Cosell biography covers his brilliance, tarnished legacy

No man shaped contemporary sports journalism more than Howard Cosell, an exasperating and often razor-sharp presence behind the mike whose boxing calls might have been the best ever ("Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!") and whose Monday Night Football banter with "Dandy Don" Meredith set the tone for ESPN before the sports network existed.

Late in the definitive rendering Howard Cosell: The Man, the Myth, and the Transformation of American Sports, packed with great detail and Cosell-evoking sentence-stoppers (pleonasm, gasconade, threnody), Mark Ribowsky quotes writer Lewis Grizzard from 1991: "I can still hear him." This was true then, long after Cosell's heyday in the '70s, and it remains true now for many who grew up mimicking, "This is How-ard Co-sell reporting live from ringside!" I can still hear him, too.

Cosell will forever be known for the putdowns and the serious give and take of his electric, unpredictable interviews with Muhammad Ali. Ribowsky, author of Don't Look Back: Satchel Paige in the Shadows of Baseball, does the work to show how important it was to Kentucky native Ali that Cosell, a former labor lawyer, did the background work to offer a legal analysis that Ali's lawyers could — and did — use to prevail in his yearslong fight with the U.S. government after he refused to serve in the military to fight in Vietnam, citing his principles as a Muslim.

"I'm glad I got to know you," Ali told Cosell on ABC's Wide World of Sports in 1979. "And thank you for all the backing. I remember when the Vietnam crisis was going, you'd go on television and say, 'If you don't believe Muhammad Ali is champion, then get in the ring with him.' I want to say that helped me during my exile.'"

Anyone who endeavored to report incisively on sports, treating it as more than "the toy department," owes a debt to Cosell, who was often mocked for his hard-hitting scrutiny of sports but hung in there. I also would point to another Cosell legacy, that of the sportswriter who plays the arrogant bully to cover up his own weaknesses.

"For Cosell, blame was something toxic, and he needed to toss it onto someone else in order to content himself," Ribowsky writes.

"Toxic" was just the word. Cosell became a tragic figure: He craved attention and fame with an embarrassing nakedness, yet no amount of either seemed to ease that need, even though his fame was so outsize that one TV Guide poll named him the most liked sportscaster on television — and the most disliked. Sadly, as he got older, he grew more bitter and paranoid, a "dour, unpleasant self-pity" settling in and turning him truly ugly at times.

"He deserves it," an aging Cosell allegedly said when informed that a former ABC co-worker had contracted throat cancer.

"This is the happiest day of my life. Dick Young is dead," Cosell allegedly exulted when his nemesis, the New York sports columnist, had died.

The dialogue Ribowsky reproduces of Cosell, with that prig-on-acid verbal prose style of his, coming on to flight attendants and shapely women, also is hair-raising, though Cosell was by all accounts devoted to his wife, Emmy, and his two daughters.

Less surprising are the revelations of just how much vodka Cosell would knock back during a Monday Night Football telecast.

Not that Cosell was lacking a sense of humor. His entire persona was based on ridiculing his own self-importance, until he grew more brittle over the years. Still, one of many wonderful tidbits we get is that a show called Saturday Night Live With Howard Cosell debuted in 1975 with Cosell as host and a guy named Bill Murray as one of his young comics. That ABC program tanked quickly (Cosell was no Ed Sullivan), but a rival NBC program that started shortly thereafter, simply called Saturday Night at first, did pretty well.

Cosell's legacies are simply too numerous to count. Even years after his death in 1995, his name is enough to start an all-night argument. 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.