cosell but knew he had to be careful. “Well, Howard, I’m not really sure you want to bunt here,” he said gently. He went on to explain why. Cosell responded, “Uecky, I get your point. But you don’t have to be so truculent. You do know what truculent means, don’t you?”
Uecker didn’t miss a beat: “Of course, Howard. If you had a truck and I borrowed it, it would be a truck-you-lent.”
Uecker could also use me as his straight man. Another time we were talking about Charlie Finley, the eccentric owner of the A’s, and his proposal to manufacture all baseballs in the same yellowish orange as some tennis balls. The idea was that the brighter baseballs would be easier for fans to follow.
“It’ll never work,” Uecker said flatly.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because,” he said, deadpan, “they could never find enough diseased horses.”
At the end of the 1982 baseball season Cosell and I were set to work the National League Championship Series. The third spot in the booth was still to be determined. Arledge was always big on bringing in someone in the news. So that Sunday night the call went out to Tommy Lasorda. Lasorda had won three pennants with the Dodgers and a World Series title the previous season. But now, with his club eliminated from the playoffs, would he be interested in a brief sojourn into broadcasting? The answer was yes.
Lasorda and I had crossed paths countless times over my years calling games for the Hawaii Islanders, the Reds, the Giants and ABC. Now we were together in St. Louis for the National League playoffs. It was the Cardinals versus the Braves. Baseball in October. Beautiful. Except that Lasorda looked petrified. As we rehearsed the opening segment, I had to keep telling him, “Tommy, it’ll be O.K. You’ll be fine.”
Cosell opened up the telecast. Then he brought me in. Then I brought Lasorda in. Cosell and I talked with him about the two teams. The Cardinals do this, the Braves do that. Here are their strengths and weaknesses. So far, so good. Then Cosell was ready to take us to a commercial. But before he did, he said, “O.K., throwing out the ceremonial first pitch are the children of the late Cardinals third baseman Kenny Boyer, who succumbed a fortnight ago, at the age of 51, to the ravages of lung cancer. Kenny Boyer fought that insidious disease tooth and nail to the very end. He went to Mexico for laetrile treatments and absorbed more radiation than anyone thought humanly possible.
“So when you look at the long and storied history of the St. Louis Cardinals franchise, you can go back and you can have your Rogers Hornsby. You can have your Joseph (Ducky) Medwick and Jay (Dizzy) Dean as well. You can take Albert (Red) Schoendienst and, yes, even the Man himself, Stanley Frank Musial of Donora, Pennsylvania. Because when it comes to the embodiment of the St. Louis Cardinals franchise, look no further than the countenance of one Kenton Lloyd Boyer. He was a man’s man. And we’ll miss him.” Cosell then lowered his voice another notch: “We’ll be back after this.”
There was nothing Cosell loved more than delivering a eulogy. He would affect a “half-mast” voice. Didn’t matter who it was. Cosell wanted to show you how much he knew about the deceased and how well he could put their lives in context.
We went to commercial. We had been using hand mikes, and now we put our headsets on. I started jotting something down in my scorebook. Cosell, of course, was preening after delivering his Boyer tribute.
I thought I heard sniffling in my headset. Then I heard it again. I looked over at Lasorda. His eyes were moist, and I saw little rivulets running down his cheeks. Cosell saw it, too, and he said, “Tommy! What’s the matter?”
Lasorda’s voice broke as he said, “Howard, in the minors I actually roomed for half a season with Kenny Boyer. I loved him. He was one of my dearest friends. What a man. A tremendous man. Howard, I’ve never heard a eulogy like that. Only you could do it. That was just beautiful.”
Cosell leaned back. He had the cigar going. He said, “Hey, Tommy, just understand one thing. Kenny Boyer was a pr---!”
It was quintessential Cosell. Show everyone how smart you are, show that you know every player’s middle name -- Stanley Frank Musial, Kenton Lloyd Boyer -- and just make it part of the show.
But it calmed Lasorda down. And we went on with the game.
In 1984, Cosell and I were in San Francisco to broadcast the baseball All-Star Game. Earl Weaver, who had retired as manager of the Orioles, would be joining us in the booth. Jim Palmer would do dugout interviews. Since Weaver had managed in the American League exclusively, he’d not had the pleasure of visiting the dump that was Candlestick Park. The day before the game the three of us went out to Candlestick for a meeting and to talk to some players. Few people could curse like Weaver. Every third word was something you wouldn’t find in Webster’s. This was Weaver in the limo on the way back to the hotel: Jesus Christ, I’ve never been to a colder f------ place in my life. It’s the middle of f------ summer. The wind is blowing 40 miles an hour. It feels like it’s 12 goddam degrees. Who built this piece of crap?
As Weaver ranted, Cosell had his eyes closed and clearly had no interest in the conversation. He was worn out. He didn’t want to be with any of us, and we didn’t want to be with him. I had worked at Candlestick for several years, so I explained it all to Weaver. Back in the ’50s, the mayor, George Christopher, knew a developer, Charley Harney. When the Giants came out from New York City, they needed a new stadium. Harney had this piece of land. What else was he going to do with it? It was basically worthless. He and Christopher were in cahoots. Who knows who got paid what to do what, but it was really simple. Candlestick Park was a monument to political chicanery.
Cosell appeared oblivious.
At the game the next night the telecast wasn’t more than a few minutes old when Cosell said, as I recall, over a blimp shot, “You’re looking at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Some would say it’s a monument to political chicanery. Nevertheless, it is the site of tonight’s All-Star Game. ...”
Howard Cosell could be a lot of things. He could even be a parrot.
Weaver had joined us on Monday Night Baseball as an analyst for the ’83 season and was pretty good -- a little green but full of insight. When we rode out to the airport together the morning after a game, he would always jot down numbers on a notepad. I figured it had something to do with baseball. One morning I asked him what he was working on. Without looking up he said, “I’m trying to figure out if I have enough money to live on for the rest of my life.”
“Oh, I do it all the time. I’m just adding in last night’s fee.”
So here was the legendary Earl Weaver, computing his up-to-the-minute net worth. He was a real-time human actuarial table.
Weaver passed away on Jan. 19, 2013, at 82. He had a heart attack aboard a cruise ship. The St. Louis native died on the same day as another local legend, Stan Musial.
By 1983 Cosell had had enough of Monday Night Football; he would take himself off the show at the end of that season. At the World Series between the Phillies and the Orioles, I met Bob Costas for the first time, before Game 1 in Baltimore. Minutes later the very youthful 31-year-old introduced himself to Cosell. “I know who you are,” Cosell sniffed. “You’re the child who rhapsodizes about the infield fly rule.”
The following year, despite having dialed back his schedule, Cosell would arrive on-site in a foul mood and poison the environment. He was threatening not to work the Los Angeles Olympics -- he was still angry that 12 long years before, McKay had been anointed in Munich. Cosell had already announced that he was finished with boxing, so Chris Schenkel would handle that assignment in Los Angeles. Just a day or two before the Opening Ceremony, however, Cosell suddenly showed up, with nothing to do. It was clear that he was anticipating a Munich-like event and that he thought this time Arledge would see the wisdom of putting him -- not McKay -- in the anchor’s seat.
But when the Olympics got under way, Los Angeles turned into Utopia. No traffic, no smog, spectacular weather, terrific competition. Everything seemed perfect. Of course, being on the air was like a drug to Cosell, so where would he get his fix? I passed him in the hotel lobby on the third or fourth morning of the Games, and he muttered something about Schenkel. I heard the word incompetent. Not a day later Cosell showed up at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, the boxing venue. Now we were all hearing that Cosell would announce some fights to give Schenkel an occasional breather. Cosell was still, at that point, the thousand-pound gorilla. Who was going to tell him no?
By the end of the Olympics, Cosell was calling every fight. Schenkel might as well have been on vacation. If there was a light flyweight preliminary bout between a guy from Nigeria and a kid from New Zealand, Cosell was your man.
Two months after the Olympics, Cosell, Palmer and I were in Kansas City to call Game 1 of the American League Championship Series between the Royals and the Tigers. Cosell came to town dark and brooding. The second game of the series was a four-hour affair, going 11 innings before the Tigers won. At one point late in the game Cosell called for a bunt. So what else was new? To make matters worse, he’d been in the bar at the Alameda Plaza for a couple of hours before we’d left for the ballpark. And he had a big plastic cup that he kept refilling during the game. It wasn’t unusual for Cosell to drink during a game, but this may have been a record.
Palmer and I tried to keep him from looking like a fool by calling for a bunt in a situation in which no manager would ever bunt. We worked the edges, so as not to embarrass him on the air. The game ended, and I was disgusted. The telecast had been awful, sabotaged by Cosell’s incessant and often incoherent rambling. After we went off the air, Cosell started to tell me that he knew far more baseball strategy than anyone else, and he was who he was because he always took a stand. Then he said -- obviously in reference to the fact that I wasn’t in agreement with him on the air -- “You need to learn to take a stand.”
“Excuse me?” I shouted. “We’re protecting your ass. You’re sitting here drinking all night, and you’ve ruined the damn telecast. I’ll take a stand right now, Howard: The next time you’re in this shape when we’re doing a game, either you’re not going to be there or I’m not going to be there. Is that a good enough stand for you?”
He said nothing and walked away.
I went back to the pressroom behind the broadcast booth at Royals Stadium. I was standing there with Palmer, alternately commiserating and venting, when a sportswriter asked the bartender for a vodka. She poured him about three drops, and he said, “I’ll need a lot more than that.” She held up an empty quart bottle of Smirnoff and said, “I’m sorry, sir, Mr. Cosell drank the rest.”
The next day we got on a plane ABC had chartered to Detroit for Game 3. Palmer and I wanted nothing to do with Cosell. Fortunately my old friend Curt Gowdy was broadcasting the series on network radio, and we’d invited him to come with us. We knew he would sit with Cosell, so neither of us would have to. Also, in the New York Post that day, columnist Dick Young, who detested Cosell, had excoriated him again, and Cosell knew all about it.
We landed in Detroit a little before noon and checked into the Pontchartrain Hotel. An hour later Cosell knocked on my door. I opened it, and he walked right past me and settled into a chair. “Alfalfa, I just want to tell you, it was Palmer I was really pissed off at last night,” he said. “He should have -- ”
I cut him off: “No, Howard. We were trying to get you off the hook. If Palmer and I think you’re totally off base, what are we supposed to do? Are we supposed to say, ‘Howard, you’re a moron’? We’re trying to save you from yourself.”
We did the game the next night. The Tigers won and swept the series. I usually want a series to go the distance -- there’s more drama. This was the one time I was happy to get out of town fast.
A few weeks later, with my contract expiring at the end of 1984, I had a meeting with Arledge to talk about a new deal. When we got around to baseball, I told him it was simple: “I love baseball. It’s been the cornerstone of my career. But I can’t share a booth with a guy who doesn’t want to be there and prepares for a game in the hotel bar. I can’t do it anymore.”
Arledge said, “I’ll promise you this: If Howard does baseball, he won’t be drinking before the game or during the game.”
I renewed my contract, and Cosell was back on baseball for the 1985 season. I must say, Arledge’s guarantee held up. Still, Cosell didn’t want to be there. He did half the games, at most, and when he was in the booth, he wasn’t Howard Cosell anymore. I remember thinking that -- to use words he often intoned on the air -- he was merely a shell of his former self.
He was, however, nearing completion of a second book about his career. Everyone at ABC Sports was expecting a hatchet job. In late September, a few days before the book came out, details began to emerge. Sure enough, Cosell was going after everybody at ABC Sports, including, to a certain degree, Arledge himself! Cosell might as well have burned himself at the stake. He gave me a couple of small shots -- tweaks, really -- but nothing compared with the vitriol he had saved up for most of the others.
When Cosell’s book came out, and his trashing of ABC became public, Arledge had had enough. A week before Game 1 of the World Series, between Kansas City and St. Louis, he replaced Cosell on the broadcasts with Tim McCarver. For me it was the greatest trade in the history of broadcasting.
Just a couple of weeks earlier Cosell, Palmer and I had been together for a Sunday-afternoon telecast in Minnesota, the Twins against the Royals -- a game that would hardly draw flies, going up against the NFL on CBS and NBC. When the game ended, the three of us went to the airport. Palmer and I headed down one concourse; Cosell, stooped and looking forlorn, down another. We mumbled goodbye and gave him a cursory wave.
I didn’t know it then, but I would never see or even speak with him again. It was the last time he appeared on network television. So think about this: Howard Cosell -- this seminal, larger-than-life figure in sports television, this man who made Just tell it like it is a catchphrase and who, two decades after his death, is still being imitated -- ended his career with a meaningless game that got a rating you could see only with a microscope.
We’d had a lot of fun, especially at the beginning. But something was always eating at Cosell. If you elected him senator, he’d want to be president. If you made him president, he’d want to be king. If you made him king, he’d want to be God. He ascended to an extraordinary position but never felt the sports broadcasting industry was exalted or revered enough. Howard Cosell may have known who he was. But he could never be at peace with where he was.
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