Howard Cosell

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Howard Cosell
Born March 25, 1918
Flag of United States Winston-Salem, North Carolina, U.S.A.
Died April 23, 1995 (age 77)
New York City, New York, U.S.A.

Howard William Cosell, born Howard William Cohen (March 25, 1918April 23, 1995) was an American sports journalist on American television. His abrasive personality and tendency to speak his mind, often in erudite terms unusual for a sportscaster, made him, according to one poll, both the most-liked and most-hated television reporter in the country.

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[edit] Early life

Cosell was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and raised in Brooklyn, New York. His parents had wanted him to become a lawyer. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in English from New York University, where he was a member of Pi Lambda Phi, he earned his Juris Doctor from the New York University School of Law. During this period, at the request of his father who had restored the original Cosell family name that had been changed after they immigrated, he legally altered his surname to Cosell as of 1940.

[edit] Army

Cosell was admitted to the New York state bar in 1941, but when the U.S. entered World War II, Cosell entered the United States Army Transportation Corps, where he was quickly promoted to the rank of major, becoming one of the youngest majors to serve at that time. During his time in the service, he married Mary Abrams in 1944.

[edit] Early career

After the war, Cosell began practicing law in Manhattan, primarily in union law. Some of his clients were actors, and some were athletes, including Willie Mays. Cosell's own hero in athletics was Jackie Robinson, who served as a personal and professional inspiration to him in his career.

Cosell also represented the Little League of New York, when in 1953 an ABC Radio manager asked him to host a show on New York flagship WABC featuring Little League participants. Cosell hosted the show for three years without pay, and then decided to leave the law field to become a full-time broadcaster. The show marked the beginning of a relationship with WABC and ABC Radio that would last Cosell his entire broadcasting career.

On radio, Cosell did his show, Speaking of Sports, as well as sports reports and updates for affiliated radio stations around the country; he continued his radio duties even after he became prominent on television. Cosell then became a sports anchor at WABC-TV in New York, where he served in that role from 1961 to 1974.

Cosell rose to prominence covering boxer Muhammad Ali, starting when he still fought under his birth name, Cassius Clay. The two seemed to be friends despite their very different personalities, and complimented each other in broadcasts. In a time when many sports broadcasters avoided touching social, racial, or other controversial issues, and kept a certain level of collegiality towards the sports figures they commented on, Cosell did not, and indeed built a reputation around his catchphrase:

I'm just telling it like it is.

Cosell's style of reporting very much transformed sports broadcasting. Whereas previous sportscasters had mostly been known for color commentary and lively play-by-play, Cosell had an intellectual approach. His tendency was to analyze and contextualize, by which he brought television sports reporting very close to the kind of in-depth reporting one expected from hard news reporters. (More than once he was called "The Edward R. Murrow of sportscasting.") At the same time, however, his distinctive voice (reminiscent of actor W.C. Fields), accent, and syntax were a form of color commentary all their own.

Cosell earned his greatest enmity from the public when he backed Ali after the boxer's championship title was stripped from him for refusing military service during the Vietnam War. Cosell found vindication several years later when he was the one able to inform Ali that the United States Supreme Court had unanimously ruled in favor of Ali.

In February 1970, he was calling a world heavyweight title bout involving Joe Frazier and Jimmy Ellis for ABC's Wide World of Sports when he made a call that would sound familiar to another boxer just three years later.

Down Goes Ellis! Down Goes Ellis! He is beaten!

Perhaps his most famous call took place in the fight between Joe Frazier and George Foreman in Kingston, Jamaica in 1973. When Foreman knocked Frazier to the mat, Cosell yelled out

Down Goes Frazier! Down Goes Frazier! Down Goes Frazier!

This became one of the most famous lines in sports history.

One of Cosell's earliest boxing calls, that seems to have become forgotten, came when he was on radio, calling the first Cassius Clay - Sonny Liston fight. When, at the start of the seventh round, Liston sat on his stool refusing to answer the bell, Cosell, started screaming, "Wait a minute! Wait a minute! Sonny Liston's not coming out! Sonny Liston's not coming out! He's out! The winner and new heavyweight champion of the world is Cassius Clay!" At that point, he says that Les Keiter (his announcing partner) is heading up to the center of the ring.

[edit] Monday Night Football/Later career

In 1970, ABC executive producer for sports Roone Arledge hired Cosell to be a commentator for Monday Night Football, the first time that American football was broadcast weekly in prime time. Cosell was accompanied most of the time by ex-football players Frank Gifford and "Dandy" Don Meredith.

Cosell was openly contemptuous of ex-athletes appointed to prominent sportscasting roles solely on account of their playing fame, coining the term "jockocracy" to describe the ever increasing practice. He regularly clashed on-air with Meredith, whose folksy country demeanor was a sharp contrast to Cosell's intellectualism.

The Cosell-Meredith dynamic helped make Monday Night Football the first weekly prime time sports program; it frequently was the number one rated program in the Nielsen ratings. Cosell's inimitable style distinguished Monday Night Football from previous sports programming, and ushered in an era of more colorful broadcasters and 24/7 TV sports coverage.

[edit] Olympics

Along with Monday Night Football, Cosell worked the Olympics for ABC. He played a key role on ABC's coverage of the terror attacks on the Israeli athletes in Munich in 1972, reporting from the Olympic village. In Montreal in 1976, Cosell was the main voice for boxing. He announced the gold medal victory of Sugar Ray Leonard.

Ronald Reagan (left) chats with Howard Cosell during Game 1 of the 1983 World Series.
Ronald Reagan (left) chats with Howard Cosell during Game 1 of the 1983 World Series.

[edit] "The Bronx is Burning"

Game 2 of the 1977 World Series took place in blustery Yankee Stadium on October 12, 1977. An hour or so before game time, a fire started in Public School Number 3, an abandoned elementary school a few blocks from the ball park. By the time the game began at 8 p.m., the building was fully involved and the fire had gone to five alarms. A helicopter-mounted camera lingered on the scene for a few seconds and Cosell, who was calling the series for ABC, intoned in a weary voice, "There it is, ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning."

Cosell misidentified the building as a tenement, many of which had indeed burned down in recent years as landlords fled the borough and burned their buildings for the insurance money. Cosell's comment seemed to capture the widespread sensibility that New York was on the skids and in a permanent state of decline. Author Jonathan Mahler truncated the quote and used it as the title for his 2005 book on New York in 1977, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning.

[edit] Lennon's death

At 11:30 p.m. on December 8, 1980, during a game between the Miami Dolphins and the New England Patriots, Cosell stunned millions by announcing the murder of John Lennon live while performing his regular commentating duties on Monday Night Football:

This, we have to say it, is just a football game, no matter who wins or loses. An unspeakable tragedy confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City: John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the West Side of New York City, the most famous perhaps of all The Beatles, shot five times in the back, rushed to Roosevelt Hospital, dead ... on ... arrival.

Lennon had appeared on Monday Night Football during the December 8, 1975 telecast (coincidentally, five years before to the day), and was interviewed for a short breakaway segment by Cosell.

[edit] Non-sports related appearances

Cosell's colorful personality and distinctive nasal voice were featured to fine comic effect in a sports-themed episode of the ABC TV series The Odd Couple, as well as in the Woody Allen film Bananas. Such was his renown that while he never appeared on the show, Cosell's name was frequently used as an all-purpose answer on the popular 1970s game show Match Game.

Cosell's national fame was further boosted in the fall of 1975 when Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell aired late Saturday nights on ABC. The show was similar in many ways to a show NBC had launched, NBC's Saturday Night, which would later become the far more well-known Saturday Night Live. Despite bringing a young comedian, Billy Crystal, to national prominence, the show was cancelled after three months. Cosell later hosted the 1984-1985 season finale of Saturday Night Live.

Beginning in 1976, Cosell hosted the series of specials known as Battle of the Network Stars. The two-hour specials pitted stars from each of the three broadcast networks against each other in various physical and mental competitions. Cosell hosted all but one of the nineteen specials, including the final one airing in 1988.

[edit] Controversy

[edit] Denouncing boxing

Cosell denounced professional boxing in 1982 after a brutal, one-sided fight between Larry Holmes and Randall "Tex" Cobb. This is controversial because he was an establishment figure acting and talking ahead of the curve in this regard. Late in the fight, Cosell famously asked the rhetorical question,

I wonder if that referee is constructing an advertisement for the abolition of the very sport that he is a part of?

[edit] The "little monkey" incident

Cosell drew criticism during one Monday Night Football telecast in September 1983, for stating "that little monkey gets loose, doesn't he," when he referred to a play by wide receiver Alvin Garrett of the Washington Redskins. While some saw "little monkey" as a racial slur, others who knew Cosell were quick to point out that he used this term routinely in an approving way to describe quicker, smaller players of all ethnicities. Among the evidence to support this claim is video footage of a 1972 preseason game, between the New York Giants and the Kansas City Chiefs, that features Cosell referring to Mike Adamle, a 5-foot-9-inch, 197-pound Caucasian, as a "little monkey."

Perhaps due to the strain of this controversy, Cosell left Monday Night Football shortly before the start of the 1984 NFL season, claiming that the NFL had "become a stagnant bore." His duties were then reduced to only baseball, horse racing, and a sports news program called Sportsbeat. Howard Cosell never got a chance to commentate a Super Bowl, as by the time ABC finally got into the Super Bowl rotation with Super Bowl XIX, Cosell was already gone from Monday Night Football.

[edit] I Never Played the Game

After writing the book I Never Played the Game, which chronicled his disenchantment with fellow commentators on Monday Night Football, among other things, he was taken off scheduled announcing duties for the 1985 World Series (Tim McCarver subsequently took his spot) and was released by ABC television shortly thereafter. In I Never Played the Game Cosell coined the word "jockocracy" to describe how athletes were given announcing jobs that they had not earned.

In his later years, Cosell briefly hosted his own television talk show, Speaking of Everything, authored his last book What's Wrong With Sports, and continued to appear on radio and television, becoming more outspoken about his criticisms of sports in general.

[edit] Later life

After his wife of 46 years, Mary Edith Abrams Cosell, known as "Emmy", died in the fall of 1990, Cosell appeared in public less and less until his passing away in 1995 from a heart embolism, at the age of 77 at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. He was survived by 2 daughters and 6 grandchildren.

[edit] Cultural references

  • The Muppets and the cartoon Codename: Kids Next Door each featured people who were an imitation of Cosell.
  • The video game Crash Tag Team Racing features two anthropomorphic chicken sports commentators named Chick and Stew Gizzard Lips, who serve as comic relief. Chick Gizzard Lips seems to have the voice and personality of Cosell.
  • The song "Boxing" by Ben Folds Five from their eponymous first album is a tribute to the late Howard Cosell.
  • In the 1985 movie Better Off Dead, protagonist Lane Meyer played by John Cusack often races against two Asian brothers, one of whom speaks in the style of Cosell, having learned English from watching the sportscaster on television.
Which is better, Meyer asks, speaking no English at all, or speaking Howard Cosell?

Cosell's voice was provided by legendary impressionist Rich Little. Little would later appear on the episode "Raging Bender" of the animated series Futurama as a wrestling announcer, modeling his speaking style on Cosell's.

  • Cosell plays himself in two episodes of the television series The Odd Couple starring Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. Always seen battling with Klugman's character Oscar Madison, he once referred to Felix Unger (Randall's character) as an "inane drone." Translation according to Felix: "a dull bee."
  • Cosell was the butt of many jokes on mid-1970s game show hit, Match Game.
  • In an episode of the Warner Bros./Fox Kids Network 1991 weekday Beetlejuice cartoon, the pilot weekday episode featured a bodybuilding contest with "Howard Grossnell" as the commentator.
  • The feature film Ali features Jon Voight as Howard Cosell to a very close degree, enough to earn him an Academy Award nomination.
  • Cosell appears as himself in the 1971 film Bananas with Woody Allen. He played a sportscaster covering the assassination of a foreign leader at the start of the film and the consummation of Allen's character's marriage at the end. (He was said to be uneasy about doing that role, fearing it would be distasteful, but Allen was persuasive).
  • Cosell had a cameo of sorts in Allen's 1973 film Sleeper. Awakening 200 years in the future, Allen's character is shown a clip of a Cosell commentary, and asked to confirm whether watching clips like these were a form of punishment for wrongdoers. He confirms it.
  • The TNT feature film Monday Night Mayhem is about Cosell and the genesis of Monday Night Football on ABC in 1970. Cosell is portrayed by John Turturro.
  • Through the use of body doubles and old sound clips Cosell was able to help call the three fictitious games produced by NFL Films for their 1999 Matchup of the Millennium series.

[edit] Quotation

"Sports is human life in microcosm." Howard Cosell

[edit] External links



Persondata
NAME Cosell, Howard William
ALTERNATIVE NAMES Cohen, Howard William
SHORT DESCRIPTION American sportscaster
DATE OF BIRTH March 25, 1918
PLACE OF BIRTH Winston-Salem, North Carolina
DATE OF DEATH April 23, 1995
PLACE OF DEATH New York, New York
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