Book Excerpt: Sound and Fury
From the book "Sound and Fury," Dave Kindred's story about a seemingly unlikely partnership that would develop between heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, a Muslim from Louisville, Ky., and Howard Cosell, a Jewish broadcaster from New York. The common denominators between them were unmistakable: Both were voluble and egotistical, simultaneously loved and hated by the public. Kindred, a sports columnist and author for nearly 40 years, knew both men well and has produced an insightful account. We offer this chapter titled Tel-e-VISION!, in which Kindred shares his experience meeting Cosell for the first time.
Chapter 9: Tel-e-VISION!
I SAW COSELL in person for the first time at the 1967 World Series. Before I saw him, I heard him. I stood in a single-file line of sportswriters against the crumbling bricks of Fenway Park, waiting for admittance to the Red Sox clubhouse. I was at my first World Series, thrilled to be in the line right behind the New York Daily News columnist, Dick Young, a newspapering legend. I was about to learn that gentlemanly behavior was not a requirement for journalistic fame. Young also heard Cosell, and it made him angry. Then he became more than angry. He levitated in righteous rage. He bellowed expletives and obscenities. His carotid arteries ran hot. I watched, awed. To understand how one man's voice can be the catalyst for another man's paroxysm of vitriol, it is necessary to know three things: Young's place in sportswriting history, his competitive relationship with Cosell, and that time's changing nature of the media in sports.
Sportswriters once wrote only what they saw on the field. Young changed that. He invented the clubhouse interview. In the late 1940s, covering the Brooklyn Dodgers, he descended from the press box to the players' lair and, chin out, demanded from athletes an explanation for every act of commission and omission. Both Young and Cosell worked for WABC on its broadcasts of New York Jets football games. They had separate and distinct duties, never sharing air time, largely because they despised each other. No one knew if that enmity came about despite their commonalities or because of them; both were Brooklyn Jews whose ambitions and obsessions were shaped by Depression-era childhoods. Most intolerably, from Young's point of view, Cosell had become a national television star. Like many newspaper people of his time, Young consid- ered television a superficial medium unworthy of respect. As early as 1956, when televised sports was little more than a novelty, Young wrote a SPORT article entitled, "How Television Is Ruining Sports." It was a polemic denouncing television, the devil incarnate, for tempting college football officials to start games at unholy hours, some even at night.
Now, on this October day in 1967, with the surly impatience of a man who believed he had earned a proprietary interest in every baseball clubhouse, Young first chafed at being forced to wait outside a closed door. He shouted, "Get somebody from the Red Sox. Get us in there." Then I heard that voice. It shouted one word, then repeated that word twice more. The word was shouted so theatrically, with an accent on the last syllable, that it seemed both an announcement of great moment and a command that inferior beings should get the hell out of the way. Turning to my left, I saw the man who had shouted the word. Cosell.
With a cameraman and sound man scurrying in his wake, Cosell swept past me, past the sputtering Young, past the stationary herd of sportswriters waiting in line. Cosell walked straight to the Red Sox clubhouse door. He rapped on it. It opened. He disappeared behind the door. All the while, Young ranted because he heard Cosell say that word and he saw Cosell sashay past us and he saw what he never thought he would see, a baseball clubhouse open for television interviews and closed to newspapermen, closed even to the very man who invented newspapermen digging for clubhouse quotes.
The word Cosell shouted was ...
It was as if Howard Cosell believed he was television.
Newspaper reporters could get huffy, but they knew Cosell had a point. He might not be television, but his bosses at ABC were -- certainly in sports. Before the 1960s, television selected events for broadcast that sports fans had proven they wanted to see: college football, the National Football League, Major League Baseball, heavyweight championship fights. Then along came Ed Scherick, Tom Moore, and Roone Arledge. ABC's adventurers were the first executives in network television to understand -- maybe they made a lucky guess -- that the allure of television was more powerful than the games themselves. If they put a game on TV, any game, people would buy in.
In 1960 ABC bankrolled the new American Football League, a rival to the powerful NFL. In 1961 the network created Wide World of Sports, a weekly series often originating in faraway places and featuring unusual events performed by athletes mostly unknown. Those moves changed both television and sports. The ABC-AFL partnership showed that a professional sports league expected to survive on television advertising money. That expectation prompted entrepreneurs to create the American Basketball Association, the World Hockey Association, and the World Football League. Existing leagues expanded into new markets where stadiums had been raised. Established teams used the threat of leaving town to persuade their cities to build them new ballparks as well. Sports in America once had been almost an exclusive club, perhaps not with secret handshakes and unwritten oaths but with knowledge and interest limited to those who worked at it. In the 1960s, the club's doors were thrown open to every American with a television set.
ABC Sports came to mirror a nation in revolution. Early in the decade, half the population was under thirty years of age, then half under twenty-seven, finally half under twenty-five with 40 percent under seventeen, and those under eighteen increasing four times as fast as the rest of the population. The youth culture was clamorous at best, riotous at worst. Sports fans of a generation past were accustomed to modesty from their heroes. Now came Joe Namath's autobiography, I Can't Wait Until Tomorrow ... 'Cause I Get Better-Looking Every Day. He also did a television commercial aimed at women, Namath mischievously sexy on a bearskin rug, his famously damaged legs in pantyhose. One imagines Bronko Nagurski, the old bruiser in Minnesota, his TV tuned in to an AFL game. One imagines Bronko seeing a quarterback in pantyhose. One imagines Nagurski fainting away.
Then came Monday Night Football, Roone Arledge's revolutionary baby, an NFL game broadcast in prime time on a weeknight. The deal had been made between ABC and the NFL when Arledge said to NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, ever so casually, "What would you think if I put Howard in the booth?"
"Cosell?" Rozelle laughed. "Why don't you just dig up Attila the Hun?"
Cosell recognized the Monday night telecast as the logical next step in his career. He knew the gossip: Arledge wanted his friend, the Giants football legend Frank Gifford, in the booth, but Gifford was under contract to CBS; Gifford recommended Don Meredith, the thirty-two-year-old quarterback who had abruptly retired from the Cowboys that year, saying, "If it ain't fun, it ain't worth doing." Cosell also heard his own name, and dearly wanted the job, but his calls to Arledge went unreturned. (After Mexico City, Arledge hired an answering service for his home phone to deflect Cosell's all-hours harangues, pleadings, and bloviations.)
On an afternoon in June 1970, Arledge finally called Cosell. He caught him at Jimmy Weston's restaurant in Midtown Manhattan at the end of a liquid lunch consisting of a martini or three, "my silver bullets," as Cosell called them. "Get over here as soon as you can," Arledge said. "There's something I need to talk to you about."
"Ahhhh," Cosell said. "From the desperation of your tone, I can only conclude that the bon vivant who is Roone Pinckney Arledge is beseeching me to rescue the trifle he's devised for Monday evenings. Am I not correct?"
"As always, Howard."
"And you no doubt expect me to shoulder this Stygian burden without additional compensation."
"Yes, Howard, I do."
One night shortly before Monday Night Football's debut, the men shared a limousine ride home. Always the agitator, with a drink in his hand, Cosell said to his boss, "I suppose that in a strange way it matters to you whether this succeeds or not."
Arledge said, "Yes, Howard, it does. And it better damn well matter to you."
Monday night, September 21, 1970. Cleveland, Ohio. The Browns of Leroy Kelly, the Jets of Joe Willie Namath. A record crowd at the old stadium by Lake Erie, 85,703 people ...
And that voice ...
"It is a hot ... sultry ... almost windless night here at Municipal Stadium ..."
Cosell's voice was subdued, almost languid, as if oppressed by the night air, deliberately understated to leave room for wisecracks to come with Meredith. The country boy from Mount Vernon, Texas, wasn't sure he could do this TV stuff. But Cosell had mastered the dynamics of a comedy act alongside Muhammad Ali. He told Meredith, "You'll wear the white hat, I'll wear the black hat."