"Oh, this horizontal ladder of mediocrity," sighs Howard Cosell, ruminating on the people who make up the radio-television industry, which pays him roughly $175,000 a year. "There's one thing about this business: There is no place in it for talent. That's why I don't belong. I lack sufficient mediocrity."
Cosell fondles a martini at a table in the Warwick bar, across the street from the American Broadcasting Company headquarters. Anguish clouds his homely face. His long nose and pointed cars loom over his gin in the fashion of a dive bomber swooping in with lighter escort. "This is a terrible business," he says. It being the cocktail hour, the darkened room is packed with theatrical and Madison Avenue types. A big blonde, made up like Harlow the day after a bender, dominates a nearby table, encircled by spindly, effete little men. Gentlemen in blue suits, with vests, jam the bar. A stocky young network man pauses at Cosell's table and cheerfully asks if he might drop by Cosell's office someday soon. Cosell says certainly, whereupon the network man joins a jovial crowd at the bar. "He just got fired," Cosell whispers. "He doesn't know that I already know." The man, he is positive, wants his help, but what is Cosell to do when there are men getting fired every week?
"This is the roughest, toughest, crudest jungle in the world," Cosell grieves. A waiter brings him a phone, and he orders a limousine and chauffeur from a rental agency. He cannot wait to retreat to his rustic fireside in Pound Ridge up in Westchester County. It is Monday evening, barely the beginning of another long week in which he, Howard W. Cosell, middle-aged and tiring, must stand against the tidal wave of mediocrity, armed only with his brilliance and integrity.
It has been only 11 years since Cosell quit a New York law practice to become a sportscaster. Yet here he is, the most controversial figure in the business, an opinionated lone wolf in a profession populated by pretty-faced ex-athletes and fence-straddling play-by-play announcers who see angry sponsors under their beds. Teenagers and adult athletes and men in neighborhood saloons do imitations of his nasally acerbic voice, which assaults millions on 30 radio and TV shows a week. His interviews with Muhammad Ali are the Hope Diamond in ABC's Wide World of Spoils, television's most successful sports series. (To the disgust or titillation of viewers, Cosell meticulously addresses the heavyweight champion by his Muslim name. Privately he stridently defends the right to be known by the name of one's choice, however exotic, but after tossing off a few Muhammad Alis he lapses into Cassius Clays.)
March 21, 1994
Then there is Cosell the producer—the president of Legend Productions, Inc. His sports documentaries command prime network time, and the praise they attract from critics, Cosell hastens to point out, is "unbelievable." His intellect surpasses the boundaries of sports. Each Sunday night, 10 to 11 on New York radio, he may be heard grilling the likes of Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller and Mayor John V. Lindsay on affairs of the day, sometimes turning the interviews into Cosell-versus-whomever debates, in which he acts as both contestant and judge. "I'm getting to you, Bill." he tells William F. Buckley Jr. "Now, before we're done, you're going to be defeated. You know that."
Yet, most of all, Cosell's forward progress stems from the fact that, alone among sportscasters of national stature, he works at his trade. He goes out and looks for news and personalities, instead of waiting for gossip at Toots Shor's. "If you say 'Manny Mota' to Howard Cosell, he knows something about Manny Mota," says Leonard Koppett of The New York Times. "If you say 'Manny Mota' to lots of others in that field, you're going to get a blank stare or statistics they read on a file card."
Cosell is not the least bit reluctant to make it clear at every opportunity that he knows a lot of things about a lot of things. "I'm not the greatest man in the world," he says, careful to set the record straight, "but I've brought to this business the direct, honest and total reporting that previously had been the sole province of the press." Answering football commissioner Pete Rozelle's call for a major press conference, Cosell plunges into a folding chair in the first row of the press section, where he is within range of cameras and microphones. Rozelle sits on a sofa, flanked by Dallas Cowboy general manager Tex Schramm and Kansas City Chief owner Lamar Hunt. The commissioner announces that the NFL and AFL are about to merge. Soon Cosell's voice clamors for Rozelle's attention like pots and pans falling off a shelf. I le demands to know if the AFL has forced the merger by secretly making huge offers to NFL stars. "You know that it's true," he tells Rozelle.
"No, I do not know that it's true," Rozelle replies evenly.
"I know that it's true," Cosell trumpets. He turns to Lamar Hunt, demanding a confession. Hunt equivocates. "You mean you're negotiating for your league without knowing what your league is doing?" Cosell persists.
"I've tried to answer your question," says Hunt. Painstakingly courteous, Hunt is a Wally Cox type, though he is worth hundreds of millions. "I don't mean to be abrupt," he apologizes.
"It's not a question of being abrupt, Lamar," Cosell breaks in, his voice threatening to shatter Hunt's spectacles. "It's a matter of being evasive at a time when the American people are entitled to know the truth!"
The American people lose, but Howard Cosell wins another press conference. "You've got to treat Howard the way he treats you," says columnist Dick Young of the New York Daily News. "You've got to throw his flamboyant junk back in his face. He asks better questions than the other radio and TV interviewers, but he hokes up his questions so that they sound better than they are. 'Now, truthfully'—it's always 'truthfully,' as if it's a question the guy on the other end has been ducking—'people insist that you'—people don't say it, they insist it—'that you cannot take a punch, Muhammad Ali. Now, truthfully, can you take a punch?' " The Cosell manner, observes Larry Merchant of the New York Post, manages "to make the world of fun and games sound like the Nuremberg trials."
Meanwhile, brimming with editorial comment, Cosell has gone after Casey Stengel, the New York Giants and NCAA football, Floyd Patterson and the sporting press, and all varieties of commissioners and leagues. Though ABC's New York radii) outlet carries the Jets' games, he campaigned vigorously last fall against Jet coach Weeb Ewbank, whom he dismisses as "passè." In short. Cosell has traveled a course hardly calculated to take him to the goal that practically all sportscasters covet: a play-byplay assignment. He could not care less. "I'm a personality," he specifies. "With rare exceptions, they don't make them that way in the sports business anymore."
Play-by-play announcers, Cosell goes on, are nothing but shills for the ball clubs, and anybody who expects inquisitive journalism from them is a dunce. "Today the football games are a series of matchups to see who leads in blimp shots," Cosell cries. Why would a man of his gifts want any part of such a prosaic routine? "There is no way you will ever hear me saying"—and here he lowers his voice to a dulcet whisper—" 'This is Howard Co-sell on the 16th green...420 yards to the pin.... Up to this point, only four golfers have equaled par. With a shudder, Cosell pictures himself on the professional bowling circuit. "Can you imagine Howard Cosell saying, 'Wayne Zahn approaching the line...beautiful delivery!' " Does David Brinkley cover supermarket openings?
Anyhow, Cosell's forte is the interview. Years ago he decided that he would not go around asking athletes how they field balls or condition their hamstring tendons. They are intelligent, sensitive men, he argued—he would persuade them to bare their souls. "Look at Mantle!" Cosell says. "He did a half-hour show with me, and he felt like he had had a cathartic. He felt cleansed. Joe Namath! The kid poured his heart out to me. Colonel Red Blaik, who was supposed to be a martinet, an icicle, he opened up like a sieve. He said, 'Young man, this is the finest conversation I've ever had.' " Except when a natural comedian such as Cassius Clay appears on Cosell's show, the world of sports remains a lugubrious place, a bonanza of pathos that Cosell has barely begun to mine. "Someday," he promises, "I'm going to do a show on Roger Maris—The American Tragedy."
The athlete who can fend off a Cosell interview has not been born. "Damn you, Koufax," he once said when, shortly before game time, Sandy balked at racing from the clubhouse to redo a film Cosell's technicians had fouled up. "You were a little nothing sitting in the corner of the Brooklyn dugout when I used to come around and talk to you." Koufax went along quietly.
Sonny Liston, having heard Cosell describe him on the air as a congenital thug, glared at him in training camp and said, "You ain't my friend." "That's true," Cosell answered. He then launched into a speech, the gist of which was that, like Sonny and all the rest of the world's slobs, he had a living to earn. The next thing Liston knew, Cosell was walking him along a windswept beach where a bitter gray sky supplied a backdrop for such questions as, did Liston throw the first Clay fight, and was he owned by gangsters?
Having elected to introduce journalism into sportscasting, Cosell has had to plow through a gantlet of carping sponsors, station executives and ad salesmen, all bent on convincing him that it is safer to read ball scores off a ticker tape. "It may be that my greatest accomplishment was my mere survival," he declares. There he was, putting the finishing touches on a one-hour documentary. The Yankee from Texas, the story of Johnny Keane, when a breathless ABC man staggered into his office, crying, "We gotta rewrite the opening!" The opening was a film clip of Budweiser baron Gussie Busch reading with great embarrassment Keane's letter of resignation from his post as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. (The scene was opera bouffe, for Busch had earlier decided to fire Keane but then changed his mind after Keane managed the Cardinals to the 1964 pennant at the wire. Keane, however, considered himself fired and decided to stay fired.) The opening was a natural, except for the fact that Pabst was the principal sponsor of The Yankee from Texas. Now Pabst had phoned from Milwaukee and said, "Get Busch out of the opening."
"We are not rewriting any opening," Cosell informed the ABC man who had relayed the command to him. "Get me Milwaukee on the phone." Moments later Cosell's voice drilled into Milwaukee: "You gonna keep it a secret that Gussie Busch fired him? You gonna keep it a secret? You people have been talking about stand-up guys. If you make us pull Busch out of the show, you're fakes!"
Busch stayed in the show.
Although every crisis plunges Cosell into a chasm of gloom, he requires only a reminder of his own genius to rebound strongly. The morning after Green Bay walloped Kansas City in the Super Bowl, Cosell sailed into his office at 10 a.m., crowing, "Just what I predicted! Just what I predicted on the air, right down to naming Willie Wood!" Cosell had known all along, he said, that Green Bay's pass coverage would be to the outside but that sooner or later Wood, a safety, would slip inside to intercept and turn the tide. "I said, 'The hero, the guy who will break the game open, will be Willie Wood.' " Cosell let his words fly into the corridor and fill every office on the sixth floor of the ABC building, where he is called Coach, a title he revels in. "Of course," he added, "I've been wrong a million times in my predictions."
Cosell arose from behind his desk, launching into an explanation of win he knows so much. He demanded to know if any reporter in the world can match his connections with sports figures. Famous names—men who are, as he put it, his very, very dear friends—rolled from his tongue. He surged into his Big Story voice, biting off phrases dramatically, as he often does in off-duty monologues.
"I'm the guy...who gets to Lombardi! I'm the guy...who gets letters from Pancho Gonzalez! I'm the guy...Champagne Tony Lema visited the very day he got back from the British Open, one week before his tragic death." Cosell's voice falls to a hush. "We sat on the veranda...and I said, 'Tony, when it's all over and done, how do you want to be remembered?' And he said, guess I just want to be remembered as Tony Lema—nice guy.' I said, 'How about Tony Lema, glamour guy?' And he said, 'Yeah, I'd like that, if it doesn't carry the wrong implication.' " Cosell paused to let five seconds of silence grip the scene. He resumed in a whisper. "And then I got out a bottle of bubbly...and said, 'Shall we?' Tony Lema said, 'Why not? I'll open it." He popped it open and said, 'Cheers.' And I said, 'Cheers." Later I got a letter from him...the morning after he died. I read it...and I cried."
Now Cosell ticked oil more famous names, pacing the floor of his office although unable to take more than two steps in any direction. The room is little more than a cubicle—exactly like hundreds of other white-walled cubicles that line the stark-white corridors of the ABC skyscraper, a building that in Cosell's words has "a public-toilet whiteness about it that is frightening." He is the network's national sports director for radio and its New York sports director for television, but one wonders if his cramped quarters are the means by which the corporation's upper echelon reminds him he is still a sports reporter. When Wide World has a tough interview to cope with, Cosell is called in to handle it, but rumors persist that he gives the brass indigestion.
At 3:05 Cosell shoveled his ungainly frame into a cab and set oil' for ABC's studios to tape a two-minute essay for the 11 o'clock news on WABC-TV, the network's New York station. In a pocket of his camel hair overcoat he carried a hairpiece (which he keeps stored in a shoebox in his desk) that extends his receding hairline. In his head, as the cab weaved through traffic, he created his essay. Cosell never works from a script and rarely knows exactly what he is going to say until he is on the air.
"You're wasting your love on me," he cried to a receptionist as he loped through the lobby of the West 66th Street building. In another minute he was tearing past a second-floor newsroom, shouting at the staff, "Willie Wood! Willie Wood! You know where you heard it!" He paused in a dressing room to have his face powdered, then emerged at the head of an iron staircase that descended into a huge studio cluttered with equipment and crew. "The coach is here!" Cosell announced. He planted himself at the lectern, awaiting his cue, and then rattled off an editorial censuring Lamar Hunt for putting bush-league football on the same field with the Green Bay Packers. His show completed, Cosell then censured his director for having Hunt's picture on a screen that stood behind him and to his left. The cameras had had to divert from Cosell in order to film Hunt.
Cosell raced back to ABC headquarters and entered a glass-enclosed room on the eighth floor to do a 4½-minute radio show. "I can break the story now," he barked into a microphone. Charlie Finley, he said, was at it again, stealthily laying plans to move his Kansas City Athletics to Oakland. Having exposed Finley, Cosell turned from the mike and cried, "That, you see, is a sports show! Not an ounce of day-old copy about Max McGee retiring. I broke a story." The Times probably would have given the scoop two inches, but there was no holding Cosell. "Now, that show was a contribution journalistically." Cosell cantered to an elevator, calling over his shoulder to a secretary, "Oh, Shirley, if only I could have you one more time."
"One more time!" Shirley shrieked, careful to let the office know there hadn't been a first time. But Cosell was gone.
Arriving home that night, Cosell flung off his jacket, his tie, his shoes, his socks, and sprawled barefoot in a living-room chair. He accepted a martini from his wife, Emmy, a pleasant woman with light-brown hair, and gazed happily into a roaring fire. The Cosells, with two attractive young daughters and an Irish setter named Kelly, live on 11 acres of woodland in a lodge-style house made of cedar and fieldstone and adjoined by a pool. Away from the radio-TV jungle, a curious change comes over Cosell. He speaks softly, with an occasional dash of humor that is missing in his broadcasts. "If you don't know Cosell well," says sportswriter Maury Allen of the New York Post, "the only side of him that comes out is this business of being on all the time. I've found him to be a man of great depth, honesty and knowledge."
In an industry rife with intrigue, not even Cosell's detractors accuse him of having backstabbed his way to the top. He praises colleagues exuberantly when impressed by the job they've done, but he has earned enmity by also telling them straight-out—ABC's Chris Schenkel was one—that he caught their latest show and, by god, it was awful.
For all his suggestive sallies to secretaries (a form of false dash that serves to announce his presence), Cosell is considered the original square by an industry that is full of swingers. He is completely at ease only with his family and is dedicated to the proposition that in five more years he will have enough money to get out of the jungle and retire to Florida. When off on a major assignment—for example, a Clay fight via satellite from Europe—he practically trembles at the prospect that he will do a clumsy job and thereby play into the hands of the press that he is certain is lusting to rip him. Says Chet Forte, Cosell's producer on the satellite fight shows: "It's always Emmy, Emmy, Emmy—'I gotta phone Emmy. I oughta be home. I gotta see what Emmy thinks of the way we're gonna do this show.' I don't know if she builds him up or what, but after he phones her, he seems to snap out of it." [Emmy Cosell died of a heart attack in 1990.]
A pillar of equanimity, Emmy attends to her Pound Ridge house, unnerved only when she overhears townspeople mutter an epithet they apply to Cosell whenever he has done a show with draft dodger Clay. Pound Ridgers, a cultivated lot, attack Cosell in the dialogue of the times. "Dove," they sneer.
Actually, Cosell himself served a brilliant, if not exactly action-packed, military career. Born Howard William Cohen, he grew up in Brooklyn, the son of a Jewish immigrant from Poland. His father worked as an accountant for a chain of credit clothing stores. Cosell aspired early to become a newspaper reporter, but Isidore and Nellie Cohen urged him into the law. At New York University he made Phi Beta Kappa, became an editor of the Law Review and upon his graduation in 1940 landed a job with a substantial firm. But when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in '41, Cosell enlisted in the Army as a private, though he was destined for Officer Candidate School and lofty rank. He spent the war commuting by subway to his station at the New York Port of Embarkation on the Brooklyn docks, a situation the neighbors viewed with bitterness.
"Oh, I well remember the Minsky widow," he says. "Her husband was the burlesque king, remember? She couldn't stand the sight of me coming home every day, first with a gold bar, now with a silver bar, now two silver bars, now a gold leaf. I could understand this. She had a son serving in the Marines, on Guadalcanal." Cosell himself had become the boy wonder of the Port—a key brain who juggled a manpower pool of 50,000. Twice the Pentagon blocked his promotion to major on grounds that he was moving up too swiftly for a Stateside functionary, and he got the promotion only when the Port commander fired off a six-page letter that described him as all but the cornerstone of the war effort.
Never keen on lawyer's work, Cosell emerged from the Army in 1946 bent on landing an executive position in personnel relations. He figured he had a useful connection, for he had married a WAC sergeant, Mary-Edith (Emmy) Abrams, whose father, Norman Ross Abrams, was a prominent industrialist. The Abrams family, a Presbyterian mixture of Pennsylvania Dutch and Welsh, at that time had reservations about Emmy's mixed marriage. Father-in-law told Cosell he had no opening. "I was looking for $25,000 to $30,000 a year," Cosell says. "I was a 24-year-old snot." (Perhaps he wasn't. The birth date on his Army records made him a 27-year-old snot. It also makes him 48 today, although the ABC publicity department says he's 46.) Undaunted, Cosell confidently wrote to a former service comrade, an automotive executive, who coolly replied with a list of recommended college courses.
"I was in general discomfort," sighs Cosell. "Subliminally, I was sensitive about a Jew's place in industry. But I determined to rid myself of this crutch-type thinking." (It did not occur to him that he was a natural for sportscasting. His mother remembers him talking at nine months.) Cosell saw no choice but to resume the practice of law.
Eight years later, in 1954, the Little League catapulted Cosell to fame. Having drawn up a Little League charter for an American Legion post, he received a call from an ABC program manager asking if he would furnish a panel of kiddies to interview athletes on a weekly series of coast-to-coast radio shows. Radio was in a disheveled state, dying. Not surprisingly, the program manager suggested as an afterthought that Cosell be moderator—without pay. He leaped at the chance. Although an unknown, he corralled big-name guests by laying siege to hotel lobbies where base-hall players congregated. He wooed them with free lunches—Wally Moon, Al Kaline, Fred Hutchinson. "We made news with that show," Cosell shouts. "Out of the mouths of babes came words of wisdom and depth!" Under Cosell's deft direction the brats conned hank Bauer into putting the blast on Casey Stengel for platooning him.
When, in 1956, the network offered Cosell $250 to do 10 live-minute sports broadcasts each weekend, he immediately decided to abandon his legal work. It moved too slowly to suit him. "My disposition," he announced to his wife, "demands the immediacy of translation of effort into result!" So go translate. Emmy told him.
Seeking exposure wherever he could find it, Cosell persuaded a men's adventure magazine to publish a monthly column called Cosell's Clubhouse. (The magazine dressed up the column with a photo that rather suggested a benign aardvark leaning against a doghouse.) His editor, Ray Robinson, who today is articles editor of Good Housekeeping, recalls the aplomb with which Cosell stepped up in class. "Well," Cosell greeted Robinson some years after the column had run its course, "are you still with that witless magazine?"
Seizing the attention of radio listeners, Cosell trampled the rules of sportscasting etiquette. Chet Forte, the producer, was a Columbia basketball star when he first met Cosell and consented to go on his radio show. "What sort of questions are you going to ask me, Howard?" Forte inquired.
"Don't worry, kid," Cosell reassured him. "It'll be line."
Cosell then leaned into the mike and intoduced Forte as the nation's leading scorer, a dazzling little man with an uncanny shooting touch. Then Cosell asked his first question. "Chet, is it true that some of your teammates hate to pass to you because you shoot so much?" The audience next heard the sound of Forte sucking in his breath.
Hustling to the scene wherever sports news was being made, Cosell sent chills up the spines of the working press as he trumpeted his way into press conferences and clubhouses. "He comes into a room as if nothing possibly could have happened before he got there," says one sportswriter. Cosell himself points out that when he walks into the Yankee clubhouse, for example, manager Ralph Houk at once turns his way, ignoring the newspapermen around him. "I'm sensitive to this situation and embarrassed by it," Cosell says. Somehow, his words translate to mean he's delighted by it.
Yet as he grew in prominence, Cosell at times seemed like a man trying to scale the side of the ABC building while people stood at the windows hurling buckets of water at his face. Gossip has it that Thomas W. Moore, who in 1958 became an ABC vice-president in charge of programming en route to the presidency of ABC-TV. considered shoveling Cosell into an obscure bin and replacing him with Tom Harmon. Even if the rumor sprang from no basis in fact, it is likely that it raced through the company's power structure and created resistance to Cosell.
He pressed on, however. On the New York front he undertook to personally reshape the future of the Mets, and on a national level he hitched his wagon to a force that not even the U.S. government has been able to sidetrack—Muhammad Ali, of course. The bumbling Mets, adored by New Yorkers, caused Cosell to draw back in horror. "I'm suspicious of anything that causes kids to fall in love with futility," he says. WABC was broadcasting the Mets" games during their first two seasons, 1962 and '63, and Cosell did the pregame and postgame shows—a stint that normally consists of reassuring the audiences that the home team will come back strong. Cosell, however, plunged into a campaign to drive manager Casey Stengel out of town. The outcome, instead, was that the Mets and WABC parted company, though Cosell insists it was the station, not the ball club, that asked for the divorce. "We didn't want to be identified with a loser," he explains. In any ease, Cosell kept after Stengel on his various shows, and it is with a sense of accomplishment that he describes his role in the 1966 resignation of front-office boss George Weiss and the promotion of Weiss's successor, Bing Devine.
Meanwhile, legions of television viewers across the country were taking notice of Cosell, partly because they found it incredible that any white American male would throw his arm around Cassius Clay and with a straight face treat him to the Muhammads that even Clay's Negro opponents are reluctant to utter. A Northern newspaper labeled Cosell a White Muslim. White supremacists and parents of servicemen wrote him a flood of strong letters, successfully ruining his mornings. (A single critical letter brings from him tortured cries that can be heard five doorways down the corridor, "I worry about the mass intelligence of this country," he says at such times. "I really do.") Actually, Co-sell once attacked Clay's Muslim camp followers for their rudeness and, on a telecast, neatly squelched the champion in one of his eulogies to the teacher Elijah Muhammad. "Awright, we've been through that," Cosell broke in.
Whether or not he first catered to Clay because he foresaw the alliance would mean national attention, a genuine friendship seemed to develop between the two. At Cosell's urging, Clay delayed his fight with Henry Cooper 18 minutes, infuriating British boxing officials, so that ABC could finish telecasting its prefight show. "Howard worries about the kid," Chet Forte said shortly before Clay's February victory over Ernie Terrell. "I think he dreads the day when that kid loses. But if anything ever happens to the champ, he'll turn around and look for Howard, and Howard will be there." In the aftermath of the Terrell fight, however, a layer of frost settled over their relationship. On Wide World, Clay demanded that Cosell defend him against charges that he had taunted and fouled Terrell. Cosell refused, triggering a shouting match that in turn brought Cosell a barrage of letters accusing him of picking on Clay, to say nothing of being anti-Negro. Another morning ruined.
Although Clay may now be an exception, the people who work closely with Cosell usually enjoy the relationship. "Howard, you are not an insufferable egoist," one such man told him recently. "You are a suffer-able egoist." Cosell was incredulous. "Do you really think I'm an egoist?" he said, wounded.
At any rate, he does not insist upon being the whole show. He has brought the television sports documentary to adulthood by hiring talented writers and then keeping his nose out of their work. "Documentary writing is lousy work," says Jerry Izenberg, who wrote Cosell's Pro Football's Shotgun Marriage: Sonny, Money and Merger, a highly acclaimed study of the war between the football leagues, "because what happens is you get a producer-director who puts together a lot of film clips and then says, "Write a script.' Cosell, on the other hand, puts the horse before the cart, and you don't end up writing bridge lines for guys catching passes."
Laying plans for $onny, Money and Merger, Cosell called his talent together. "What's your concept for the music?" he asked a short Middle European named Vladimir Selensky.
"First of all," said Selensky, "you do not want football music. You want something different."
Cosell glanced at an ad salesman in the room. The salesman's eyes carried an alarm that cried, "It'll never sell!"
"What do you have in mind?" Cosell patiently asked Selensky.
"I want storm clouds. I want tension. I want an all-is-not-well feeling." Silence blanketed the room. Selensky turned to Izenberg, searching for support. "What do you think?" he asked.
"I like it," Izenberg said.
"You," Selensky said, "have a soul. You may call me Vlady."
Cosell, measuring the convictions of his talent against those of his ad salesman, instructed Selensky to put together the storm clouds and bring them in. When Selensky did so, Cosell listened to no more than five bars. "Perfect!" he cried and walked away, knowing that the music (which was to endow the football war with all the intensity of a midwinter battle at the gates of Moscow) was in the hands of a professional.
If only the people on the industry's horizontal ladder of mediocrity would leave him alone, Cosell would remain at peace. As it is, he charged angrily from his office one recent morning, shouting over his shoulder at a nicely barbered blond man who trailed in his wake. (The man wanted Cosell to find no less than 24 sports events every weekend and assign network radio announcers to interview the stars of each event by phone.) Cosell flung himself into an elevator. "Do you think," he bellowed as the doors slammed closed in the blond man's face, "that a mass audience is going to be interested in barrel jumping?"
The next day Cosell sat at his cocktail-hour post in the Warwick bar, his shoulders slumping, his face a mask of agony. "I am tired," he said, "morally, mentally, emotionally, physically, I am tired." The forces of ignorance had struck again this very day. A radio station in an AFL city—Cosell wouldn't say which one—had disliked his latest critique of AFL football and had notified ABC it was dropping all Cosell shows. (A couple of weeks later they were reinstated.)
"I have lived a lifetime with this kind of thing," Cosell said. "The impact of Howard Cosell on radio is enormous. People love him or hate him. Local yokels pressure the stations. The guy who runs the station in this AFL city said, "You have destroyed the image of our city.' Our sales head was in a panic." Cosell wondered what the world was coming to. "I'm in the toy department, sports!" he cried. "Are people so juvenile that you can't tell the truth in sports? This isn't Bill Manchester on Jackie Kennedy! This is Howard Cosell on sports! I don't take myself that seriously. Let's not make it Paul Revere on the horse. I'm no hero.
"The American Broadcasting Company has lived with me and permitted me," Cosell plowed on. "Tomorrow they may not. If so, there will be no sad songs for me. I'll go without a whimper. But ABC has been the only network to permit a Howard Cosell, and that's why Howard Cosell is important. That's why Howard Cosell is a story. If ever there was a trailblazer, if ever a broadcaster sought to bring sports out of the juvenile, out of the banal—this, you see, is my mission. I have been an electronic first," Cosell declared, "and I don't mean that egotistically."
The electronic first gazed at the ceiling, as if the magnificent trails he'd blazed were etched into the beams for him to see. "Yes," he at last decided. "When you get right down to it, I am a hero."
This is one of 40 classic Sports Illustrated stories to be presented during 1994 as a special bonus to our readers in celebration of SI's 40th anniversary.
The Cosell manner, says Larry Merchant, manages "to make the world of fun and games sound like the Nuremberg trials."
"You've got to treat Howard the way he treats you," says Dick Young. "You've got to throw his flamboyant junk back in his face."