November 11, 2014
Memories of Howard
From You Can't Make This Up: Miracles, Memories, and the Perfect Marriage of Sports and Television, Al Michaels as excerpted in Sports Illustrated 11/3/14
Often when Cosell and I worked baseball together, we were joined in the booth by Uecker. He was supposed to play the role Don Meredith did on Monday Night Football. Johnny Carson, who had Uecker on as a guest close to a hundred times, once said that Bob might be the funniest man ever. He's certainly in the conversation. To this day almost anything out of Uecker's mouth makes me belly-laugh. A lot of his great stories revolve around how inept a player he was during his career in the 1960s. ("I hit a grand slam off Ron Herbel," he said, "and when his manager, Herman Franks, came out to get him, he brought Herbel's suitcase.") And Uecker has always been quick with a rejoinder. That came in handy when he was in the booth with Cosell.
Cosell's knowledge of baseball might best be described as shallow. He thought he knew everything about the game, but he really knew very little. If he was in the booth for a Monday-night Yankees game in May, with the opposing team leading 8-1 in the third inning, he might say the Yanks should bring in Goose Gossage to put out the fire. There was little use in explaining to Cosell that, no, in the third inning, with the Yankees trailing by seven, it would border on insanity to call on their best reliever, a future Hall of Famer. To Cosell the conventional analyst was just another dumb jock. He was Howard Cosell! He knew better.
L: Al Michaels; R: Howard Cosell
Once, in the early '80s, Cosell, Uecker and I were doing a game at the Astrodome. At one point in the late innings Cosell called for a bunt even though it was a situation in which no one would ever bunt. Uecker wanted to mildly chide Cosell but knew he had to be careful. "Well, Howard, I'm not really sure you want to bunt here," he said gently. He went on to explain why. Cosell responded, "Uecky, I get your point. But you don't have to be so truculent. You do know what truculent means, don't you?" Uecker didn't miss a beat: "Of course, Howard. If you had a truck and I borrowed it, it would be a truck-you-lent."
Uecker could also use me as his straight man. Another time we were talking about Charlie Finley, the eccentric owner of the A's, and his proposal to manufacture all baseballs in the same yellowish orange as some tennis balls. The idea was that the brighter baseballs would be easier for fans to follow.
L: Bob Uecker; R: Tom Lasorda
At the end of the 1982 baseball season Cosell and I were set to work the National League Championship Series. The third spot in the booth was still to be determined. Arledge was always big on bringing in someone in the news. So that Sunday night the call went out to Tommy Lasorda. Lasorda had won three pennants with the Dodgers and a World Series title the previous season. But now, with his club eliminated from the playoffs, would he be interested in a brief sojourn into broadcasting? The answer was yes.
Lasorda and I had crossed paths countless times over my years calling games for the Hawaii Islanders, the Reds, the Giants and ABC. Now we were together in St. Louis for the National League playoffs. It was the Cardinals versus the Braves. Baseball in October. Beautiful. Except that Lasorda looked petrified. As we rehearsed the opening segment, I had to keep telling him, "Tommy, it'll be O.K. You'll be fine."
Cosell opened up the telecast. Then he brought me in. Then I brought Lasorda in. Cosell and I talked with him about the two teams. The Cardinals do this, the Braves do that. Here are their strengths and weaknesses. So far, so good. Then Cosell was ready to take us to a commercial. But before he did, he said, "O.K., throwing out the ceremonial first pitch are the children of the late Cardinals third baseman Kenny Boyer, who succumbed a fortnight ago, at the age of 51, to the ravages of lung cancer. Kenny Boyer fought that insidious disease tooth and nail to the very end. He went to Mexico for laetrile treatments and absorbed more radiation than anyone thought humanly possible.
"So when you look at the long and storied history of the St. Louis Cardinals franchise, you can go back and you can have your Rogers Hornsby. You can have your Joseph (Ducky) Medwick and Jay (Dizzy) Dean as well. You can take Albert (Red) Schoendienst and, yes, even the Man himself, Stanley Frank Musial of Donora, Pennsylvania. Because when it comes to the embodiment of the St. Louis Cardinals franchise, look no further than the countenance of one Kenton Lloyd Boyer. He was a man's man. And we'll miss him." Cosell then lowered his voice another notch: "We'll be back after this."
There was nothing Cosell loved more than delivering a eulogy He would affect a "half-mast" voice. Didn't matter who it was. Cosell wanted to show you how much he knew about the deceased and how well he could put their lives in context.
We went to commercial. We had been using hand mikes, and now we put our headsets on. I started jotting something down in my scorebook. Cosell, of course, was preening after delivering his Boyer tribute. I thought I heard sniffling in my headset. Then I heard it again. I looked over at Lasorda. His eyes were moist, and I saw little rivulets running down his cheeks. Cosell saw it, too, and he said, "Tommy! What's the matter?"
Lasorda's voice broke as he said, "Howard, in the minors I actually roomed for half a season with Kenny Boyer. I loved him. He was one of my dearest friends. What a man. A tremendous man. Howard, I've never heard a eulogy like that. Only you could do it. That was just beautiful."
Cosell leaned back. He had the cigar going. He said, "Hey, Tommy, just understand one thing. Kenny Boyer was a prick!"
It was quintessential Cosell. Show everyone how smart you are, show that you know every player's middle name - Stanley Frank Musial, Kenton Lloyd Boyer - and just make it part of the show. But it calmed Lasorda down. And we went on with the game.