Memories of Howard
Working for 'The Mouth' was never dullPosted: Thursday January 10, 2002 3:59 PM
Updated: Friday January 11, 2002 5:52 PM
By Art Berke, Special to CNNSI.com
I can't remember the precise moment in time that I became aware of Howard Cosell. The earliest I remember him resonating with me was in my college years at Indiana University in the mid-to-late 1960s. I can vividly recall that during one semester I frequently would be late for my 8:30 a.m. journalism class because I was compelled to listen to every last word of Cosell's 8:25 Speaking of Sports syndicated radio show from my car in the parking lot outside of Ernie Pyle Hall.
As an aspiring journalist during those turbulent times, I couldn't get enough of Howard's insight and non-conformist views. I was in awe of his intellect, his command of the language, his unique way of eliciting emotion and his courage to speak out. Whatever it was about him, I was captivated by his style and determined to make my mark as a sports journalist in the Cosellian manner.
In one of those interesting quirks of fate, I eventually did enter the world of Cosell, although it wasn't as a journalist. After a summer job on a major daily newspaper, a year as an editor with a weekly football publication and two years developing a sports encyclopedia, I discovered that my interest and talent lay more in public relations. And after five years in PR with Major League Baseball, I was hired as a press representative for ABC Sports in 1980. It was there I worked with Howard for more than four years-- on Monday Night Football, Monday Night Baseball, Wide World of Sports and on Cosell's pride and joy, ABC SportsBeat, the highly-acclaimed weekly magazine show.
It's important to explain that the one group of people Howard detested most was the print media. And it just so happened to be my job to generate publicity through these very same folks. It came as no surprise, then, that he berated me, he embarrassed me in front of groups of people and even offered career advice. "Get out, get out, before it's too late," he would regularly preach only half-kiddingly to my PR colleague Larry Wahl and me.
One of the most memorable Cosell tirades occurred in the broadcast booth at Yankee Stadium prior to a postseason baseball game. A local sportswriter had criticized Howard for his work during the series and he was fuming, telling anyone who would stand still long enough about the evils of the sportswriting profession. Then it really hit the fan when he saw me outside of the booth. The years have blurred the exact words, but it was classic Cosell playing to his audience. "There he is, Art Berke, on the ABC payroll, but working with those $10,000-a-year clerks that call themselves sportswriters." And it went on and on until he had to go on the air. The truth is that it wasn't easy accepting his constant haranguing, but no one escaped Cosell's wrath and I did my best not to take it personally.
I soon learned that Howard divided people into two camps, those who were with him and those who were against him. So I weathered the storm for a year or so until I got the opportunity to prove myself as SportsBeat's primary publicist, where I worked for a little more than three years. It wasn't until after the first show, on August 30, 1981, that I felt I belonged. It was on that memorable day that SportsBeat aired pieces on Polish tennis star Wojtek Fibak, who couldn't continue playing because of concern for his displaced father in Poland, and the underhanded manner in which some U.S. colleges and universities were trying to get foreign athletes. Because of the compelling nature of these stories and through my efforts with the wire services and selected newspapers both pieces were picked up nationwide. Cosell was ecstatic.
I'm happy to say that the publicity for SportsBeat, as well as the accompanying critical acclaim, became routine. Howard now recognized my value to his pet project and I became one of his people -- certainly not in his inner circle, but the relationship was good. It wasn't uncommon for me to get a call from him at home in the early morning hours the day after the show. I can still hear that unmistakable voice as if it were yesterday. "Berke, this is Cosell. Anything in the Times?" Howard knew that as good as the show was on any given week, and it was indeed consistent in its excellence, it would also take a lot of buzz to ensure its success. For Howard, SportsBeat was a vital part of his legacy. In fact he once referred to it as "the most important show I've done ... and represents what I truly believe in-fair, honest, probative, enlightening journalism." For me personally, the show represented the turning point in gaining his respect.
My favorite Cosell memory took place in Boston shortly after SportsBeat premiered. ABC Sports was televising a Red Sox game from Fenway Park as part of Monday Night Baseball. When it was time to head for the ballpark, I rode the elevator to the lobby. When I got there, Howard was holding court as he often did. He barked at me: "Berke, when are you going back to New York?" I told him I had an early flight the next morning. "Why don't you come back with me on my plane." A private plane with Howard Cosell instead of a regular commercial flight? I thought about it for about two seconds. "Sure, Howard. Let me run up to the room and pack." So, after the game, the two of us hopped in his limo amidst a throng of his fans, and rode to the airport. The plane ride itself was pretty uneventful. Howard slept most of the way. I couldn't help but think that most of his critics would have loved to have witnessed that scene -- seeing him silent and sleeping like a baby.
At times Howard could be charming and fun to be around, but I've always thought it was rather sad that his insecurity and bitterness prevented him from enjoying his prosperity as much as he should have. All of us aspire to become the best at what we do, but few of us get there. Howard WAS the best at his profession, but he never had the peace of mind to complete the circle of success. Instead, he went out of his way to criticize others and would obsess for days whenever a sportswriter would criticize him. Despite the countless excesses, I can honestly say it was a privilege to work with him, to learn from him. As Sports Illustrated stated on a 1983 cover, he was truly "The One and Only."
When I accepted another job at the network that would take me away from my SportsBeat duties, I broke the news to Howard. I've always said I wish I had a tape recorder in the room that day to preserve the memory of what he said. He couldn't have been more complimentary.
A framed SportsBeat poster hangs on my office wall. On it, Howard wrote the following: "To Art, with gratitude for your help. You did a hell of a job." I've always considered it the ultimate praise for a one-time Cosell wannabe who used to hang on Howard's every word in the driver's seat of a '67 Corvair.Art Berke is Vice President Communications at Sports Illustrated magazine.