Book Review: 'Howard Cosell' by Mark Ribowsky


Books about sports personalities often arrive without a hint of necessity, but occasionally one that seems to be responding to zero popular demand becomes a landmark just on the skill and will of the author.

David Maraniss' 1999 volume "When Pride Still Mattered," the Vince Lombardi epic that emerged some 30 years after the coach's death, succeeded on the author's meticulous research and elegant, humanizing prose.

It's a bumpier ride that Mark Ribowsky takes us on in "Howard Cosell: The Man, the Myth, and the Transformation of American Sports," but the work is just as remarkable in its way. There being no good reason to bring Cosell's shtick back to the American consciousness in all its bloviating pomposity, these 448-pages instead chronicle a ruinous psychology crossing paths with a convulsing culture at a time when the media itself was deep into redefinition.

Mr. Ribowsky's book is uniquely sad.

Frankenstein sad.

Here again a monster roams the landscape, or in this case the sportscape, reveling in his singular enormity but ultimately shattered by the horror he engenders. How can so many dislike him when he's the biggest thing around?

As we look in on Cosell entering the Olympic Village at Montreal in 1976, we find him telling the young female guard checking his credentials (four years after fatal security lapses in Munich, mind you), "My dear, I have a very important interview in the village. I am perilously close to being late and I cannot abide tardiness. Now if you'll excuse me." Striding through the gate, he is stopped again. "My dear, I'll have you fired. I'm the single most recognizable figure in television today, and I will not tolerate this kind of infantile behavior."

No one, it seemed, at least no one so famous, could ever out-infantile Howard Cosell. From a distance, my perspective as a just-then beginning journalist with Cosell's career at its peak, was that I actually liked him. He was like nobody else, which counted for a lot, I thought, and besides, who talked like that?

Telling Tom Snyder why he left his law practice, Cosell actually said, "It wasn't for me dispositionally. I needed immediacy, inhibitorily." It's a little funny that Mr. Ribowsky needles Cosell for his "fifty-cent words" as the author is sitting behind stacks of half-dollars here himself -- desideratum, scabrousness, ineluctably, tsuris and consanguinity all find their way into this text, and all well-played.

Local readers will find both Beano Cook and the late Myron Cope in these pages, both with typical insight, but a quote from Mr. Cook helps get to the conflicted nature of perhaps America's most reviled broadcaster ever.

"You can't avoid the fact that a lot of the anti-Howard stuff is anti-Semitic," says Mr. Cook, the longtime publicist at Cosell-dominated ABC. "All I ever hear is, 'The Jews run television.' And he's such a visible target. People who don't like me on television say I'm irreverent. I know damn well if my name were Goldstein, they wouldn't say I'm irreverent, they'd say I was another wise-ass Jew like that Howard Cosell."

Cosell's titanic emotional struggles with his own heritage, with religion, with alcohol, with criticism, with what he termed "the jockocracy," and ultimately with his own galloping insecurity easily fill Mr. Ribowsky's perfectly balanced narrative.

For every attempt, most of them successful, at describing the ways in which Cosell (who died in 1995) changed journalism, entertainment, even race relations, Mr. Ribowsky provides a searing denunciation from both literal and literate ringsiders.

"I have tried very hard to like Howard Cosell," he quotes the late, great New York columnist Red Smith. "And I've failed."

Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, the former boxing analyst, delivers an overhand right that encases the vitriol found just about everywhere in the text, describing Cosell as "nothing, a joke, a self-imposed windbag."

Many of the early reviews of Mr. Ribowsky's effort will center on Cosell's drinking, only discussed episodically in previous volumes. Here we find Cosell kept off the air during the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics because his bosses found him too addled by drink to deliver the story. Jim McKay more than filled the requirements, but Cosell never forgave the brass at ABC.

Not until the murder of John Lennon eight years later, Mr. Ribowsky writes, did Cosell find the story that allowed him to display his broadcasting gravitas. Interrupting the play-by-play of a football game that December, Cosell broke the news to the nation.

"An unspeakable tragedy. Confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City. John Lennon, the most famous, perhaps, of all of the Beatles. Shot twice in the back. Rushed to Roosevelt Hospital."

He paused.

"Dead ... on ... arrival."

This was not long after Cosell, his brand a bit diminished but his ego unchecked, hosted an ill-fated variety show from the Ed Sullivan Theater and actually thought he could get the Beatles back together for it.

"You know what's going to make this show? Me -- the born superstar," Cosell said. "They didn't give me looks, but they gave me an absolute monopoly on brains and talent."

That Cosell was a collaborate force in the whirling controversial vortex that was Muhammad, and that Cosell was an important figure during the explosion of sports television in the 1970s both are proven definitively in these pages, but the lasting message is only that were there a Common Insecurity Hall of Fame, Cosell would have gone in on the first ballot.

"Howard," ABC co-worker Don Ohlmeyer says, "was one of the most insecure people I ever met in my life. He was unbelievably insecure, and that bravado was a classic psychological overcompensation for it."

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