|Born||Howard William Cohen
March 25, 1918
Winston-Salem, North Carolina, United States
|Died||April 23, 1995 (aged 77)
New York City, United States
|Occupation||Journalist, author, radio personality, columnist, sports commentator, lawyer, television personality|
|Spouse(s)||Mary Edith Abrams "Emmy" Cosell 1944–1990
|Children||Jill Cosell, Hillary Cosell|
Howard William Cosell (pronounced /koʊˈsɛl/; born Howard William Cohen; March 25, 1918 – April 23, 1995) was an American sports journalist.
Cosell was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina to Nellie and Isidore Cohen, who was an accountant. He was raised in Brooklyn, New York. His parents had wanted him to become a lawyer. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in English from New York University, where he was a member of Pi Lambda Phi. He then went to the New York University School of Law where he earned his JD, and was a member of the NYU Law Review.
|Howard William Cosell|
|March 25, 1918 – April 23, 1995|
|Place of birth||Winston-Salem, North Carolina|
|Place of death||New York City, New York|
|Service/branch||United States Army|
|Years of service||1941–1945|
|Unit||United States Army Transportation Corps|
|Battles/wars||World War II|
|Other work||Lawyer, sportscaster|
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, at Prospect Presbyterian Church in Maplewood, New Jersey.
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. The show marked the beginning of a relationship with WABC and ABC Radio that would last his entire broadcasting career. Cosell hosted the Little League show for three years without pay, and then decided to leave the law field to become a full-time broadcaster. He approached Robert Pauley, President of ABC Radio, with a proposal for a weekly show. Pauley told him the network could not afford to develop untried talent, but he would be put on the air if he would get a sponsor. To Pauley's surprise, Cosell came back with a relative's shirt company as a sponsor, and "Speaking of Sports" was born.
Cosell took his "tell-it-like-it-is" approach when he teamed with the ex-Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher "Big Numba Thirteen" Ralph Branca on WABC-77's pre- and post-game radio shows of the New York Mets in their nascent years beginning in 1962. He pulled no punches in taking members of the hapless expansion team to task.
Otherwise 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. He expanded his commentary beyond sports to a radio show entitled "Speaking of Everything".
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 complemented 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 use of analysis and context arguably brought television sports reporting very close to the kind of in-depth reporting one expected from "hard" news reporters. At the same time, however, his distinctive staccato voice, accent, syntax, and cadence 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.
Cosell called most of Ali's fights immediately before and after the boxer returned from his three-year exile in October 1970. Those fights were broadcast on taped delay usually a week after they were transmitted on closed circuit. However, Cosell was passed over for perhaps his biggest assignment of his career, the first Ali-Joe Frazier bout in March 1971. Promoter Jerry Perenchio selected actor Burt Lancaster, who had never provided color commentary for a fight, to work the bout with longtime announcer Don Dunphy and former light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore. Cosell attended that fight as a spectator only. He would do a voiceover of that bout, when it was shown on ABC a few days before the second Ali-Frazier bout in January 1974. He never uttered the phrase, "Ali is down! Ali is down! He was KO'd." Ali was knocked down for a count of four in the 15th round of the first Frazier bout, but went the distance, losing a 15-round unanimous decision in "The Fight of the Century."
Perhaps his most famous call took place in the fight between Joe Frazier and George Foreman for the World Heavyweight Championship in Kingston, Jamaica in 1973. When Foreman knocked Frazier to the mat the first of six times, roughly two minutes into the first round, Cosell yelled out
|“||Down Goes Frazier! Down Goes Frazier! Down Goes Frazier!||”|
His call of Frazier's first trip to the mat became one of the most quoted phrases in American sports broadcasting history. Foreman beat Frazier by a TKO in 2 to win the World Heavyweight Championship.
Cosell also was an ABC commentator for the television broadcast of the famous 1973 "Battle of the Sexes" Tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billy Jean King.
During Cosell's tenure as a sportscaster, he maintained a feuding stance with legendary New York sportswriter and columnist Dick Young, who rarely missed an opportunity to denigrate the broadcaster in print.
Cosell, according to longtime ABC racecaster Chris Economaki, "had an enormous and monumental ego, and may have been the most pompous man I've ever met." Cosell ripped Economaki for a miscue in an interview with Cale Yarborough for ABC "(and he) never let me forget that." At an ABC Christmas party Economaki's wife asked to be introduced to Cosell and Chris said, "'Howard, for some inexplicable reason my wife wants to meet you...' and it (ticked) him off to no end. He really took it personally."
In 1970, ABC executive producer for sports Roone Arledge hired Cosell to be a commentator for Monday Night Football, the first time in 15 years 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. He regularly clashed on-air with Meredith, whose laid-back style was in sharp contrast to Cosell's.
The Cosell-Meredith-Gifford dynamic helped make Monday Night Football a success; 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.
Along with Monday Night Football, Cosell worked the Olympics for ABC. He played a key role on ABC's coverage of the Palestinian terror group Black September's mass murder of Israeli athletes in Munich at the 1972 Summer Olympics; providing reportage directly from the Olympic Village (his image can be seen and voice heard in Steven Spielberg's film about the terror attack). In the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal, and the 1984 games in Los Angeles, Cosell was the main voice for boxing.
For years Cosell was widely attributed with saying "There it is, ladies and gentlemen, The Bronx is burning." during Game 2 of the 1977 World Series, which 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 engulfed and the fire had gone to five alarms. In the bottom of the first inning, aerial coverage picked up the burning building a few blocks away from Yankee Stadium.
In 2005, author Jonathan Mahler published Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning, a book on New York in 1977, and credited Cosell with saying the title quote during the aerial coverage of the fire. ESPN produced a 2007 mini-series based on the book called The Bronx is Burning. Cosell's comment seemed to capture the widespread sensibility that New York was on the skids and in a permanent state of decline, but time would prove that the comment was too good to be true.
The truth was discovered after Major League Baseball published a complete DVD set of all of the games of the 1977 World Series. Coverage of the fire begins with Keith Jackson commenting on the large size of the blaze, while Cosell added that President Carter had visited that area just days before. As the top of the second inning began, the fire was once again shown from a helicopter-mounted camera, and Cosell commented that the New York Fire Department had a hard job to do in the Bronx. In the bottom of the second, Cosell informed the audience that it was an abandoned building that was burning and no lives were in danger. There was no further comment on the fire, and Cosell appears to have never said "The Bronx is Burning" on camera during Game 2.
When the producers of the mini-series pressed Mahler on the quote he finally admitted that it never occurred. Mahler's confusion could have arisen from a 1974 documentary entitled "The Bronx is Burning": it is likely Mahler confused the documentary with his recollection of Cosell's comments when writing his book.
On the night of 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:
|“||Yes, we have to say it. Remember this 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 of The Beatles, shot twice in the back, rushed to Roosevelt Hospital, dead on arrival.||”|
Lennon was actually shot four times. Facts on the shooting were not clear at the time.
Lennon had appeared on Monday Night Football during the December 9, 1974 telecast of a 23-17 Washington Redskins win over the Los Angeles Rams and was interviewed for a short breakaway segment by Cosell.
Cosell's colorful personality and distinctive voice were featured to fine comedic effect in several sports-themed episodes of the ABC TV series The Odd Couple, as well as in the Woody Allen films Bananas and (in a brief cameo) Sleeper. Such was his celebrity 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 also had a cameo in the 1988 movie Johnny Be Good featuring Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Michael Hall and Uma Thurman.
Cosell's national fame was further boosted in the fall of 1975 when Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell aired on Saturday evenings on ABC. This was an hour-long variety show, broadcast live from the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City and hosted by Cosell, which is not to be confused with the NBC series Saturday Night Live (which coincidentally also premiered in 1975 under its original title of NBC's Saturday Night). Despite bringing a young comedian, Billy Crystal, to national prominence and for showcasing the American TV debut of the Bay City Rollers, Cosell's show was canceled after three months. Cosell later hosted the 1984-1985 season finale of Saturday Night Live.
Beginning in 1976, Cosell hosted a 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.
Cosell denounced professional boxing in a November 26, 1982 bout between Larry Holmes and a clearly out-matched Randall "Tex" Cobb at the Astrodome. The fight was held two weeks after the fatal fight between Ray Mancini and Duk Koo Kim, and Cosell famously asked the rhetorical question,
|“||I wonder if that referee (Steve Crosson) is [conducting] an advertisement for the abolition of the very sport that he is a part of?||”|
Cosell, horrified over the brutality of the one-sided fight said that if the referee did not stop the fight, that he would never broadcast a professional fight again. Richard Green, who officiated the fatal Mancini-Kim fight two weeks earlier and was the reason for Cosell's concern, committed suicide less than a year after Cosell's remark on July 1, 1983.
Major boxing reforms were implemented, the most important of which allows referees to stop clearly one-sided fights early in order to protect the health of the fighters, while in amateur boxing, one-sided fights automatically stopped when one fighter had a score considerably higher than his opponent. Hitherto, only the "ring" physician had had such authority. Another change was the reduction of championship bouts from 15 rounds (the fatal blows to Kim were in Rounds 13 and 14) to 12 rounds by the WBC. The WBA and WBO did the same quickly, and the IBF did so in 1988.
Cosell did not cut off ties with the United States Amateur Boxing Federation, and continued calling in 1984 the Olympic Trials, Box-Offs, and the 1984 Summer Olympics boxing tournament, with the professional debuts of these boxers being his last professional call of the sport.
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 alongside Al Michaels and Jim Palmer) 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.
Cosell was the 1995 recipient of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. 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 Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City.
Cosell was placed as number one on David J. Halberstam's list of Top 50 All Time Network Television Sports Announcers on Yahoo! Sports.
Howard William Cosell (March 25, 1918 – April 23, 1995), born Howard William Cohen, 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.
Miles Monroe (Woody Allen): "Yes. That's exactly what that was."