We were the Izod Squad.
I hated the sobriquet but I couldn’t escape it. After all, I arrived for work at the ABC corporate headquarters building in Midtown Manhattan on the same June day as Marte Megargle. And we were both International Radio & Television Society interns.
Marte was a workplace model of preppy: She wore plaid dresses with short, puffy sleeves. She also had plenty of khaki slacks, polo shirts and penny loafers. She was the whole package.
But she was also a smart, driven career woman, who happened to come in the guise of a sweet, red-haired Irish girl with a perfect complexion. On the other hand, I had a wardrobe maybe a quarter the size of hers—none of it preppy—and the remnants of a 70s look. But assistant operations manager Steve Goldstein dubbed us the Izod Squad and that was it. I was marked for the whole summer of 1981.
ABC, the newest of the now old Big 3 networks, was spread out all over Midtown Manhattan. That was an inconvenience for Howard Cosell, who occupied an office a few floors above ours. He didn’t like going across the street from ABC’s headquarters at 1330 Avenue of the Americas to 1345, home of ABC’s network radio division. Howard wanted a more convenient place to record his famous radio program, Speaking of Sports.
So he hopped the elevator down to where Marte and I worked—the only broadcast studios at 1330—WABC-AM and WPLJ-FM. The latter was the corporate version of an album oriented rock (AOR) station and 77 WABC was still spinning the hits that summer.
There he was, without an introduction and without an entourage. Howard Cosell, one of the most famous people in America, was standing a few feet from me. If I hadn’t recognized his face, I still would have known the voice. Even in casual conversation, he “announced.”
First impression: He was much taller than I had thought. A relatively tall man with big features. I guess it was all of those years standing next to huge athletes that had made his own physical stature a surprise to me.
Here was a man who just months before, had announced to most of the world that John Lennon had died. The story broke in the middle of Monday Night Football and Howard Cosell was the bearer of the horrible news.
He was the sports correspondent whose career grew alongside that of Mohammed Ali. But Cosell’s fame skyrocketed when he became part of Monday Night Football’s most popular team, with Frank Gifford and Dandy Don Meredith.
Meeting Howard Cosell
For all of his fame and power at ABC, Howard waited patiently for studio time and would sit in a row of often empty desks where we interns were assigned some minor listener contest and research work. No smoking in the workplace was years away. Howard fired up a long cigar as he propped his feet up on an unoccupied desk.
Then, gulp, he struck up a conversation with us. First, the pretty girl.
“So, young lady, where did you go to school?”
“St. Mary’s, in Indiana,” she announced, probably knowing she was feeding him a conversation-starter.
“Ah, Note-truh-Dame,” Howard enunciated. And sure enough, it was a launching pad for a quick commentary about the rich history and successful athletic traditions at St. Mary’s sister institution in South Bend.
I think he wanted to keep talking to Marte but out of politeness, he turned to me and asked where I had gone to college.
“Murray State in Kentucky,” I said. “Uh-huh,” he grunted. And in record time, he was talking to Marte again. Within a couple of years, he hired her as a producer.
I would bump into Howard off and on during the hot and dry summer of 1981, when New Yorkers were deprived of water fountains during the drought and baseball during the protracted strike.
Maybe that was why I saw Howard so much. No games to broadcast. In fact, WABC, the Yankees’ official radio station, found itself airing games of the Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate, Columbus Clippers, as well as re-broadcasts of classic World Series games that summer.
I learned two things about Howard that Al Michaels does not mention in his November 3 Sports Illustrated article, which is an excerpt from his new book, You Can’t Make This Up: Miracles, Memories and the Perfect Marriage of Sports and Television.
Two things about Howard you probably didn’t know
First, Howard sang.
When he settled into one of the WABC radio studios to record “Speaking of Sports” or his broader commentaries, “Speaking of Everything,” he sang.
A crafty old audio engineer would quietly roll a reel-to-reel or slide a cart into a machine to record Howard as he prepared to present his radio program. Old-timey songs, maybe obscure college fight songs. Now, there was a side of Howard Cosell I had not expected. I don’t think Howard knew the guys recorded his tuneful warm-up before his show.
ABC moved its corporate headquarters farther north in Manhattan later in the 80s. I wonder if the old Howard Cosell musical library survived the move.
Second, Howard’s mind was even more impressive than I knew.
On one occasion when Howard had wrapped up recording “Speaking of Sports,” I noticed some paper left near the microphone. I thought it would be good to impress Tara, Howard’s radio producer at that time.
I grabbed the paper without looking at it and ran to catch up with Tara, who was trailing her boss. I half shouted her name and she stopped. I handed her the paper and told her proudly that Howard had left it next to the mic.
She glanced quickly at the paper and shook her head. “No,” she said. “That’s not Howard’s. He doesn’t use a script.”
She trotted off and left me dumbfounded. Howard Cosell would record episode after episode of his radio commentaries and did so without a script. Names, dates, moments in history, statistics, quotations. All from memory.
Al Michaels’ excellent piece in SI framed the contradiction that was Howard Cosell: charming but off-putting, brilliant but hardly omniscient, famous but maybe a little lonely. I met many famous folk that summer, including Dionne Warwick, Morey Amsterdam (of the Dick Van Dyke Show), Ted Koppel, Dan Rather, and, well, I sort of met Stevie Nicks. She came to the station and I stood in front of her. I just couldn’t think of anything clever to say. But Howard Cosell was probably the most famous and unique personality of the whole group. As the SI piece says, “the one and only.” Indeed.