When Howard Cosell stepped down from his 35-year career as a radio sportscaster recently, his departure was barely mentioned.
This was strange. In his best years, Cosell's name was on everyone's lips. He was the undoubted star of Monday Night Football when that show was one of the hottest on television. He was the opinionated voice at ringside during Muhammad Ali's long reign as heavyweight champion. He broadcast Major League Baseball. He hosted a variety show and appeared in a Woody Allen movie.
Cosell was such a hot property he was able to turn his books of outrageous opinions on sports into best sellers. He became a journalism lecturer at Yale University and lasted there more than a decade.
Cosell was an authority on everything. It was his boast that he told things like they were. In making this boast, Cosell made it plain he was the only one in radio and television sports who had the courage or the intellect to do so.
He took no prisoners. No one escaped from Cosell's gibes and judgments. He wore everybody out.
After working in the television booth with Frank Gifford and Don Meredith for years, Cosell turned on both of them, heaping them with scorn.
After working at the microphone and hyping every big fight for a decade, he turned on boxing, calling it a criminal pastime that should be eliminated.
Toward the end, his radio shows, Speaking of Sports and Speaking of Everything, were broadcast at hours like 4 a.m. They shunted Howard into the darkness, but he never stopped crying out.
It was difficult to put up with a scold like Cosell. He seemed to be more than a little bit of a phony and a poseur. There was never a good thing said in praise of Cosell that he didn't boast about.
But he was also right on the mark in every judgment he made about sports and some of the vicious and corrupt people who run it.
As much as we don't like to admit it, Cosell did tell it like it was. And no one else on radio and television does these days. More important, there is no one who is attempting to fill his shoes.
Cosell is now 73 and fighting cancer. His wife, Emmy, to whom he had been married 46 years, died of a heart attack last year. His latest book, What's Wrong With Sports, is not headed for the New York Times best-seller list.
And yet, there is much that is admirable about Cosell's career. He never tried to say the popular thing. He strove instead to be outrageous.
Cosell stood up for Jackie Robinson when no one wanted to see baseball's color barrier broken. A lawyer, he was one of the few voices in sports who stood up for Muhammad Ali's right to stay out of the Vietnam War.
Here are a few of Cosell's opinions, culled from his most recent book. Read them over and see if you think this style would fit local sportscasters like Bill Denney, Jude LaCava or J.D. Hayworth.
"I know it's immodest of me to say so, but I don't think there will ever be another Howard Cosell...the fact is I'm still the only one who will dare take on the entire media." "Sportswriters too often are the buddies, the mouthpieces, for the sports owners and operators they are covering; too often they function as worshiping handmaidens of the athletes they interview." "How can Rudy Martzke of USA Today ride cross-country with John Madden of CBS on the Maddencruiser, a customized Greyhound bus, and still be objective about John Madden?" "It now appears that, should two writers from the New York Times come out against something in baseball, the Commissioner Fay Vincent will immediately join the cause." "During George Steinbrenner's hearing with Commissioner Vincent, he brought up a story about a Major League Baseball star's having paid someone to murder his wife.
"The commissioner replied that the misdeed had been committed in the off-season, so it wasn't a baseball matter. When is Fay Vincent going to explain that one?" "Sports announcers are shills for organized professional sports, an army of ex-jocks, many of whom cannot even speak grammatically correct English." "NBC's Marv Albert feels it more prudent to enhance his likability than to worry about journalism. He says, `The higher your numbers, the more money you make. It doesn't pay to be Cosell anymore.'" "Little Bob Costas, another NBC sportscaster, feels much the same way. `I'd like to be perceived as an entertaining sportscaster,' he says. `I don't have the heart to nail people.'" "How ironic that Denny McLain would leave jail and become a radio star, a fact that tells you something about the listening audience." "It is impossible for me to take Mike Tyson seriously as a person. He is so utterly ignorant, so uncultured, and has been a criminal for most of his life. There is nothing very complex about Tyson. He has certain basic, barbaric instincts and seemingly uncontrollable emotions." "Massive criticism of me never killed the fire in my belly. Nor has it served to diminish the high regard in which I hold myself. When one is a living legend, and at the same time, a human lightning rod, one can catch a lot of flak." "Tim McCarver is unbearable. He's got that whiny voice. He talks incessantly about totally irrelevant things. He's as bad as Tony Kubek, who is basically a cheese salesman." "Dan Dierdorf must think he's paid by the word. He was a good football player, but as a sportscaster, he makes Frank Gifford look good." Cosell is a world-class name dropper. He tells the story of having lunch at the Friars Club in New York with Bowie Kuhn, the former baseball commissioner, and William Simon, former secretary of the U.S. Treasury.
Simon looked around the table and said, jokingly, that the threesome might well be called the "three has-beens." Cosell glared back. Then he shouted in his familiar stentorian tone: "Bill, you are two-thirds correct."
AND THE WINNERS ARE. . . LUCK HAD NOTHI... v2-12-92