Howard Cosell, who died in 1995, ruled sports broadcasting from the 1960s until the 1980s. He commentated on Monday Night Football from its inception, called boxing's biggest fights, and popped up on Olympics and baseball telecasts, too. In his new book, Howard Cosell: The Man, the Myth, and the Transformation of American Sports, author Mark Ribowsky expertly traces Cosell's rise and fall. We'll have more describing Cosell's heyday later, but, for now, his nadir.
During the 1984 American League Championship Series between the Detroit Tigers and the Kansas City Royals, Cosell and play-by-play man Al Michaels took to sniping at each other, though what viewers didn't know was that Cosell had been drinking during the game. After Michaels disagreed with a point he made, believing Cosell's explanation of a baseball strategy "made no sense," Cosell waited until after the game before telling the even then respected announcer that he would never be a good broadcaster until he "learned to take a stand," implying the latter was too soft on tough issues and on players and owners. Michaels, who personally liked Cosell, snapped back, "You're drunk . . . You're ruining the fucking telecast," adding, "You ever come in like that again, I'm not gonna work with you." Needing a good stiff belt himself, he then went into the press room and asked for a large vodka. The apologetic bartender poured the glass only a quarter full—all Cosell had left him.
The next day, Michaels's agent, Barry Frank, called ABC executive Jim Spence and said his client could no longer "tolerate" Cosell. Spence, who maintained in his memoirs that he had often pulled Cosell out of such a fire, with scarce gratitude in return, did what he and Roone Arledge always did about such flare-ups: nothing.
There was still tension between him and Michaels when Cosell did several Monday Night Baseball games during the 1985 season. Then, with the World Series days away, and Cosell taunting ABC on a near-daily basis as he promoted his book, I Never Played the Game, Spence at long last had had enough. If Arledge had ducked out on dealing with Cosell, Spence could no longer let him slide. While ABC had never allowed the baseball or football establishment to have a veto on broadcasters, Cosell for years could count on Bowie Kuhn, who, inversely to Pete Rozelle, had gone from critic to crony. But Kuhn had been fired by the owners in September 1984, and his replacement, travel industry CEO and Olympic organizer Peter Ueberroth, had little affinity for Cosell, who clearly had used up all his chits. Another factor was that, according to Cosell's contract, he was to be paid $20,000 for every baseball game he broadcast. That was something Arledge suddenly thought important; in an April memo to Bob Apter, ABC's financial controller, he wrote: "Howard may be too expensive for our B.B. package."
In the end, Spence made the call: Cosell would not be used for the World Series, played between Gussie Busch's Cardinals and the cross-state Kansas City Royals. His place as analyst would be taken by Tim McCarver, the former Cardinals and Phillies catcher who was moved up from working as a roving grandstand reporter. McCarver was a personable, keenly perceptive, and articulate man who broke Cosell's stereotypical "dumb jock" mold, and with his entrance as a full-time color analyst, few mourned or noticed Cosell's exit. As a result, says Dennis Lewin, "I don't think Howard was ever fired. He half resigned and was half forced out."
After the Series, Lewin was quoted by USA Today TV critic Rudy Martzke as saying the broadcasts were better without Cosell. Aghast when he saw the quotes attributed to him, Lewin immediately called Cosell and told him he'd been badly misquoted. Disinterestedly, Cosell told him, "I don't care what you said," and hung up. "I think," Lewin concludes, "by then Howard thought calling games of any kind was beneath him, and accordingly, any criticism. I also think he had started ending friendships with people like me."
In Cosell's humble opinion, he still possessed big-time star quality. Only months before, in April, he had hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live, which reunited him with his "protégés" Billy Crystal and Christopher Guest. In his publicity campaign for I Never Played The Game, he was interviewed in the weekly newsmagazines, including U.S. News & World Report. Could any other sportscaster claim such diverse and impressive credits? Even with the eddy he'd created at ABC, even with no major sports events to call anymore, he figured that, he was far, far bigger than anyone who existed in his shadow. But while his shadow did indeed still loom large, he no longer had any real ability to see his own reflection.
Excerpted from the book Howard Cosell: The Man, the Myth, and the Transformation of American Sports. Copyright © 2011 by Mark Ribowsky. Excerpted with permission by W.W. Norton & Company.