Seizing the attention of radio listeners, Cosell trampled the rules of sports-casting etiquette. Chet Forte, the producer, was a Columbia basketball star when he first met Cosell and consented to go on his radio show. "What sort of questions are you going to ask me, Howard?" Forte inquired.
"Don't worry, kid," Cosell reassured him. "It'll be a fine show."
Cosell then leaned into the mike and introduced Forte as the nation's leading scorer, a dazzling little man with an uncanny shooting touch. Then Cosell asked his first question. "Chet, is it true that some of your teammates hate to pass to you because you shoot so much?" The audience next heard the sound of Forte sucking in his breath.
Hustling to the scene wherever sports news was being made, Cosell sent chills up the spines of the working press as he. trumpeted his way into press conferences and clubhouses. "He comes into a room as if nothing possibly could have happened before he got there," says one sportswriter. Cosell himself points out that when he walks into the Yankee clubhouse, for example, Manager Ralph Houk at once turns his way, ignoring the newspapermen around him. "I'm sensitive to this situation and embarrassed by it," Cosell says. Somehow, his words translate to mean he's delighted by it.
Yet as he grew in prominence Cosell at times seemed like a man trying to scale the side of the ABC Building while people stood at the windows hurling buckets of water in his face. Gossip has it that Thomas W. Moore, who in 1958 became an ABC vice-president in charge of programming en route to the presidency of ABC-TV, considered shoveling Cosell into an obscure bin and replacing him with Tom Harmon. Even if the rumor sprang from no basis in fact, it is likely that it raced through the company's power structure and created resistance to Cosell.
He pressed on, however. On the New York front he undertook to personally reshape the future of the Mets, and on a national level he hitched his wagon to a force that not even the U.S. Government has been able to sidetrack—Muhammad Ali, of course. The bumbling Mets, adored by New Yorkers, caused Cosell to draw back in horror. "I'm suspicious of anything that causes kids to fall in love with futility," he says. WABC was broadcasting the Mets' games during their first two seasons. 1962 and 1963, and Cosell was assigned to do the pregame and postgame shows—a stint that normally consists of reassuring the audience that the home team will come back strong. Cosell, however, plunged into a campaign to drive Manager Casey Stengel out of town. The outcome, instead, was that the Mets and WABC parted company, although Co-sell insists it was the station, not the ball club, that asked for the divorce. "We didn't want to be identified with a loser," he explains. In any case, Cosell kept after Stengel on his various shows, and with a sense of accomplishment describes his role in the 1966 resignation of front-office boss George Weiss and the promotion of Weiss's successor, Bing Devine.
"I felt George had led me to believe he was going to unload Stengel," says Co-sell, his tone that of a Senate majority leader whom the White House has double crossed. "I only turned on George when I found out he had no intention of unloading Stengel." Casey's resignation in 1965 did not mollify Cosell. "Now here comes Bing Devine into the picture—Bing Devine joins the Mets' front office. One of my dearest friends. He stayed with me at Pound Ridge. So then I went to work on getting rid of Weiss so Bing could get the job. Well, I don't mean I got rid of George, but I poured it on. And I'm sure he stayed an extra year because I poured it on."
Meanwhile, legions of television viewers across the country were taking notice of Cosell, partly because they found it incredible that any white American male would throw his arm around Cassius Clay and with a straight face treat him to the Muhammads that even Clay's Negro opponents are reluctant to utter. A northern newspaper labeled Cosell a White Muslim. White supremacists and parents of servicemen wrote him a flood of strong letters, successfully ruining his mornings. (A single critical letter brings from him tortured cries that can be heard five doorways down the corridor. "I worry about the mass intelligence of this country," he says at such times. "I really do.") Actually, Cosell once attacked Clay's Muslim camp followers for their rudeness and on a satellite telecast neatly squelched the champion in one of his eulogies to the teacher Elijah. "Awright, we've been through that," Cosell broke in.
Whether or not he first catered to Clay because he foresaw the alliance would mean national attention, a genuine friendship seemed to develop between the two. At Cosell's urging, Clay delayed his fight with Henry Cooper 18 minutes, infuriating British boxing officials, so that ABC could finish telecasting its prefight show. "Howard worries about the kid," Chet Forte said shortly before Clay's February victory over Ernie Terrell. "I think he dreads the day when that kid loses. But if anything ever happens to the champ he'll turn around and look for Howard and Howard will be there." In the aftermath of the Terrell fight, however, a layer of frost settled over their relationship. On Wide World Clay demanded Cosell defend him against charges that he had taunted and fouled Terrell. Cosell refused, triggering a shouting match that in turn brought Cosell a barrage of letters accusing him of picking on Clay, to say nothing of being anti-Negro. Another morning ruined.
Although Clay may now be an exception, the people who work closely with Cosell usually enjoy the relationship. "Howard, you are not an insufferable egotist," one such man told him recently. "You are a sufferable egotist." Cosell was incredulous. "Do you really think I'm an egotist?" he said, wounded.