Years ago, in the movies, there was an actor, I believe his name was Louis Wohlheim, who was billed as "The Man You Love to Hate."
Howard Cosell has long since made the world forget Louis Wohlheim. Wohlheim wore a spiked helmet or a monocle to inspire hisses. All Cosell does is open his mouth.
He has been voted, in the same poll, "most Popular" and "least popular" broadcaster in sports. Those are tough horses to ride at the same time.
He has made Monday Night Football a state religion. He is abrasive, literate, somewhat paranoid, shrewd, vulnerable. He thinks of himself as a Star ("My God, Emmy, I'm a Star!") one minute and Capt. Dreyfus the next. He has the vocabulary of an Oxford Don and the delivery of a Dead End Kid. It's the Archbishop of Canterbury played by Jimmy Cagney - or Leo Gorcey.
His voice has been likened to the sound of a Hoboken ferry blast at a passing tug, and New Year's Eve on Broadway. Like a 747, his sentences need plenty of landing room. His style is stuccato but his words are so big he pronounces them in sections. His variety show failed because his introductions lasted longer than the acts. One or the other had to go to fit the time slot.
He arouses the latent anti-New York attitudes of every guy who ever got yelled at by a Manhattan cop or ripped off by a Third Avenue jeweler. His grammar is flawless, yet he will be most famous for the phrase "Tell it like it is," which is about as grammatical as "You done it."
He can't understand why he isn't universally loved, even when he conducts interviews like "John Unitas, your arm is gone, you can't spot the open receiver downfield anymore, you never were fast, and your release is like cocking a musket, don't you truly feel you're hurting the team?"
Or, "Muhammad, why do you kid yourself, you lay on the ropes because you can't fight three minutes every round anymore, you couldn't open a letter with your right hand, and you're fat? Tell me why I should pay $200 a seat to watch you give a comic opera performance?"
Underneath all the bluster is the soul of a knotholer. Cosell remembers every bubble-gum card he ever collected. He's probably a closet autograph hound. He's hero worshiper. Like all such, he takes disappointment hard. As Phil Silvers pointed out the other night, Cosell has a player as "the greatest pass catcher in the history of the game" one minute, but, as soon as the guy drops one, he says "Why in heavens name don't they trade him?"
They gave Cosell a Friars' roast the other night. In Los Angeles, that's like being knighted. They don't give Friars' roasts to character actors, second bananas, the hero's best friend or designated hitters. When the ribald Friars insult you, you have arrived. You have joined an elite. You are, officially, Supermouth.
It was a typical Friars night. Riotous and Rabelaisian. The script is right from a toilet wall in a Greyhound bus depot, but the laughs are nonstop. "Why are we honoring this man?" demanded emcee Milton Berle. "Did we run out of human beings?" The Friars announced that they were "paying hostage" to the honoree. Cosell was described as looking like "the lone survivor of an Indian massacre who got scalped and put somebody else's hair on."
He was hailed as "the only guy in history who changed his name and put a toupee on to 'tell it like it is.'" They noted that "the sound track from Cosell's variety show is used to make spies talk." He was accused of being the kind of humanitarian who "would rearrange the furniture in Helen Keller's house" or "give a digital watch to a one-armed man." He was described as a man "who can talk two hours on any given subject - four hours if he happens to know something about it." He was warned, "You better hope Abe Vigoda lives - or you'll be the ugliest man in the world."
The evening was described by John Harbour as "The Super Bowl of Smut" but it was a comedians' free-for-all. The significance of it is that, when the mosaic of late 20th Century sport is being assembled, the looming figure of Howard Cosell will hover over all of it. No one knows how much of Socrates is really Plato, or Dr. Johnson, Boswell, and, maybe, J. Royce Stockton invented Dizzy Dean, but Cosell should be pardoned for thinking he invented Muhammed Ali, Lombardi's Green Bay Packers and the NFL generally.
Put it this way: The Friars don't roast play-by-play announcers from Peoria. Cosell is as important as he that in some well-chosen, if four-that in some well-chasen, if four-letter, words.