In an industry rife with intrigue, not even Cosell's detractors accuse him of having backstabbed his way to the top. He praises colleagues exuberantly when impressed by a job they've done, but he has earned enmity by also telling them straight out—ABC's Chris Schenkel was one—that he caught their latest show and, by God, it was awful.
For all his suggestive sallies to secretaries (a form of false dash that serves to announce his presence), Cosell is considered the original square by an industry that is full of swingers. He is completely at ease only with his family and is dedicated to the proposition that in five more years he will have enough money to get out of the jungle and retire to Florida. When off on a major assignment—for example, a Clay fight via satellite from Europe—he practically trembles at the prospect that he will do a clumsy job and thereby play into the hands of a press that he is certain is lusting to rip him. Says Chet Forte, Cosell's producer on the satellite fight shows: "It's always Emi, Emi, Emi—'I gotta phone Emi. I oughta be home. I gotta see what Emi thinks of the way we're going to do this show.' I don't know if she builds him up or what, but after he phones her he seems to snap out of it."
A pillar of equanimity, Emi attends to her Pound Ridge house, unnerved only when she overhears townspeople mutter an epithet they apply to Cosell whenever he has done a show with draft dodger Clay. Pound Ridgers being a cultivated lot, they attack Cosell in the dialogue of the times. "Dove," they sneer.
Actually, Cosell himself served a brilliant, if not exactly action-packed, military career. Born Howard William Cohen, he grew up in Brooklyn, the son of a Jewish immigrant from Poland who worked as an accountant for a chain of credit clothing stores. Cosell aspired early to become a newspaper reporter, but Isidore and Nellie Cohen urged him into the law. At New York University he made Phi Beta Kappa, became an editor of the Law Review and upon his graduation in 1940 landed a job with a substantial firm. But when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in '41 Cosell enlisted in the Army as a private, though he was destined for Officer Candidate School and lofty rank. He spent the war commuting by subway to his station at the New York Port of Embarkation on the Brooklyn docks, a situation the neighbors viewed with bitterness.
"Oh, I well remember the Minsky widow," he says. "Her husband was the burlesque king, remember? She couldn't stand the sight of me coming home every day, first with a gold bar, now with a silver bar, now two silver bars, now a gold leaf. I could understand this. She had a son serving in the Marines, on Guadalcanal." Cosell himself had become the boy wonder of the Port—a key brain who juggled a manpower pool of 50,000. Twice the Pentagon blocked his promotion to major on the ground that he was moving up too swiftly for a Stateside functionary, and he got the promotion only when Major General Homer M. Groninger, the Port commander, fired off a six-page letter that all but described him as the cornerstone of the war effort.
Never having been keen on lawyer's work, Cosell emerged from the Army in 1946 bent on landing an executive position in personnel relations. He figured he had a useful connection, for he had married a WAC sergeant, Mary-Edith (Emi) Abrams, whose father, Norman Ross Abrams, was a prominent industrialist. The Abrams family, a Presbyterian mixture of Pennsylvania Dutch and Welsh, at that time had reservations about Emi's mixed marriage. Father-in-law told Cosell he had no opening. "I was looking for $25,000 to $30,000 a year," Cosell says. "I was a 24-year-old snot." (Perhaps he wasn't. The birth date on his Army records made him a 27-year-old snot. It also makes him 48 today, although the ABC publicity department says he is 46.) Undaunted, Cosell confidently wrote to a former service comrade, an executive of Fisher Body, who coolly replied with a list of recommended college courses.
"I was in general discomfort," sighs Cosell. "Subliminally, I was sensitive about a Jew's place in industry. But I determined to rid myself of this crutch-type thinking." (It did not occur to him that he was a natural for sportscasting. His mother remembers him talking at 9 months.) Cosell saw no choice but to resume the practice of law.
Eight years later, in 1954, the Little League catapulted Cosell to fame. Having drawn up a Little League charter for an American Legion post, he received a call from an ABC program manager asking if he would furnish a panel of kiddies to interview athletes on a weekly series of coast-to-coast radio shows. Radio was in a disheveled state, dying. Not surprisingly, the program manager suggested as an afterthought that Cosell be moderator—without pay. He leaped at the chance. Although an unknown, he corralled big-name guests by laying siege to hotel lobbies where baseball players congregated. He wooed them with free lunches—Wally Moon, Al Kaline, Fred Hutchinson. "We made news with that show," Cosell shouts. "Out of the mouths of babes came words of wisdom and depth!" Under Cosells deft direction the brats conned Hank Bauer into putting the blast on Casey Stengel for platooning him.
When, in 1956, the network offered Cosell $250 to do 10 five-minute sports broadcasts each weekend, he immediately decided to abandon his legal work. It moved too slowly to suit him. "My disposition," he announced to his wife, "demands the immediacy of translation of effort into result!" So go translate, Emi told him.
Seeking exposure wherever he could find it, Cosell persuaded a men's adventure magazine to publish a monthly column called Cosell's Clubhouse. (The magazine dressed up the column with a cut that rather suggested a benign aardvark leaning against a doghouse.) His editor, Ray Robinson, who today is articles editor of
, recalls the aplomb with which Cosell stepped up in class. "Well," Cosell greeted Robinson some years after the Clubhouse column had run its course, "are you still with that witless magazine?"