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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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The Age of Cosell

Book reviewers have noted Howard Cosell (1918-1995) will likely be an unfamiliar name to those aged 40 and under, and that’s probably true.

But Plainview author Mark Ribowsky’s just-published Howard Cosell: The Man, the Myth, and the Transformation of American Sports (W.W. Norton & Company) offers to a broad audience an insightful look not only at Cosell but how the media landscape has changed dramatically since Cosell was the ABC television network’s most recognizable face.

“There can be no overestimating how unique, and even unprecedented, Cosell’s fame was by the middle of the 1970s,” Ribowsky writes. “He had done no less than make himself a one-man industry by turning scabrousness into an endearment.”

Cosell, who used complicated words when simple ones sufficed, would surely have liked Ribowsky’s turn of phrase. Ribowsky will talk about his subject, and sign copies of his latest book, on Tuesday, Jan. 10 at 7 p.m., when Cosell’s biographer visits Book Revue, 313 New York Avenue, Huntington. In the meantime, I’ll summarize his often fascinating examination of Cosell’s unlikely ascension to the top of the sports broadcasting world.

Born in North Carolina as Howard Cohen, his family moved back to their native Brooklyn when Cosell was about 2 years old. Cohen changed his surname to Cosell around the same time he earned English literature and law degrees from New York University. His legal career’s start was delayed as Cosell held increasingly responsible military positions at Brooklyn’s New York Port of Embarkation during World War II. It was at the Port that Cosell met his wife, Emmy Abrams. They had two daughters, Jill and Hilary.

Despite being a successful lawyer, Cosell gravitated to sports broadcasting, eventually securing on-air assignments at WABC Radio. Cosell, who assured everyone he would ‘tell it like it is,’ ruffled feathers in the early 1960s when lambasting then-Mets manager Casey Stengel for allowing ‘kids to fall in love with futility.’

Cosell’s national prominence emerged through his boxing coverage for programs such as ABC’s Wide World of Sports, and his ardent support for Muhammad Ali on constitutional grounds when Ali refused to be drafted into the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Ali’s favor allowed Ali to return to U.S. boxing rings after three-plus years in exile.

Ribowsky, through interviews with the era’s newspaper reporters and ABC Sports alumni, also illustrates another key to Cosell’s rise: navigating successfully the complicated internal politics of a major broadcast network, and correctly identifying an up-and-coming ABC executive as a prospective patron, Roone Arledge. Arledge, always looking to add more drama to athletic contests, was the president of ABC Sports when he tapped Cosell as one of the three original hosts of Monday Night Football in 1970, along with Don Meredith and Keith Jackson. Frank Gifford replaced Jackson in 1971 while Cosell spent 14 consecutive years as one of Monday Night Football’s voices.

There was a dark side to Cosell’s personality, and Ribowsky pulls no punches in recounting numerous off-camera, Cosell-induced incidents which would result today in a broadcaster’s suspension or dismissal. Ribowsky tells it like it was with Cosell, and at ABC, and it wasn’t always pretty.

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: MFBARRY@optonline.net