There had never been anyone quite like Howard Cosell in the American ball yard when he made his entrance into the world of sports, stoop-shouldered under the weight of a 40-pound tape recorder that he carried on his back like some slightly demented word Sherpa from Brooklyn. But American originals have always been a dime a dozen, getting somewhere first and then being trampled by the herd that follows, and yet when Cosell decided to leave the broadcast booth after 38 years, he was still the only one doing whatever it was he did.
Which is probably just as well—there were times when it seemed that even one Cosell was one too many. Audiences never seemed quite sure what to make of him, or what to do about him. That was his peculiar fascination. A poll conducted by TV Guide in the late '70s determined that the most-despised sportscaster in America was Howard Cosell. The same poll concluded that the most-beloved sportscaster in America was Howard Cosell.
A peerless boxing announcer whose staccato delivery carried the rhythm of the ring and the concussive weight of a right cross, Cosell had the verbal wherewithal to stand toe-to-toe with the new champion Muhammad Ali in the ring after matches. Cosell, unlike most Americans, referred to the champ as Ali as soon as he learned of the boxer's conversion to Islam, and when Ali declared himself a conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam and refused induction into the Army, Cosell was among the first and one of the few figures in the sports world to publicly support Ali's stand on constitutional grounds.
Howard William Cohen had been eight years into a law practice in 1954 when he chucked his $30,000 salary for a $250-a-week radio job and began to schlepp a tape recorder from locker room to locker room. As a reporter he had the passion of an advocate, and he weighed in early and often with his opinions on the landmark legal struggles in sports—Curt Flood's challenge to baseball's reserve clause and the NFL's antitrust exemption, among others. This had about it the unfamiliar whiff of journalism and became Cosell's contribution to the otherwise bland geewhizzery of sports announcing.
When he moved from radio to television, he knew that he would never occupy the plum position in the booth, for he was far too much an acquired taste to ever survive as a play-by-play man. So it was that when ABC Sports president Roone Arledge put Monday Night Football on the air in 1970, he created for Cosell a position previously unknown in broadcast sports: blowhard. And for 14 seasons Cosell amused, amazed, outraged, annoyed and attracted audiences, building the Monday-night broadcast into something that was often bigger than the game itself.
His popularity rode on a teeter-totter with the contempt of those who could not stand his pomposity, his intrusiveness on the games, his celebrity sideshows. Taverns began drawing crowds on Monday nights by offering customers the chance to heave a brick through a TV screen with Cosell's face on it. His performances on ABC's baseball telecasts were considered such a defilement of the sacred pastime that once, after a World Series telecast in Baltimore, his limousine was stopped and rocked by angry fans. For this he played the perpetual martyr, imperious in the manner in which he delivered his opinions and then wounded when the retorts of his foes arrived in the cluster fire of the morning mail. "I have been vilified more than Charles Manson," Howard said at one point, employing his customary light touch. But he never seemed to tire of his solecisms, until finally he began to tire of the whole thing. He withdrew bitterly from boxing in 1982, accusing the sport of being overrun by sleazy characters, as if this were something new, and gave up Monday Night Football a year later. By the time he made his retirement official, in 1992, his departure was treated as a footnote to a time that had long since passed.
In 1986, while under cross-examination in the USFL's $1.5 billion lawsuit against the NFL, Cosell was asked by one NFL lawyer to confirm his oft-quoted assertion that he was one of the three great men of American TV, along with Walter Cronkite and Johnny Carson. Cosell told it like it was: "I feel I'm a unique personality who...has had more impact upon sports broadcast in America than any person who has yet lived." He was, after all, under oath.