Howard Cosell, who walked away from professional fights and then disappeared from Monday Night Football, unfortunately has reappeared as a commentator in the baseball playoffs. Two out of three are not satisfactory. He should have made it unanimous. It would have been a public service.
He is in the ABC booth with the perceptive and workmanlike Al Michaels and Jim Palmer. Unlike Cosell, both are merely full of their subject, not full of themselves. Howard is just a nuisance.
In the Tigers-K.C. opener, when he wasn't subjecting us to his prodigious memory for irrelevancies (something forgettable about Dazzy Vance), he was thwacking and thwacking at the obvious.
As when Alan Trammell got his third hit, triple, homer, single, and we heard it from Cosell ("What a night that man has"). And then from him the daring prediction ("I suspect that the gate has been closed on Kansas City.") This when the Tigers had a 5-0 lead in the seventh inning and a two-hit pitcher going for them. It was Cosell willing to go out on a limb, boldly.
What did it mean to Cosell when Tigers Manager Sparky Anderson brought in his incomparable reliever Willie Hernandez in the eighth inning to lock it up? When the change was made it merely meant to Cosell, "Exactly what I was talking about earlier." He could personalize a resin bag.
Simple language does not occur to Cosell when he is posturing and proffering his great knowledge of the game. As when he was demanding that Palmer agree with him that relief pitching would decide the outcome of the Tigers-Royals playoffs. "But Jim, in the ultimate, doesn't it come down to Hernandez-Quisenberry?" Ultimate indeed.
Along the way Tuesday night, Howard also managed to evoke the name of the great Branch Rickey when somebody's bid for a home run barely went foul. "That's luck," said Cosell, who went on to misquote Rickey as having voiced the aphorism, "Good luck is the residue of desire." Cosell's residue named desire was off the track. Rickey used to say, "Good luck is the residue of effort."
Before the game, Cosell does serve a purpose, bringing on top baseball personalities for the hard interviews, asking the tough questions. That's the good part about Cosell, even if he is sometimes prosecutorial and shivers his subjects. But when the game proper starts, they ought to throw a bag over his head and lead him away, again for the public good.
Since he quit Monday Night Football (or was he about to be dumped by ABC?), some of Cosell's former critics have had a softening of feeling for him. Good guys like George Vecsey of The New York Times and Len Shapiro of The Washington Post lament now that he will be missed and that, like him or otherwise, he was a presence in the ABC booth and Monday Night games aren't the same without him.
Agreed. Monday Night Football isn't the same. It is more pleasant without Cosell's fatuous utterances, his constant flogging of mistake-prone rookies and other luckless miscreants, and his woeful pretense of being a student of the game, which is still foreign to him after his 14 years on Monday Nights.
It is suspected that some of Cosell's new-found defenders are responding to a guilt feeling after all those years of disparaging him. There is no guilt here. Cosell was an annoyance then and, as for now, there is no sign of a personality change.
As for his decision to quit commentating on pro boxing after the Tex Cobb-Larry Holmes mismatch, when he drew himself up in self righteousness and said he was having no more of such cruelty, it is proper to examine that decision. It was so sudden.
Cosell had been presiding ringside for more than 20 years over gory mismatches without voicing much disapproval. Boxing actually had been his rich meal ticket. He defended Muhammad Ali for not taking those two steps forward that would have put him in the Army, a right the Supreme Court later upheld, but he also found Ali useful to his television career, riding Ali's coattails and his ratings to fame and fortune.
There was another reason why Cosell would quit boxing. ABC was out of the picture now, unable to compete with closed circuit for the big fights, which were unappealing anyway, given the bores in the heavyweight division. Cosell wasn't walking away from anything. They cut his job out from under him.
As for Cosell's defenders, now that he's no longer on the Monday Night scene, Bill Wallace of The New York Times, like myself, is not among them. No writer has been covering the NFL longer or is more esteemed than Wallace, who stated in a recent Pro Football Weekly column, "Cosell had absolutely no feel for football, and he probably understood no more about the game in 1983 than in 1970." So much for Howard's pretense of being a football scholar in the Monday Night booth. There have been five Monday Night games without him and they have been more enjoyable.
Frank Gifford has been relieved of his seeming duty to be so unctuous with his, "You're right Howard," and is talking loose and well about what is taking place down on the field.
From O.J. Simpson, Monday Night fans are getting more informative and instructive commentary than ever before. If O.J. talks a bit too much, that's forgiveable. This man who played the game so well, knows it so well and is a gem, as when he predicted the other night after the Raiders were stopped at their goal line, "Now watch Marcus Allen go over the top." Obediently, Allen did, for an airborne touchdown.
The sufferer on Monday Nights is Don Meredith, who no longer can have fun exploiting Cosell's technical blunders. Simpson is too accurate for the impish Meredith, leaving him verbally handcuffed. That's too bad.
They say NFL attendance is declining this season. Herewith is a belief: more fans used to go to the games in larger numbers as an escape from Cosell's self-serving comments ("I predicted at the top of the show . . . "). Personally I rejoice in his absence from the booth. His presence there constituted cruel and unusual punishment. For 14 years. This is not a rush to judgment.