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This year marks the 100th anniversary of the National Football League (NFL). This is the 64th season of my avid NFL fandom. I remember when prior to the December, 1958 sudden death NFL Championship Game between the Baltimore (never Indianapolis!) Colts and the New York Giants, the NFL was less popular than college football.
This is also the 50th season of Monday Night Football. Although the Sunday night game is now the NFL featured contest of the week, Monday Night Football was the leading sports national media event during the 1970s. It was the popularity of Monday Night Football in that decade that resulted in the NFL dislodging Major League Baseball (MLB) as the nation’s number one spectator sport. And it was the color commentator, Howard Cosell, whose insights into the personal lives of the players and the business aspects of the teams that broadened the appeal of Monday Night Football to an audience much wider than merely devoted pro football fans.
I adored Howard Cosell. I remember as a major moment in my life the exact date and time when I first heard his Brooklyn-nasal-staccato voice on the radio: Monday, June 20, 1960. On that evening, my father and I sat in the kitchen and listened to Howard and Les Keiter broadcast live from the late, lamented Polo Grounds the bout in which Floyd Patterson knocked out Ingemar Johansson at 1 minute, 51 seconds in the fifth round, thereby becoming the first fighter to regain the world heavyweight championship.
From that night on, I was hooked on Howard. Every day, I would make sure that at 7:25 am and 5:55 pm, I would listen to Howard’s national “Speaking of Sports” show on ABC-Radio, KQV -FM (not AM) in Pittsburgh. His broadcasts provided an education not only regarding the games and players but also the often deleterious impact of the business of sports upon the sociology and politics of our nation.
Howard also focused on the racism in sports. The three athletes who have meant the most to me were Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and Roberto Clemente, not only for their athletic accomplishments but for their positive impact on society as well. Robinson and Ali had no greater champion than Howard Cosell.
So I revere Howard’s memory. Although I never met him in person, I felt that he was an important influence on my life. In truth, he transformed television and radio sports coverage from mere reportage into a journalistic craft and profession.
The national fame that Howard inadvertently gave East Rutherford, New Jersey was a byproduct of his crusade against the New York Giants’ move from Yankee Stadium in the Bronx to the New Jersey Meadowlands. The Meadowlands Borough of East Rutherford was to be the location of the planned sports complex, consisting of a football stadium and racetrack.
Cosell depicted accurately the development of Giants Stadium as originating from a desire of Sonny “Like in Money” Werblin to avenge his former business partners, most notably Leon Hess, who had forced him to sell to them his ownership interests in the New York Jets and Monmouth Park racetrack.
Sonny had been the key player in the signing by the Jets of Joe Namath in 1965, which gave the then American Football League credibility and made the Jets genuine rivals with the Giants in New York City. In fact, the signing of Namath was the first in a chain of events that led to the merger between the National Football League and the American Football League in 1966. When the Jets upset the Baltimore Colts and won Super Bowl III on January 12, 1969, Werblin was no longer on the scene, due to the above-mentioned sale of his interest in the Jets to Hess and his other partners before the season.
Therefore, Werblin, according to Cosell, struck back against his erstwhile partners by joining forces with his former rival, Giants’ owner Wellington Mara, and New Jersey’s then Republican Governor William T. Cahill to create the Meadowlands Sports Complex, which would feature a racetrack to compete with Monmouth Park and a stadium for the Giants. The irony is that the racetrack was envisaged as the major money maker of the complex, but the advent of casino gambling in Atlantic City in 1978 resulted in a decline of horse racing betting. Meanwhile, Werblin became the first chair of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. While Howard opposed Werblin’s involvement in the Giants’ move, he and his wife, Emmy were friends with Sonny and his wife, Leah Ray. Cosell regarded Werblin as a dynamic force and an outstanding person. By contrast, Howard had disdain for Mara, whom he described in his autobiography, Cosell, as having a personality like “wet cement.”
So night after night on his radio broadcast, once the Meadowlands Sports Complex proposal became public knowledge, Cosell inveighed against Mara as a man who was deserting New York City, depriving the city of the Giants and needed tax revenue. He lambasted Governor Cahill and New Jersey in general by questioning why the Garden State should be raising $200 million to build a sports complex while Newark, Camden, Jersey City, and Trenton were all in a state of rapid and steep decline. Cosell would repeat these censures of New Jersey and the Giants at least weekly over a period of nearly two years.
Cosell’s most derisive comments regarding New Jersey, however, were those regarding the location of the Sports Complex, to wit, East Rutherford, New Jersey. At a press conference in 1971, Wellington Mara announced that the team would always be known as the New York Giants. That night, on the air, Howard fervently objected, insisting that the Giants should henceforth be called the East Rutherford Giants. He would end his broadcasts by saying, “Good luck to the East Rutherford Giants!” His most scathing comments regarding East Rutherford were made in the context of the $10 million indemnity the American Football League owners had to pay the Giants for the territorial rights to New York City at the time of the merger with the National Football League. As Howard put it, “When the American Football League owners paid $10 million to the Giants, they were paying for the territorial rights to New York City and NOT East Rutherford, New Jersey!”
As somebody who grew up in Pittsburgh, I had never heard of East Rutherford, New Jersey. How ironic it is that years later, I would serve as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission and have the responsibility to supervise the zoning in East Rutherford, one of the fourteen Meadowlands municipalities. The mayor of East Rutherford, Jim Cassella became one of my favorite Meadowlands mayors.
In the early 1980s, when the Jets made public their intention to leave Shea Stadium in Queens for the Meadowlands, Howard severely criticized owner Leon Hess and the State of New Jersey for the move. He never criticized Governor Tom Kean, however, as he had Governor Cahill.
Furthermore, Howard’s criticisms of Leon Hess did not have the same vitriol as his former criticisms of Mara. Cosell did, however, ridicule New Jersey as a place that was seeking to attract professional sports franchises at a time when, at least according to Howard, certain Bergen County municipalities did not have decent sewage connections.
One thing is certain, however. Howard Cosell removed the false façade of professional sports as being a Camelot where wealthy sportsmen, dedicated to the public interest, altruistically ran their franchises for the benefit of the fans. He also proved conclusively that sports and politics, which supposedly are to be separate arenas, often do mix, in many cases to the detriment of society.
For all this, Howard Cosell definitely ranks as the leading figure in the history of sports journalism. Regardless of one’s views about the establishment of Giants Stadium and the exodus of the Giants and Jets from New York City, one can never deny Howard Cosell his well-earned place not only in the history of American sports but in the history of American journalism as well. I bless his memory.
And finally, a closing word about Jimmy Cassella and the good people of East Rutherford, New Jersey –
East Rutherford will again be in the national spotlight within the next few months with the opening in the municipality of the American Dream Meadowlands retail and entertainment mega-complex. Its success or failure will be historically determinative as to the extent of the Meadowlands Sports Complex as an economic development generator.
East Rutherford is a Bergen County borough with a population of less than 10,000, largely working and middle class citizens. This year of 2019 will also be the final in the 24-year tenure of Jim Cassella as mayor of East Rutherford. He is retiring after a lifetime of low key yet dedicated public service.
We in the media tend to focus our attention on politicians of scandal, unconstrained ambition, and supreme power and influence. We overlook those individuals who serve at the local level without glamorous publicity or fame yet with ultimate dedicated public service, distinguished by integrity and competency. Jimmy Cassella is a quintessential example of this.
May Jimmy Cassella have an outstanding retirement, and may he and his family be blessed with all the good things that life has to offer. Howard Cosell never knew Jimmy Cassella, but Jimmy would have merited Howard’s praise!
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman.