February 26, 2020

Howard Cosell: The man fans loved to hate

When Howard Cosell achieved fame as a sports journalist, the last thing he wanted was to be thought of as a Jewish sports journalist. But because of his insecurities, his condescension toward others, and his big mouth, that is exactly how Cosell (1918-1995) came to be perceived. He made so many enemies—some of them anti-Semitic, some of them not—that his unstable but obvious relationship to his religious heritage caused it to be thrown back at him.

“Howard Cosell: The Man, the Myth, and the Transformation of American Sports” by Mark Ribowsky (W.W. Norton: $29.95) is a powerful biography that is frequently painful to read because of how it captures Cosell’s brilliant unpleasantness — or was it unpleasant brilliance? The author offers passage after passage about the struggles of Jews against anti-Semitism, as well as the self destructiveness practiced by some of those struggling Jews, even after they had achieved fame and fortune, with Cosell (born Howard William Cohen) at the forefront.

This biography is so well researched and well written that most readers probably will rate it highly. But, more than most biographies, it will probably evoke extremely different reactions, depending on at least four measures: Jewish readers versus non-Jewish readers; readers old enough to have directly experienced Cosell’s broadcasts and writings versus younger ones; avid fans of professional football, baseball, basketball and boxing versus readers more or less indifferent to such sports; and female versus male readers.

So, in the interest of disclosure, I am a male of Jewish heritage but have never belonged to a synagogue; I am old enough to remember experiencing Cosell’s words but have paid little attention to any sport but baseball. As a result of that set of traits, I knew little about Cosell and found the entire biography revelatory. According to a television publicist quoted by Ribowsky, “the two biggest liars in the world are the people who tell you they don’t watch the CBS prime-time soap ‘Dallas’ or listen to Howard Cosell.” Well, I never watched “Dallas,” and I never listened to Cosell intentionally. And that’s the truth.

One other warning before moving along: In the context of how biographers interpret lives, Ribowsky falls at the extreme top end of interpreting actions and talk and personal relationships and gaps. He analyzes — perhaps psychoanalyzes would be a more accurate word — Cosell on almost every page. That is a lot of analyzing in a lengthy biography. Some readers might fight that tiresome, because the analysis becomes repetitious.

Some readers might also find Ribowsky’s interpretations presumptuous at minimum, maybe even reductionist and therefore in some sense wrong. But this warning paragraph, while an obligation of a book reviewer, is not meant to dampen the enthusiasm of any potential reader. Few biographies measure up to “Howard Cosell” in depth, breadth and readability. I’m a biographer proud of my books, and I’ve certainly never published any better than this one.

Ribowsky is in love, professionally speaking, with his subject. Yet, as has been said probably millions of times before, there is a fine line between love and hate. Ribowsky rarely passes up a chance to show Cosell at his worst, from the opening quotations page, which contains these two:

“In one year I traveled 450,000 miles by air. That’s 18 times around the world, or once around Howard Cosell’s head,” attributed to Grand Prix race car driver Jackie Stewart, and “Brain in neutral, mouth in gear,” attributed to Anonymous.

The second quotation is somewhat misleading, because, as Ribowsky demonstrates, Cosell’s brain was rarely in neutral. He was a brilliant student growing up in Brooklyn, a brilliant college student when pursuing courses in law, a solider employed by the U.S. military on the home front during World War II because of his logistical brilliance, a first-rate lawyer in private practice, a pioneer in the realm of sports journalism who broke all sorts of barriers to establish a new paradigm and an effective crusader on behalf of various individual rights—especially for professional athletes.

If any brief quotation can capture Cosell, it is one late in the book that Ribowsky attributes to sportswriter Red Smith: “Howard Cosell doesn’t broadcast sports, he broadcasts Howard Cosell.”

So, Ribowsky rightly wonders, how did Cosell succeed so grandly?  For starters, in the strikes-against department, Cosell was homely looking with an unpleasant speaking voice working in a medium emphasizing handsome, pleasant-sounding broadcasters. In Ribowsky’s words, the success could be classified as a “lingering mystery…He was, after all, a performer with no acting skills, a sports denizen who boasted that he never played the game, and an ex-attorney who used magniloquence in describing how grown men beat on or tackled each other or hit horsehide balls with sticks.”

A big part of the answer, Ribowsky posits, was how “a balancing act between audacity and parody made him compelling.” Listeners and viewers and readers “felt guilty about enjoying him so much. We were supposed to hate Cosell, so we did, while always making sure we tuned in to hear what he said.”

How much of that hatred derived from Cosell’s Jewishness? Ribowsky offers plenty of thinking about that question throughout the book.

Fortunately for readers interested in a liberal education, the book teaches about far more than Cosell. One of the biography’s secondary strengths is Ribowsky’s delineation of other characters, especially Cosell’s wife, Mary Edith (Emmy) Abrams, a non-Jew, his only friend, mother of their two daughters, one who became Jewish, one who became Protestant; and boxing champion Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, whose life inside and outside the ring became inextricably intertwined with the sportscaster’s.

Cosell’s defense of Ali as a boxer, as an African-American in a racist nation, as a Muslim convert, and as a protestor against military induction constitutes the second most touching part of the title character’s ugly life—second only to his epic, unwavering love for Emmy.

Steve Weinberg is a regular contributor of book reviews to The Jewish Journal and other publications.