With the Giants and Jets playing their last games at Giants Stadium, New Jersey newspapers have published numerous articles on the subject of “My Greatest Giants Stadium Memory.” As a pro football fanatic, I attended numerous Giant and Jet games over the years, and one would expect me to cite such contests as the 2000-2001 NFC Championship game or the 2000 Monday Night Football game in which the Jets came from behind 30-7 to score a 40-37 overtime victory over the Miami Dolphins.
As a political person, however, my leading Giants Stadium memory did not take place on the gridiron. In fact, it occurred nearly six years before Giants Stadium opened and spanned a period of two years: 1970-1972.
When I think of Giants Stadium, I will always recall first and foremost the late Howard Cosell excoriating the trio of New Jersey Governor William T. Cahill, Giants owner Wellington Mara, and David “Sonny” Werblin for moving the Giants from Yankee Stadium and New York City to the New Jersey Meadowlands. Sports journalist Larry Merchant once described Cosell as a man who made “the world of fun and games sound like the Nuremberg trials.” This description could be well applied to Humble Howard’s battle against the Unholy Alliance of Cahill, Mara, and Werblin.
Understand this: 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, when 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 “Speaking of Sports” show on ABC-Radio. His broadcasts provided an education not only regarding the games and players but also the often deleterious way the business of sports impacts the sociology and politics of our nation.
He 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. Now that I am in my post-governmental years, I have aspirations of writing a biography of him. In order to do his career justice, I would deem it essential to devote an entire chapter on Howard’s New Jersey crusade against Giants Stadium.
Cosell depicted the development of Giants Stadium as originating from a desire of Sonny Werblin to avenge his former business partners, most notably Leon Hess, for a bitter battle that resulted in his selling 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. When the Jets upset the Baltimore Colts and won Super Bowl III after the 1968 season, Werblin was no longer around, 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 his good friend, New Jersey Governor William T. Cahill to create the competitive Meadowlands Sports Complex, which would feature a racetrack 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.
Howard and his wife, Emmy were friends with Sonny Werblin, and his wife, Leah Ray. He regarded Werblin as a dynamic force and an outstanding person. By contrast, Cosell 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 New Jersey 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, East Rutherford, New Jersey. He insisted 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 comment 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 Casella was one of my favorite Meadowlands mayors.
In the early 1980s, when the Jets made public their intention to leave Shea Stadium in Queens, Howard severely criticized Leon Hess and the State of New Jersey for the move. He never criticized Governor Kean, however, as he had Governor Cahill. Furthermore his criticisms of Leon Hess did not have the same vitriol as his former criticisms of Mara. He 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.
Was Howard justified in his crusade against Giants Stadium? My views on this topic are complicated and largely based on my experience as Meadowlands Commission Executive Director. I will save them for another column.
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.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and seven federally recognized Indian nations.