The roots of his distinguished broadcasting career can be traced to the dashboard radio of a parked car in a Commack, N.Y. driveway, just off the Long Island Expressway. It was there, in the family jalopy, that 10-year-old Bob Costas would spend many an evening scanning the dial of America’s blowtorch stations in search of scores from games his father had bet on.
“When the rent is riding on whether Whitey Ford can get Al Kaline out, or Wilt Chamberlain can make two free throws—that’s a little anxiety provoking,’’ Costas said in a Washington Post interview.
Young Bob would not only report the scores to his gambling-addicted father, but would do so with the flair of a gifted storyteller.
“There was a romance to the airwaves,’’ Costas recalled. “A notion that moving the dial just slightly enabled you to eavesdrop on what people heard in Baltimore—or, a little farther over, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and on a really clear night, St. Louis.”
By listening to all those different calls, Costas would find his calling. A broadcaster would be born. Arguably the most gifted sports broadcaster of all-time.
The Syracuse University alum would go on to win 26 Emmys, be named national sportscaster of the year a record eight times, host 12 Olympics and earn induction into the broadcasters’ wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum this Saturday in Cooperstown. Name a major sporting event—the Olympics, World Series, Super Bowl, NBA Finals, U.S. Open, Kentucky Derby—and there’s a good chance Costas was the voice of it. And his versatility was not only on display as a studio host, a play-by-play broadcaster or a commentator, but also as an interviewer. In fact, in that genre, he may have no peer.
Although their relationship was often strained, his dad did him a favor by dispatching him to the family car. It was there that Costas began his journalism training. His teachers were some of the greatest storytellers of all-time.
“You pick up a little bit from each and every one (of the broadcasters who influence you),’’ he said after being named the Hall’s 2018 Ford C. Frick winner. “I’ve always felt you don’t copy the people you admire, but you learn from them—whether it’s preparation or a turn of a phrase. I don’t think I’ve copied purposely or sound like somebody else, but whatever I am as a broadcaster is a conglomeration of all those influences.”
One day, while thumbing through a New York Knicks yearbook, Costas discovered that two of his favorite broadcasters, Marty Glickman and Marv Albert, had attended Syracuse. That’s all he needed to know. He would follow in their footsteps, further enhancing SU’s reputation as the nation’s foremost producer of sportscasters.
Costas’ skills already were so refined by the time he arrived on campus, that WSYR, Syracuse’s NBC television and radio affiliate, gave him part-time gigs as a weekend sports anchor and as the play-by-play man for the Syracuse Blazers, an Eastern Hockey League team that was one of the inspirations for “Slapshot,” the cult classic comedy film about life in the brawling bush leagues, starring Paul Newman.
Costas has many fond memories of those days, when the fisticuffs in backwater hockey towns like Johnstown, Pa., weren’t restricted to the players on the ice. There was one incident, now funny, but then harrowing, in which Costas’s career was almost ended by a Blazers bruiser known as Bill “Harpo” Goldthorpe.
“There were only two things Harpo wanted to do—fight and drink,’’ Costas related in a 1992 Syracuse Post-Standard interview. “We’re on the bus after a game, and he’s upset with a comment I made on a broadcast, and he rips a newspaper out of my hand and tears it in half. I figure I can’t back down.
“So, I say, ‘Don’t feel bad, Goldie. I’ll teach you how to read.’ Well, he grabs me and slams me up against the wall of the bus. He reaches up and grabs this hacksaw that players used to shave their sticks. He has this hacksaw up against my neck; he threatens to decapitate me.
“You’ve got to understand that Goldthorpe—they modeled a ‘Slapshot’ character after Goldie—probably has no intention of using that hacksaw. But buses hit bumps, or swerve. Let us just say that I perceived a level of danger he didn’t.”
Goldthorpe eventually came to his senses and let him go, or else a brilliant broadcasting career might have met an early demise.
Costas left SU in 1974, a few credit hours shy of his degree, to take a job with KMOX, a St. Louis radio station known as a breeding ground for sportscasters. In 1980, he joined NBC Sports, doing NFL and NBA broadcasts. He’s been with the peacock network ever since.
Of all his assignments, none garnered bigger audiences or more acclaim than his work as the host of Olympic coverage. Following in the footsteps of legendary broadcaster Jim McKay, Costas hosted his first Games in Barcelona in 1992 and his last in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. His favorite Olympic moment was the 1996 Opening Ceremonies in Atlanta when Muhammad Ali lit the cauldron after receiving the torch from swimmer Janet Evans. No one knew Ali would be doing the lighting.
“They had staged this in such a way that Ali literally stepped out of the shadows,’’ Costas said. “And when he received that torch from her, even then his arm and body were trembling from Parkinson’s. There was a couple of seconds of silence and almost an audible gasp. A sound you almost never heard in a stadium. Until the place erupted in tremendous and sustained applause.”
It’s no secret that baseball has always been Costas’ favorite sport to watch and broadcast. He has long carried a 1958 Mickey Mantle baseball card with him, and in 1995 delivered a poignant eulogy of the ballplayer who became the favorite of Costas and millions of other baby boomers. “Because of my love of baseball and because of the other names that (won the Frick Award), this is at the top of my list,’’ said Costas, who continues to do play-by-play on the MLB Network.
“No disrespect to all the other awards, because they all mean a lot to me, but this means the most. In some sense, you’re on the same team as Jack Buck, Vin Scully, Ernie Harwell … and all the people I worked with and who are my friends, like Tim McCarver and Tony Kubek. There’s a sense of belonging to a really exclusive fraternity.”
He was introduced to many members of that fraternity, decades ago, while scanning the radio dial in the family’s jalopy in search of scores for his gambling-addicted father.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.