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Howard Cosell: The Man, the Myth, and the Transformation of American Sports

Overview

Howard Cosell was one of the most recognizable and controversial figures in American sports history. His colorful bombast, fearless reporting, and courageous stance on civil rights soon captured the attention of listeners everywhere. No mere jock turned "pretty-boy" broadcaster, the Brooklyn-born Cosell began as a lawyer before becoming a radio commentator. "Telling it like it is," he covered nearly every major sports story for three decades, from the travails of Muhammad Ali to the tragedy at Munich. Featuring a...

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Howard Cosell: The Man, the Myth, and the Transformation of American Sports

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Overview

Howard Cosell was one of the most recognizable and controversial figures in American sports history. His colorful bombast, fearless reporting, and courageous stance on civil rights soon captured the attention of listeners everywhere. No mere jock turned "pretty-boy" broadcaster, the Brooklyn-born Cosell began as a lawyer before becoming a radio commentator. "Telling it like it is," he covered nearly every major sports story for three decades, from the travails of Muhammad Ali to the tragedy at Munich. Featuring a sprawling cast of athletes such as Jackie Robinson, Sonny Liston, Don Meredith, and Joe Namath, Howard Cosell also re-creates the behind-the-scenes story of that American institution, Monday Night Football. With more than forty interviews, Mark Ribowsky presents Cosell's life as part of an American panorama, examining racism, anti-Semitism, and alcoholism, among other sensitive themes. Cosell's endless complexities are brilliantly explored in this haunting work that reveals as much about the explosive commercialization of sports as it does about a much-neglected media giant.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

"Wait a minute! Wait a minute! Sonny Liston's not coming out! Sonny Liston's not coming out! He's out! The winner and new heavyweight champion of the world is Cassius Clay!" We loved him, we loved to hate him, but stentorian sportscaster Howard Cosell (1918-1995) could not be ignored. In fact, at times, he became the story and famous athletes his accomplices. As Mark Ribowsky's biography vividly notes, Cosell helped change the face of televised sports with his Monday Night Football press-box dynamics and his ongoing dialogue with Muhammad Ali (a.k.a. Cassius Clay). For any old sports fan, this well-researched book will enhance your memories; for younger sports fans, it will give you a new sense of televised sports as we now see them.

Huffington Post
...[T]he first thoroughly researched and effectively framed biography of Cosell and his times...

Beyond its poignant depiction of a flawed, paranoid and narcissistic character with the uncanny talent to immerse himself entirely, almost supernaturally, into emerging events, Ribowsky's Howard Cosell makes crystal clear the entwined path of Cosell's epic career within the world of Big Time sports and its broadcasting partners, as they quite literally created the monstrosities they are today.— James Campion

New York Daily News
In Howard Cosell, author Mark Ribowsky reveals the obnoxious broadcaster who transformed sports reporting.— Sherryl Connelly
San Francisco Chronicle
Ribowsky has deftly captured this complicated figure, and anyone who cares about sports and how we talk about sports will find this book well worth the time, no matter how off-putting its subject was to many.— Steve Kettman
Kirkus Reviews
You could make a case that Howard Cosell (1918–1995) was the single most important sports broadcaster ever. You would be right. In a 1978 poll designed to identify TV's most and least popular personality, Cosell won both categories, a perfect measure of his ubiquity and the controversy he aroused. Today, with more sports competing for attention in a fractured media environment, it's difficult to imagine a commentator dominating the landscape as Cosell did during the '60s and '70s. Though he'd made tentative forays into radio, Cosell was 38 before he abandoned his law practice to attempt a career in sports. This ferociously ambitious reporter, analyst, interviewer and play-by-play man, with his near photographic memory, nasal voice, staccato delivery and large and frequently preposterous vocabulary, prided himself on "telling it like it is." At his peak, Cosell was everywhere on radio and TV, covering baseball, boxing and the Olympics, producing documentaries, penetrating deeper into the popular culture with sitcom appearances and movie roles. He announced to the world the assassination of John Lennon, presided over signal '70s events like the tennis "Battle of the Sexes," briefly hosted a prime-time variety show and even flirted with running for the Senate. From two platforms, especially, his ringside and reportorial coverage--and courageous defense--of the career of Muhammad Ali and his perch in the tumultuous Monday Night Football booth, Cosell colorfully demonstrated his capacity to hype and eventually overpower the events he covered. Contemptuous of sportswriters (they returned the hate), dismissive of colleagues and bosses--mediocrities, he called them--he attributed every slight to anti-Semitism or jealousy and ended up alienating even his stoutest friends and defenders, with the exception of his devoted and long-suffering wife. Ribowsky (Ain't Too Proud to Beg: The Troubled Lives and Enduring Soul of the Temptations, 2010, etc.) attributes Cosell's arrogance to a deep insecurity and an insatiable desire for acclaim. As he aged, "Humble Howard" descended into drink, cruelty and caricature, bitter at having wasted his talents in the "intellectual thimble" of sports. The definitive word on a loved, loathed, maddeningly complex broadcasting legend.
Richard Sandomir
Ribowsky, who seems to have read just about everything on Cosell, is a deft narrator of the life of Humble Howard, taking his readers from the skinny kid in Brooklyn who yearned to spend more time with an absent father to the sportscaster who helped make an event out of "Monday Night Football" by being so very different from anyone else who had ever called a game…All this Ribowsky describes vividly, with a critical eye and an awareness of his subject's hypocrisies.
—The New York Times Book Review
Steven V. Roberts
…at his best, [Ribowsky] captures the arc of a gritty, even glorious, American life.
—The Washington Post
Don Ohlmeyer
“Mr. Ribowsky's book is an entertaining read and a thought-provoking portrayal of the multi-faceted Howard Cosell in all his glory and enmity. It is based on voluminous, well-sourced research into print and electronic material, coupled with numerous interviews with Cosell's contemporaries.
...the book vividly depicts Cosell as a brilliant meteor that soared through the electronic sky before ultimately fading, dimmed by controversy, age, exhaustion and perhaps his own obstreperous personality. Warts and all, there has never been, and may never be again, anyone quite like Howard Cosell.”
New York Post
“Ribowsky, who previously wrote a fine book on Satchel Paige, gives Cosell the treatment this controversial giant in sports journalism deserves.”
Jewish Journal
“A powerful biography… well researched and well written.”
Sports Illustrated
“A sportscasting giant is interpreted for a generation that never knew him…Mark Ribowsky's clear-eyed take on the broadcaster who built his career on "telling it like it is" reveals the insecurities that fueled Cosell's bravado, charting his ascension from growing up in a middle-class home in Brooklyn to a short-lived career as a lawyer before elbowing his way into radio and TV and becoming the most influential—and controversial—sports commentator in America.”
New York Times Book Review
“Ribowsky, who seems to have read just about everything on Cosell, is a deft narrator of the life of Humble Howard, taking his readers from the skinny kid in Brooklyn who yearned to spend more time with an absent father to the sportscaster who helped make an event out of “Monday Night Football” by being so very different from anyone else who had ever called a game.”
James Campion - Huffington Post
“...[T]he first thoroughly researched and effectively framed biography of Cosell and his times...
Beyond its poignant depiction of a flawed, paranoid and narcissistic character with the uncanny talent to immerse himself entirely, almost supernaturally, into emerging events, Ribowsky's Howard Cosell makes crystal clear the entwined path of Cosell's epic career within the world of Big Time sports and its broadcasting partners, as they quite literally created the monstrosities they are today.”
Sherryl Connelly - New York Daily News
“In Howard Cosell, author Mark Ribowsky reveals the obnoxious broadcaster who transformed sports reporting.”
Steve Kettman - San Francisco Chronicle
“Ribowsky has deftly captured this complicated figure, and anyone who cares about sports and how we talk about sports will find this book well worth the time, no matter how off-putting its subject was to many.”
The Barnes & Noble Review

For Americans of a certain generation, just the name Howard Cosell instantly summons into memory's ear a brash, nasal yammer of the voice, one that blared from American TVs and radios for three decades, demanding to be recognized, whether it was spinning verbiage around some of sport's heaviest moments — such as when Palestinian terrorists kidnapped and eventually murdered eleven Israeli Olympians in 1972 — or its lightest (Battle of the Network Stars, anyone?).

Cosell was the King of Sports, for a time at least, because he asked questions that other people wouldn't and wasn't worried about ruffling feathers. What did concern him, though, was what everybody thought of this tough-talking lawyer out of Brooklyn.

Mark Ribowsky's Howard Cosell: The Man, the Myth, and the Transformation of American Sports chronicles how the man's massive ego and equally outsized insecurity worked in tandem to push him into nearly every American's living room, first as the host of a radio show, Speaking of Sports, and then breaking into television as a sports anchor for WABC in New York — and really makes you glad you never worked with the guy. Cosell never forgot — or forgave — anyone who said or wrote something unpleasant about him. And pretty much everybody in the sporting and broadcast worlds fell into that category at some time or another before the sportscaster's death in 1995 of a heart embolism. "Arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, verbose, a showoff. I have been called all of these," Cosell once said. "Of course, I am." Such moments of self-awareness are refreshing, since Cosell generally felt free when off the air to let loose on security guards, underlings, and bosses alike with the tired "Do you know who I am?" tirade. And you can be sure American TV viewers of the late 1960s and '70s knew who his public persona was. That was partially due to the relationship Cosell struck up with Muhammad Ali when the boxer was still called by his birth name, Cassius Clay. The pair had a special chemistry, and each used the other to enhance his own fame. When Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title in 1967 after refusing, on religious grounds, to be drafted into the U.S. Army for the Vietnam War, Cosell, who had been a major in the Army during World War II, emerged as one of the few public voices backing him. The building up of Ali, a true culture changer, may be Cosell's greatest legacy (along with his part in creating Monday Night Football as a program and an institution).

Ribowsky's book is not a glorification of Cosell. In fact, it is often unrelenting in showing just how egotistical, bombastic, highly unpleasant, and extremely insecure he could be. Although the personality on display here is definitely unpalatable, Ribowsky is not only concerned with likability. He constructs a good case for thinking that the tough journalism of Cosell's earlier years shifted the future of sports coverage (and it certainly appears that Cosell was a lonely pioneer). But the culture also completely changed around Cosell, especially with the introduction of 24/7 broadcast news. The sports journalists who now seek out the tough stories may owe Cosell something, but mostly just a tip of the hat.

And it's not as if Cosell finished out his own run without practicing lazy or soft journalism. He ultimately gained too many friends in the higher echelons of the sporting world — and enmeshed himself in too many petty squabbles — to allow anyone to accept him as an unbiased reporter. What we're left with is primarily the memory of that voice. Loud though it still rings, the diminution is little short of tragic.

Mark J. Miller writes a daily sports column for Yahoo! His writing has also appeared in ESPN, Men's Journal, Glamour, The Washington Post, Runner's World, and Salon, among others.

Reviewer: Mark J. Miller

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393080179
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 11/14/2011
  • Pages: 496
  • Sales rank: 974,268
  • Product dimensions: 6.48 (w) x 9.54 (h) x 1.58 (d)

Meet the Author

Mark Ribowsky's books include the New York Times Notable Book Don't Look Back: Satchel Paige in the Shadows of Baseball. He lives in Plainview, New York.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: A Gifted One 3

Part 1 Black and White (1918-1964)

1 "Insecurities in You That Live Forever" 23

2 An Obvious Maverick 45

3 Being There 66

4 Momentary Moments of Chagrin 87

5 "Let Go of the Mike, Cassius" 109

6 "Bedlam, Chaos, Confusion" 130

Part 2 Living Color (1964-1976)

7 An Electronic First 153

8 A Moral Imperative 178

9 A Stygian Burden 197

10 "That Son of a Bitch Is Drunk!" 222

11 Listing Toward Babylon 240

12 Munich 256

13 A Big Property 281

14 "Down Goes Fray-Zhuh! Down Goes Fray-Zhuh! Down Goes Fray-Zhuh!" 301

15 "Things Began to Turn Sour" 322

Part 3 Turn Out the Lights (1976-1995)

16 An Unholy Mess 351

17 "A Sad Way to End" 373

18 Ebb Tide 396

19 Requiem for a Heavyweight 416

Acknowledgments 437

Notes 439

Selected Bibliography 463

Index 467

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