Little League Ledger Lets Loose Cascade Of Memories

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In “Howard Cosell: The Man, the Myth, and the Transformation of American Sports,” Mark Ribowsky, the author of several books on both sports and entertainment, skillfully resuscitates a man who — even as he rose from obscurity to become the voice and the sometime journalistic conscience of his era — felt his achievements were beneath his intellectual gifts. He aspired to anchor the evening news or be a United States senator.

Howard Cosell (circa 1970s) Credit Focus on Sport/Getty Images

That the post-Cosell generation has hazy memories of him, or no memories at all, “borders on tragic,” Ribowsky writes, as he argues for Cosell’s significance in American life. Certainly, Cosell was admired and abhorred in equal measure. He attracted death threats and needed bodyguards to ensure his safety.

An intellectual snob, Cosell wanted to separate himself from everything he believed was wrong about sports, like the noodle-spined sportscasters who wouldn’t disturb the status quo; the athletes-turned-commentators whom he sneeringly referred to as the “jockocracy”; and the sportswriters whose dislike for him was returned with equal bitterness. When his nemesis, the bilious Dick Young of The Daily News, died in 1987, Cosell said, “This is the happiest day of my life.”

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. Cosell did not get his first job in sports, a radio gig as a commentator on the Little League World Series, until 1953, when he was 35, and didn’t help inaugurate “Monday Night Football” until 1970, when he was 52. In his later years, as he grew bored with sports, his drinking became excessive and his animosities mounted. At the end, he was living in virtual isolation in his Manhattan apartment, his services no longer wanted, his beloved wife, Emmy, gone.

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All this Ribowsky describes vividly, with a critical eye and an awareness of his subject’s hypocrisies. He understands that nothing about Cosell was more fascinating than his codependent relationship with Ali, a marriage of opposites and opportunists who saw gain in bonding with each other. “Cosell’s impulses during the 1970s,” Ribowsky writes about his subject’s eccentricities and unpleasantness, “were governed by his pathological inability to let slide others’ contrary opinions, or even their innocent mistakes, as if by flogging them he had dibs on being the ultimate judge of human behavior.”

Ribowsky relies too much on Cosell’s own books, especially to recount his youth, and he apparently hasn’t interviewed any of the relatives. On the other hand, he has conducted nearly 20 interviews with Cosell’s contemporaries, and the results are bracing, tough and funny (the book would have been better with 40 more). For example, Jerry Izenberg, a columnist for The Star-Ledger of Newark, said of Cosell: “He would sometimes lose his way, then he would think of himself as bigger than the great issues, where if you didn’t bow to him it meant you just didn’t understand anything. He did that to me a lot, and again that was very unfair. It was like the anti-Semitism. If you didn’t like him, you were anti-Semitic.”

Cosell came to sports less as a fan than as a sophisticated gadfly. He had a law degree, and arrived just when his knowledge and intelligence were crucial to understanding the growing power of leagues, antitrust issues, the civil rights movement and athletic celebrity culture. Nonetheless, Ribowsky sometimes overstates Cosell’s importance. He did not transform sports as much as he bent the traditional roles of interviewer, game commentator and opinionated analyst to his peculiar skills and personality. He did not dwarf sports events, especially the many Ali bouts he called, but he added something that could not be ignored, even if it made his haters want to shoot out the television screen. When Ribowsky oversells his case for Cosell, he sounds as if he has ingested his subject’s gall.

“He lives again in these pages, the vital center of American cultural history, a man almost eponymous with post-50s sports and its media confluence,” Ribowsky writes. “The not insignificant conclusion is that he was as great as he said he was.”


The Man, the Myth, and the Transformation of American Sports

By Mark Ribowsky

Illustrated. 477 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $29.95.

Richard Sandomir covers the sports business and sports on television for The Times. He is an editor, with Mark Reiter, of “The Final Four of Everything.”

A version of this review appears in print on December 4, 2011, on Page BR54 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Sportscasting. Today's Paper|Subscribe

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