#67 Howard Cosell

Howard Cosell

(1918 - 1995)


Howard Cosell (born Howard William Cohen on March 25, 1918, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, died April 23, 1995 in New York City) was a well-known sports journalist on American television. His abrasive personality, propensity for malapropisms and other subtle misuse of the English language and distinctive nasally voice made him, according to one poll, both the most-liked and most-hated television reporter in the country.

Cosell's parents had wanted him to become a lawyer. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in English from New York University, he entered that institution's law school and earned a law degree. He was admitted to the New York state bar in 1941, but entered the United States Army Transportation Corps, where he was promoted to the rank of major. During his time in the service, he married Mary Abrams in 1944.

After the war, Cosell began practicing law in Manhattan. Some of his clients were actors, and some were athletes, including Willie Mays. He also represented the Little League of New York, when in 1953 an ABC Radio manager asked him to host a show 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.

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. At the time 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 earned his greatest emnity 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 1970, American Broadcasting Company executive producer for sports Roone Arledge hired Cosell to be a commentator for Monday Night Football, the first time that American football was broadcast in prime time. Cosell was accompanied most of the time by ex-football players Frank Gifford and Don Meredith.

Cosell's distinctive personality was 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 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.

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.

At 11:30 PM on December 8, 1980, Cosell stunned millions by announcing the murder of 40-year old former Beatles member John Lennon live while performing his regular commentating duties on Monday Night Football.

Cosell denounced professional boxing in 1982 after a brutal, one-sided fight between Larry Holmes and Randall Cobb. He drew criticism during one Monday Night Football telecast in September 1983, for calling a wide receiver for the Washington Redskins, Alvin Garrett, a "little monkey." (While some saw the term as having a racial connotation, Cosell used it as a term of approval for quicker, smaller players, and indeed had used it in the past for a white player as well.) 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.

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 and was released by ABC television shortly thereafter. In his latter 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.

After his wife of 56 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 from a heart embolism, possibly related to the cancer he had been battling in recent years, at the age of 77 at his home in New York City. He was survived by 2 daughters and 5 grandchildren.

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