Friday, October 19, 2012

The Rise and Fall of Howard Cosell

I am old enough to remember when, in the mid-1950's, Howard Cosell gave up his job as a successful New York lawyer and began his radio show, "Speaking of Sports". At the time he seemed like a breath of fresh air, trying hard to bring some real journalism to the world of sports. Prior to Cosell, "sports journalism" was an oxymoron, as there was no effort among reporters to be objective and avoid hero worship of the athletes they covered. Cosell later switched to television, and when ABC landed the "Monday Night Football" contract, Cosell was instrumental in making MNF the insitution it became.

Cosell had a running feud with the print reporters, and in fact the title of his third book, "I Never Played the Game", comes from the frequent criticism leveled at Cosell by the writers that he didn't understand sports because "he never played the game". When this book came out in 1985, Cosell was already in a steep downhill slide toward irrelevancy. He had become completely disenchanted with his favorite sports, boxing and football, for reasons he details in the book. In 1982 he announced he would never cover another boxing match because of boxing's inherent brutality, and in 1983 he left Monday Night Football, saying the games all looked the same to him.

As ABC had acquired rights to some major league games, Cosell switched to baseball and was part of ABC's world series announcing team in 1979, 1981, and 1983. I watched those telecasts and Cosell was just awful. He had no feel for baseball, and in his first two books he had made it abundantly clear that he thought baseball was boring and worthless, destroying any credibility he might otherwise have had as a baseball announcer. Mercifully to viewers, ABC took him off baseball in 1985 after this book came out, and replaced him with Tim McCarver, a wonderful announcer who has since become a superstar and is now in the Baseball Hall of Fame for his great broadcasting.

Cosell's shtick was that he felt that "what happened on the field" was not all that interesting. Rather, he prided himself on getting the "stories behind the stories", i.e., talking about what was going on in the players' lives. How ironic, then, that his replacement, Tim McCarver, along with Tim's longtime broadcast partner Joe Buck, has shown us that what happens on the field can be terrible interesting. There is a saying that "baseball is only dull to dull minds", and by his brilliant success McCarver has demonstrated the truth of this aphorism, and the falsity of Cosell’s position.

Also ironic is that Tim McCarver, as an ex-player, was part of the so-called "jockocracy" that Cosell always railed against; Cosell felt that broadcasting jobs should go to people with journalism training, rather than to ex-jocks. McCarver's success shows the shallowness of this strongly-held belief by Cosell.

I recall an interview with Barbara Walters that Cosell did toward the end of his life. Barbara asked him "How do you want to be remembered." Cosell answered, "That's easy, as a good husband, a good father, and a good grandfather." Barbara: "Nothing about career". Cosell: "No, it's not important."

This odd statement really seems contradictory to all the pompous pronouncements Cosell made during his career about how important what he was doing was for the development of sports journalism. If what he was doing was ultimately unimportant, then why did he make such a big fuss about it?

Cosell died in 1995, a recluse during his last years, which seems odd for a person who always prided himself on what a close relationship he had, or at least claimed to have, with some of the people he covered. Sadly, he seems to have revealed himself in his later years to be a complete fraud. One suspects he would have been happier in life had he stuck with his original choice of profession.


Anonymous said...

Actually, what Cosell meant by "I never played the game" is the fact that he never gave in to corporate games or management pressure. He explains this in the book.

Cosell was a genius as documented recently here

Chuck said...

For the record: The term "jockocracy" was coined by sportswriter Robert Lipsyte, and only popularized by Howard Cosell.

I am a Cosell researcher. Also see:

Anonymous said...

"Tim McCarver, a wonderful announcer . . ."

I nearly fell over laughing when I read that statement.

chessart said...

Anonymous obviously agrees with Cosell about McCarver, but their opinion is clearly a minority one. The fact is that, starting in 1985 when McCarver took over from Cosell, every network that had the primary broadcast rights to MLB employed McCarver as its man for color commentary.

Many announcers are great at the second guess, 20-20 hindsight and all that. McCarver perfected the art of the "first guess". He would point out fielders that were playing out of position in advance of the plays that laid bare the mistake being made. I first became aware of this during the 1988 NLCS, when McCarver pointed out that the Dodgers center fielder was playing way too deep for Gary Carter, whose power had diminished considerably in 1988 from what it used to be in his heyday. Sure enough,Carter hit a little dink in front of the center fielder for a hit. McCarver has done this sort of thing numerous times, and to dislike McCarver is really to dislike baseball.

McCarver truly set the gold standard for baseball commentary, just as John Madden did for football, and Bud Collins for tennis.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great write up. I always hated listening to Howard Cosell as a kid and my Dad always called him an idiot, but I was too young to be truly invested in sports or sports journalism while he was relevent. I was surprised when I went to college in 1990 to find out there were people that loved the guy. I always wondered if I had missed some brilliance and was influenced by being from Pittsburgh where he was loathed or if I was right. In all I've read about him, from independent & bias sources makes it clear to me that he was a terrible broadcaster & journalist and that what made him so bad was precisely what he believed made him so great. As for McCarver, he's the perfect man to have in the booth for any major baseball game, and indeed baseball can be enjoyed on many levels, but to truly love it takes intelligence & attention to detail. One funny thing I noticed is that Canadians, for whatever reason, particularly hated Cosell and he continues to be the butt of jokes about awful journalism there to this day.