- There You Have It: The Life, Legacy, and Legend of Howard Cosell
Almost every American within a certain age group can do an impression of Howard Cosell. The voice, harsh with the tones of Brooklyn, the dra-MAT-ic emphasis on key syllables, the sharp staccato of rhythmically spaced words—together serve as a password into the vast and not-so-secret club that lived for Wide World of Sports and thought the yellow Monday Night Football blazers the height of chic. Cosell did not provide a soundtrack for sporting moments so much as overwhelm them. In our minds we do not see George Foreman’s vicious uppercut, we hear Cosell shouting “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!” He was somehow both larger than life and unmistakably human, an electric personality garbed in the most ordinary of bodies. In There You Have It, John Bloom examines a sportscaster who remains a cultural touchstone to this day. Bloom situates his subject within the broader cultural, social, and media currents of the mid and late twentieth century, viewing him as a tool for understanding America during these years.
Bloom satisfies readers expecting to encounter the standard elements of Cosell-iana. Roone Arledge, “Dandy” Don Meredith, and Muhammad Ali all make appearances. There You Have It, however, is not a cradle-to-grave biography so much as an interpretive overview that uses particular moments in Cosell’s life to illuminate his rise to fame and to explain his amazing popularity—and un-popularity. Bloom’s most interesting material appears in his chapters on Cosell’s youth and early adulthood. Young Cosell absorbed and reflected the Depression Era social activism of his poor, Brooklyn, immigrant neighborhood. His Jewish heritage provided a mixed legacy. He embraced the idea that Judaism gave him an identity in a world organized largely by religion and ethnicity and believed that being Jewish gave him a special drive to succeed. At the same time he viewed Judaism as a humiliating stigma that erected barriers against his ambitions.
Cosell became a lawyer after a stint in the army during World War II. His career decision thrilled his demanding parents even though, as his carefully cultivated relationships with athletes and media figures suggest, his true interests lay elsewhere. His work for the Television Writers of America backfired when the union got caught up in McCarthy-era red baiting. Cosell, later touted as an advocate of social justice, deserted the union in its hour of need. Bloom perhaps makes too much of this brush with the Red Scare when he argues that television networks blacklisted the decidedly un-photogenic attorney. Nevertheless, as Bloom shows, the incident reveals the limits of Cosell’s devotion to unpopular causes.
Readers reach more familiar ground when Bloom capably outlines Cosell’s rise from local radio to national television. He provides a succinct analysis of Cosell’s career-defining association with Muhammad Ali and his controversial support for Black Power demonstrations at the 1968 Olympics. The broadcaster’s provocateur role on Monday Night Football and impassioned commentary during the 1972 Munich Olympics hostage crisis catapulted [End Page 495] him to the pinnacle of fame. His inevitable downward slide occupies the book’s last few chapters. ABC television marginalized Cosell in the late 1970s. Disillusioned, he became an ardent critic of big-time sports and the television networks whose dollars fed them. SportsBeat, his early 1980s investigative news program, showcased his pessimism. The critically acclaimed but poorly rated show marked his last gasp on television. He spent his final years composing radio commentaries, writing columns for the New York Daily News, and fulminating against the industries that had made him a legend.
There You Have It provides a sound, accessible overview of a media titan. Best suited for people too young to remember Cosell at his peak, it features thoughtful insights on race, gender, the media, and ethnicity during a tumultuous era. At times, however, Bloom needs to extend his analysis to provide...