Stories about Cosell tell it like it is, too


There are probably as many Howard Cosell stories floating around as there are number of days the man trod the earth, which was in excess of 28,000 when he died Sunday.

Here are a few of them, none of which either individually or collectively are designed to give us insight as to what manner of man Cosell was. If we couldn't come up with a satisfactory answer between 1953 and 1993, the years of his extremely public life, there's little chance of it occurring now.

Of his oft-stated suggestion that he was the first person since Aristotle "To tell it like it is," New York columnist Jimmy Cannon wrote, "He's the first guy to put on a toupee and change his name [from Cohen] to 'tell it like it is.' " Howard's reply: "Cannon is washed up."

Picking a fight with the print media was nothing shy of a stroke of genius by Cosell. He assured himself nonstop publicity knowing sportswriters and, by osmosis, fans would be ever on the alert for mistakes to let the air out of his ego.

Cosell was working a tennis event with Arthur Ashe one time and Roscoe Tanner was one of the participants. After calling Tanner "Chuck" (as in Chuck Tanner, baseball manager) about 15 times, Ashe, who was polite almost to a fault, said, "Howard, Tanner's name is Roscoe." Without missing a beat, Cosell instructed, "I knew that, Arthur, but that's what players on tour call Roscoe, 'Chuck.' "

Yes, he was slow to admit to mistake. In fact, memory can recall not one instance of it ever happening. He once said no one knew more about tennis than he, but he drew a blank when the name Dick Savitt was mentioned.

Cosell, a hit on the speaking circuit, had three talks that were positively devastating. The subjects were Jackie Roosevelt Robinson, Muhammad Ali and Vincent T. Lombardi, confidants of Howard all, of course. Just the way he said the names, in a dramatic low rumble that used to take 10 seconds, held listeners spellbound.

Howard had delivered the Lombardi eulogy to the Brigade of Midshipmen at Navy, the effect being the same as if the Secretary of the Navy had just announced the U.S. had been attacked, and I was giving him a ride to Friendship Airport (this was quite a while ago). He told me solemnly, "Baltimore has no pride."

Asked how he arrived at that conclusion after perhaps a half-dozen one-day visits over the years, Cosell acted as if I was questioning his legitimacy. He maintained his near contempt for the city for years, pointing out when a bank of lights went out during a baseball game due to electrical problems that, "This wouldn't happen in a major-league city."

This earned him or, more accurately, his limousine a garbage and trash shower from fans every time he was seen leaving Memorial Stadium following a "Monday Night Football" game or a big baseball confrontation.

Also, he was constantly reminded thereafter that it was his beloved New York that acted in a non-major league city fashion by going completely dark on occasion.

There are countless stories about how Cosell allegedly used boxing to further his own ends and bank account, but the man truly loved the fight game, amateur division.

When he was at the boxing venue, he was all business, watching nearly every round of the 300 bouts contested.

The pro game, save for his partnering up with Ali, an event he referred to as "a serendipitous confluence of egos," was never really his bag despite, as he often revealed "my creation of Sugar Ray Leonard at the 1976 Olympics."

As for pro football, Howard gave as much as he got. Same goes for his longtime employer ABC.

Cosell's feud with the print media actually proceeded his emergence to almost presidential visibility when, on the eve of Super Bowl III, he proclaimed to the world that "the New York Jets are a fraud being perpetrated on the public by one sportswriter, Dick Young."

Chances are very good that a huge percentage of listeners weren't aware of Young's existence, but he and Howard were as big as the mayor of the Big Apple and that's all that seemed to matter.

Naturally, there were holes in Howard's knowledge of the sports events he was called upon to cover, it's inevitable. While never admitting to them, he made the situation worse by thrusting himself into the middle of almost anything going on.

His "I had lunch today with Gabe Paul [general manager and part owner of the Yankees at the time]," was actually standing up at a table with all the seats occupied at a buffet feeding of the media in a tent on the parking lot across the street from the stadium.

Words were not only Cosell's bread and butter, they were his passion.

Same goes for the late Dayton sports editor Si Burick, who collected equivocations, non sequiturs, etc. It was Howard who made Si's collection complete when, during a football game, he actually said, "let us reflect back nostalgically on the past." Burick called it "the elusive four-bagger."

One of the last times I encountered Howard face-to-face was at the Cross Keys Inn where I was seeking out ABC play-by-play man Al Michaels. Just before crossing paths in a corridor, Cosell gave indication that he had forgotten something back in the room.

By the time I passed him at his door, he was having a terrible time getting the key into the lock due to the Parkinson's disease that made his hands shake badly.

I said, "let me do that," literally snatching the keys from his hand. The task accomplished, he was obviously stuck for words. A simple thank you probably wasn't in his vocabulary, so he said, "I suppose I'll have to read about this [incident] in the newspaper tomorrow."

I had resumed my search for Michaels' room when down the hallway after me came, "I'm sorry." The knees buckled. Had this man ever uttered those words outside his home?

Deep down, every supposed avowed enemy of Cosell, the sportswriter, will admit it was great fun having Howard at any event.

He was often better than the event itself, which is always what he tried to be. There was never any false pretense with the man, he truly believed he was special.

And you know what, he was.

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