Howard Cosell by the Forward

Meet the greatest Jewish sportscasters of all time

On July 2, 1921, one hundred years ago, 100,000 fans elbowed their way into Boyle’s Thirty Acres in Jersey City, New Jersey to see the highly anticipated heavyweight championship fight between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier. Dempsey retained the title with a fourth-round knockout of the Frenchman.

The Dempsey-Carpentier fight marked the first time fans had an opportunity to follow a sporting event live, far away from the venue of the competition. The experimental broadcast was primitive by today’s standards. Still, from the technological seeds of ship-to-shore communication, radio erupted and became wildly popular.

A reported 300,000 listeners tuned in to Dempsey-Carpentier, some from as far away as Europe. The radio experiment was a striking success. In a short time, families would sit around the dinner table listening to voices waft from large, first generation, four-legged radios.

In the nascent days of radio, the medium’s biggest personality was Graham McNamee, who undertook just about everything he was assigned by NBC, the country’s first radio network.

McNamee hosted music programs, parades, political conventions, regattas and the like. He did the big spectator sporting events too — the Rose Bowl, the Fall Classic and the big boxing bouts. In the 1920s, Graham broadcast the two heart-stopping heavyweight bouts between Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey. McNamee’s sonorous delivery carried through the airwaves and filled speakers at storefronts and in other places where huge crowds gathered.

As radio expanded, generalists like McNamee would no longer cut it; specialists were required. In the late 1920s and early 30s, sports experts surfaced, in particular CBS’ Ted Husing and NBC’s Bill Stern who became bitter network competitors.

By the mid-1930s, McNamee became distressed after he lost visible assignments like the World Series and major heavyweight fights. McNamee died a young man at 54. The cause: loneliness. He missed the limelight.

Husing’s parents were of German descent and while Ted was raised a gentile, his mother was Jewish, and the broadcaster quietly assisted his mother’s relative to secure documents to leave Germany before it was too late.

Ted, who enunciated every letter of every word, is considered the country’s first network sportscaster. He even made a science of calling football, developing depth charts that are still used in some form today. Husing had great influences on young broadcasters too, such as Jack Buck, Bill Mazer and Jack Brickhouse.

The legendary sportscaster Marty Glickman once told me he regretted the time that he worked a track and field event with Husing and wasn’t completely prepared. “I was deeply upset that I might have embarrassed the great Ted Husing,” he told me.

NBC’s Bill Stern was raised in Rochester, New York. He hid his Jewish identity behind his national NBC microphone. He was a master storyteller and a dramatic raconteur, one who had little compunctions to share tall tales. One story Stern told had President Abraham Lincoln on his deathbed, asking Abner Doubleday to invent the game of baseball.

When it was necessary, Stern did not hesitate to cover up for his own play-by-play blunders. If Stern had identified the wrong ball carrier racing toward the endzone, he’d artfully insert a quick make-believe lateral: “Jones flips it to James who scores.” Smooth but inaccurate.

Sam Taub, whose husky voice belied his 5’2” frame was a boxing reporter for the New York Telegraph, and well-known around the fight beat. Glickman described Taub, who hailed from New York’s Lower East Side, as “a lovely little round man who was very New York.”

The boxing gyms were invariably packed in the prewar years, and with the advent of radio, Taub shelved his typewriter for a microphone. He’s considered by many as the father of boxing broadcasting. In time, he was picked up by NBC, and it’s said that he called some 7,500 fights.

The Sam Taub Award is a yearly presentation by the Boxing Writers Association of America honoring excellence in boxing broadcast journalism.

Postwar television

The seeds of a new medium began to surface in America after World War II. Early, the picture was grainy, the screen tiny and the reception fidgety. In 1950, only 9% of American homes had TV. In 25 years, there would be 95%.

In the nifty 50s, sports programming on network television was highlighted by the World Series, college football and the Friday Night Fights. The two team voices of the participating World Series clubs were generally partnered on the NBC call, which almost invariably meant the Yankees’ Mel Allen, or Melvin Israel by birth, was part of the broadcast.

Allen was inextricably linked with sports. Before today’s plethora of bowl games, the Rose, the granddaddy of ‘em all, dominated new year’s day. And Allen at the fore.

Glickman, who was radio’s first basketball announcer, was the first voice to preside over the young NBA’s limited appearances on NBC. But after the first season, NBA president Maurice Podoloff pulled Glickman off the broadcasts. Years later, Glickman learned why — he was perceived as “too New York,” a coded term for too Jewish.” Tennessee-reared Lindsey Nelson succeeded Glickman who was bitterly disappointed, saying it badly altered his career.

In 1970, ABC introduced “Monday Night Football”; soon thereafter, the NFL would own sports on television. Howard Cohen, aka Howard Cosell, was television’s most intrusive and polarizing name. He described himself as, “arrogant, pompous, vain, verbose, a showoff.” Cosell was hardly an observant Jew, but he didn’t hide his ancestry. Many loathed him and others, particularly younger viewers, loved him no matter their faiths.

By 1979, ESPN was born and in the 1980s, by an order of the Supreme Court, the television spigots of college football rushed forth, transforming Saturdays from a day of a couple of games to well over a hundred. More games meant more play-by-play opportunities.

Jews have in no way ever dominated on-air sports broadcasting. Yet there were quite a few who were particularly talented and visible. These are some of the best from top to bottom.

The Best of the Best

Al Michaels — Brooklyn born, the cynosure of 36 primetime NFL seasons. Never talks too much or too little. He perfectly infuses fitting observations with an economy of words. Lofty partners tell Al’s history: Madden, Collinsworth, Dierdorf, Palmer, Cosell and Uecker. Michaels narrated a history of Jews in sports.

Mel Allen – Family name Melvin Israel. No bigger sportscaster in the 1950s on all of network TV. Excelled at World Series, Rose Bowls and studio programming. His southern drawl and summer’s warm breezes formed unforgettable baseball bonds. He called Yankees games during the club’s era of dominance, and called as many Fall Classics on TV as Vin Scully and Curt Gowdy

Marv Albert – “Without hard work, nothing grows but weeds.” Bellowed on radio and TV, locally and on network. Stylized, gripping, with a flair for the dramatic. Called NFL and NHL games, but will always be remembered for the NBA. Albert lost at least a great aunt in the Holocaust.

Dick Stockton – Son of a Jewish Dutch family. Original family name: Stokvis. A silk-like tone. A résumé that includes: NBA Finals, NFL playoffs, MLB, Carlton Fisk’s 1975 World Series homer. Teams: Knicks, Red Sox and A’s. Networks: Turner, Fox, CBS and NBC.

Dan Shulman — The good ones make it sound like they’re not even there. Inconspicuous, cheerful, with no visible ego, he doesn’t get in the way of viewers. Has called TV, radio, MLB, college hoops, hockey and some football.

Kenny Albert — “Versatility is an extra string to a player’s bow.” Of all the four major sports, the NHL is his best. Yet, he shepherds his audiences seamlessly through the NFL, MLB and NBA.

Ian Eagle — Studied broadcasting at Syracuse, the sports announcing equivalent of Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio, and zipped his way up the CBS ladder.

Steve Levy – Bright, unique, raspy, humorous. After mastering hockey, he’s now beginning to flourish as a comfortable listen on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.”

Sam Rosen – Son of post WWII parents in a German DP camp, he has spent years calling the NFL and NHL where he fashioned his signature call: “It’s a power play goal!”

Barry Tompkins – A former, longtime TV sports anchor, boxing was his middle name. A 1992 winner of the Sam Taub Award for broadcast boxing excellence, he’s worked for NBC, HBO and ESPN.

Jewish Women Making a Name for Themselves in Broadcasting

Malika Andrews — Precocious, confident, quick on her feet. She got a jump-start at ESPN after the Nichols-Taylor debacle.

Bonnie Bernstein — Born in Brooklyn, grew up in New Jersey and was active initially on ESPN in the mid-90s. She moved to CBS in 1998 and back briefly to ESPN in 2006.

Linda Cohn — Cut her teeth on radio. Spirited, upbeat, with a refulgent smile. A longtime ESPNer, she’s known for her many decades of hosting “SportsCenter.”

Gayle Gardner – Among the early ESPN women pioneers, she then stepped up for an assortment of assignments on NBC Sports.

Dana Jacobson — After perfunctory stops in local markets, Dana pulled up at ESPN hosting studio programs. Now at CBS, you’ll see her on “March Madness” and elsewhere.

Suzy Kolber — Philly-raised, you’ll never catch her off-guard. She delivers excellence for ESPN’s NFL coverage, and is most identified with “Monday Night Football.”

Andrea Kremer - Bright and intuitive, Kremer is a gifted reporter and writer. Her rich résumé includes NBC, the NFL Network and ESPN.

Rachel Nichols – She hit the keys at first including a beat at The Washington Post. Later, she had a couple visible stints with ESPN. CNN and Turner were stops in between.

Laura Okmin – Started journey in Montgomery, Alabama, graduated to Turner and now Fox. At 49, Okmin’s star is still bright and she’s seen on weekly NFL telecasts.

Tracy Wolfson — Firm, disciplined and remarkably good, she’ll elbow her way through crowds to get to the story or ask the tough question.

Network Personalities:

Chris Berman – Joined a fledgling ESPN in 1979 with lots of verve and vigor. For decades he blended clownish humor with stylish reportorial qualities.

Howard Cosell – A man of many layers who reveled in his own attention. In the 1960s, network sports broadcasting was made up of a small body of anchors, play-by-play announcers and analysts. “I am a journalist,” Cosell declared, differentiating himself from his otherwise deferential and conciliatory peers. And so, he would proceed to harangue, decry and pontificate, all in the interest of telling it like it is.

Roy Firestone – A mainstay during ESPN’s formative years. He had a craving to delve into the lives of popular sports personalities, And did it as well as anyone. No half-hour or hourlong interviews were as riveting as Firestone’s.

Tony Kornheiser – The man who turned words beautifully as a columnist to ESPN’s co-host of “Pardon the Interruption.” He and partner Michael Wilbon engage in entertaining polemics. He’s unpredictable too.

Dick Schaap – Another writer-turned-sportscaster, Schaap hosted ESPN’s “Sports Reporters” on Sundays, moderating discussions among the nation’s best columnists.

Most prominent and arguably the most beloved Jewish voice of all-time

Marty Glickman – Glickman developed the nomenclature and technique to call basketball on radio and was also an outstanding football announcer, among the best ever. He called sports lyrically and flowingly. Glickman narrated lots of different sports for the popular newsreels shown in theaters before the advent of TV. Late in his career, he trained, tutored and counseled some of the best voices from Marv Albert to Bob Costas.

Glickman was an announcers’ coach for NBC and taught Fordham University’s budding broadcasters. He suffered badly from being unable to partake as a track star in the 1936 Berlin Olympics because of his Jewish faith.

But upon his return to the U.S., he dashed off the mat with alacrity, focusing on broadcasting and a wonderful career. Glickman had a retinue of followers right until his death in 2001. He always picked up the phone no matter who was on the other end of the line. He was willing to help all.

Charity from a Jewish perspective transcends money. It includes building trust, relationships and contributions of time, effort and insight. Glickman was a wonderful human being who was helpful to many.

*David Halberstam is the publisher of the Sports Broadcast Journal.

Meet the greatest Jewish sportscasters of all time

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