BOOK REVIEW: ‘Howard Cosell’: How an Ambitious Brooklyn Lawyer Became a Sports Broadcasting Icon

  • Reviewed by Rene A. Henry
BOOK REVIEW: 'Howard Cosell': How an Ambitious Brooklyn Lawyer Became a Sports Broadcasting Icon

SEATTLE, WA   — Howard Cosell. You either loved him or hated him. And some fans did both.

Author Mark Ribowsky does a marvelous job of telling the reader how Howard Cohen, an ambitious Jewish lawyer in Brooklyn who was first interested in sports radio in the 1950s, became Howard Cosell and one of the most important figures in American sports in “Howard Cosell: The Man, the Myth and the Transformation of American Sports” by Mark Ribowsky (W.W. Norton & Co., 496 pages, 35 black and white illustrations, $29.95).

Ribowsky did extensive research and his book has nearly 30 pages of footnotes and bibliography that document how committed Cosell was to his wife and daughters, his insecurity and insatiable need for constant praise and recognition, his massive ego and alcoholism. The reader will see a little known side of Howard Cosell such as being one of the youngest majors in the U.S. Army when he virtually ran the Port of New York during World War II.

The author notes that at the height of his career Cosell had the highest Q rating in television and was always at the top of the lists of America’s most known, most liked and most hated. He tells how Cosell interacted with virtually every major sports figure during the last 40 years of the 20th Century and especially his close relationship with Muhammad Ali.

Chapters tell of the on-screen jousting and behind-the-scenes fighting with Frank Gifford and Don Meredith that made “Monday Night Football” one of the most watched and entertaining sports programs. Cosell never broadcast a Super Bowl game.

“His legendary insecurity played a role in the resentment and suspicion he had for fellow broadcasters and especially his fellow ABC broadcasters,” Ribowsky writes. His book says Cosell reveled in the crowds he attracted walking on the streets of New York and how he craved being with A-list celebrities that included Frank Sinatra, Johnny Carson, Woody Allen, Paul Anka, Karl Malden, John Lennon and Warren Beatty.

The book tells of his economic and ratings importance to ABC not only for “Monday Night Football” but “Wide World of Sports” and boxing and why his drinking problem may have cost him the opportunity to be on camera during the terror attack on Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympics. Cosell always fought anti-Semitism and racism and was a strong defender of the rights of many Black athletes.

One person quoted and cited more often than anyone else throughout the book was Jim Spence, who Cosell reported to along with Roone Arledge. Spence was #2 to Arledge and at ABC for more than 25 years, the last eight as senior vice president of ABC Sports. Ribowsky liberally used material from Spence’s 1988 book, “Up Close and Personal,” but never contacted Spence to talk with him.

“I had a terrific professional relationship and a very close, personal relationship with Howard,” Spence told this reviewer. “My wife and I had great times with Howard and Emmy and we often dined together.

“He was amazing. During the Mexico City Olympics in 1968 Howard did his radio shows from our television studio and as I recall he did four-minute pieces using a stopwatch and without notes or a script. His commentaries were brilliant and right on the button timewise.

“Later in his career he underwent a metamorphosis and changed as a person,” Spence continued. “He was one of the most intelligent individuals I ever met. He had everything going for him – a wife and family he dearly loved, he was an extremely wealthy man, as successful as any sportscaster had ever been, and better known than anyone in the history of American television sports. His caustic wit never changed, but he became a very angry man and difficult to work with. It was difficult to comprehend why he lashed out at everything and everyone was the enemy.

“I believe Howard felt he was under-appreciated and he was not happy as a fulfilled man would be. Being the most famous sportscaster ever was not enough. He wanted to be more than a sportscaster,” Spence told me. “He pressed Roone Arledge, when he also headed ABC News, to anchor the evening network news. He talked about running for the U.S. Senate in New York. He had a sense of frustration despite his enormous success.”

Since 2004 Spence has been teaching courses at The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. In the fall he teaches an undergraduate course in television sports and in the Spring, a shorter version for the Christopher Wren Association directed at people over 55. He said he loves opening his remarks to the seniors group by saying, “I am fully delighted to have people who have actually heard of Howard Cosell in class.”

The first time I met Howard Cosell was in the mid-1960s when I was in New York on business and my good friend Pete Kalison, who worked with him for five years at ABC, suggested we meet at the studio before having dinner. Pete was going over details with Cosell prior to his local TV sports show and being Saturday night, handed him a list of football scores. As the program started, Pete nudged me and said, “Watch this.” Cosell started giving the scores and there was no teleprompter or cue cards. “He had a photographic memory and could look at anything, read it, and then repeat it back to you word for word, not just at that moment, but a year later. He never used written notes or references on the air. It was all off the top of his head,” Kalison said.

After the show the three of us went across the street to Cosell’s favorite bar, Café Des Artistes, and little did I realize I was having drinks with someone who would become one of our greatest legends in sports and sports journalism.

“He never forgot a person’s name, even if they met just once for a few minutes,” said Kalison, who had been in senior management with the New York Yankees before joining ABC and went on to a successful career as an executive in the computer industry. “He knew the name of everyone who worked at ABC.

“One or two nights a week he would hold court at Café Des Artistes and the who’s who of sports would come by and join him,” Kalison added. “This included Jackie Robinson, Vince Lombardi, Leo Durocher and sportswriters Red Smith and Arthur Daley. He was one of the most fascinating people I have ever known.”

Another good friend of mine, Shelly Saltman, interfaced with Cosell on many occasions. Saltman, who was president of California Sports and later Fox Sports, worked many world championship boxing matches. “At the Foreman-Frazier fight in 1971 in Jamaica he broadcast the fight for a 30-day delay and groused that Roone Arledge, then president of ABC Sports, was wasting time and money because the fight was a mismatch. It was Frazier’s first fight after beating Ali in Madison Square Garden and Foreman was a proud, untested Olympic champion. Foreman knocked Frazier out in the second round and when the fight was rebroadcast Cosell boasted how Arledge and his bosses at ABC had the intelligence to listen to him and cover the momentous event.”

During the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Saltman was Co-Commissioner of Boxing. “In the eyes of the crews at ringside Howard was the ‘God of the Ring’ and he obnoxiously played the regal role to the hilt. Whenever he would become too much we looked to his wife Emmy and she would calm him down,” Saltman added. “He felt he knew everything, was pompous and took himself too seriously.”

In 1977 when I was a founding partner of ICPR, Los Angeles, one of our clients was the World Team Tennis League which had just signed Björn Borg, then the #1 tennis player in the world. Bob Steiner, the account executive arranged for a major press conference in New York at the “21” Club. He turned out the crème de la crème of sports journalists and the room was full when Cosell made his grand entrance. Bob looked at me and said, “Now we can start the press conference. He just made it a success!” Steiner went on to be a senior executive for Jerry Buss at California Sports.

“I loved Howard Cosell, I grew up listening to his Sunday night radio show “Speaking of Everything” and his coverage of Muhammad Ali and the Olympics,” said Greg Aiello, senior vice president of communications for the National Football League. “His presence on “Monday Night Football” when it was created signaled that it was a big deal. He was always interesting and entertaining. 

“Early in my career when I was assistant public relations director of the Dallas Cowboys I attended several ABC pre-production meetings,” Aiello continued. They didn’t last long and weren’t particularly productive. Don Meredith would joke around and not pay much attention. Frank Gifford would ask a few questions but then call you later to go into depth. And Howard would be Howard. I was sitting next to him at one meeting and out of nowhere he turned to me and said ‘You’re too big for this.’ I may have been 30 years old at the time. I thought it was very funny and certainly a moment that you remember from a legend like him.”

As part of his research Ribowsky interviewed a dozen or more people. I was surprised that he did not contact Jim Spence, Shelly Saltman and Greg Aiello or anyone at the NFL so through his publicist I asked “Why” and was told that the author was “too busy” to respond to my question. I then asked myself if his research was as thorough as I thought.

Howard Cosell died in 1995 but could be just the leader that the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Sports needs to bring the skyrocketing costs of college football under control. He would tell it like it is. One appropriate Cosellism is “The importance that our society attaches to sport is incredible. After all, is football a game or a religion? The people of this country have allowed sports to get completely out of hand.”

The book cites how Frank Deford, distinguished Hall of Fame sports journalist, once described Cosell: “Cosell isn’t television. He’s not audio. Howard Cosell is sports in our time. Feel sorry for the people who turned off the sound. The poor b*******s missed the game.”

I recommend the book for all sports fans.

Book reviewer Rene A. Henry lives in Seattle, Washington and is the author of eight books. A native of Charleston, WV, Henry writes on a variety of subjects including sports, crisis management and communications, travel and tourism, customer service and general business. Many of his articles are posted on his website at http://www.renehenry.com.


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