Bob Costas: The Conscience of NBC Sports on Sandusky, Olympics Scandal and, Yep, Being Short
Mired in the ratings cellar, the network has pinned its gold medal hopes on the charming, challenging sportscaster.
Costas always knew he wanted to be a sportscaster. "I wanted to be like Mel Allen and Red Barber and Vin Scully and call baseball games on the radio," he says.
Like many men of Costas' generation, his bond with his father was formed at the ballpark. But Costas' father was an inveterate gambler. "He didn't bet on horse races or cards. He bet on ballgames." He co-opted a young Bobby as his enabler, sending him up to the roof of the house at 145 New Highway in Commack, N.Y., to adjust the TV antenna or out to the car in the driveway to pick up games from far-flung cities. "I would turn on the ignition so I could get the radio on, and then I would move up and down the dial and try to tune in the Cardinals from St. Louis or the Phillies," he says, matter-of-factly. "And then I would report the scores to him."
His father, John Costas, was gainfully employed as an electrical engineer, which should have kept the family in middle-class comfort. "But we didn't have much security because our fortunes ebbed and flowed depending upon whether Wilt Chamberlain made or missed his free throw or Whitey Ford could get Al Kaline to ground into a double play."
Then one Friday in 1970, while walking through JFK, his father died of a heart attack. He was 42. Costas was 18 and had been accepted at Syracuse, where his father thought he should study criminal justice. At his father's funeral, a gambling buddy pressed a bulging envelope into the hands of the bewildered, grieving teen. "He says: 'Give this to your mom. Your father was up when he died.' It was $6,000 in $100 bills," says Costas, "which was more or less my father's estate."
Costas' tuition was defrayed by scholarship money; his grandmother and great aunts also helped. And he had money saved from various jobs, including one selling above-ground swimming pools.
That none of this soured Costas on sports underscores the power of ballgames to connect fathers and sons. "We had differences," says Costas of his father. "He was charismatic, very smart. We were much different in terms of personality. But sports was our bond."
Costas has inducted his children into that fraternity. When his son Keith, 26, was a child, he often was on the road with his dad; today, Keith is an MLB Network researcher. Costas' daughter Taylor, 22 (both kids are from his first marriage to Carole Krummenacher), a recent Boston College grad, will be in London working on the Olympics with producer Molly Solomon. (Costas and his second wife, Jill Sutton, have a co-op on Central Park West and a home in St. Louis.)
Costas grew up rooting for the Yankees and the NFL's New York Giants, but he switched his baseball allegiances to the St. Louis Cardinals after moving to the city in 1976 to take a job as the play-by-play announcer for the American Basketball Association's Spirits of St. Louis. But he says he no longer has a rooting interest in any one team. As a broadcaster, he explains, "what you root for are interesting games and stories."
For New York baseball fans, there are few stories as interesting -- or heartbreaking -- as the unrealized potential of legendary slugger Mickey Mantle. Costas interviewed Mantle multiple times, including shortly before he died in August 1995 and only a few months after he'd licked a lifetime of drinking by checking himself into Betty Ford, a consequence of a career plagued by injuries and insecurities. "There are a few subjects that you really know," he says. "You know 'em cold. I knew not just the facts of his life, I knew the shadings of it. I understood in a way that somebody who didn't grow up in that era would not -- I understood what he meant to people."
Costas and his friend Billy Crystal -- who directed the 2001 HBO film 61* about Mantle and Roger Maris' 1961 race to break Babe Ruth's single-season home run record -- spent many nights with Mantle at the bar of the Regency Hotel. When he died, Crystal helped Costas write the eulogy that Costas delivered at Mantle's funeral. "In some way, we really felt that our childhood had finally ended when Mickey died," says Crystal.
Costas is known to carry around a 1958 Mantle baseball card. He keeps it in a clear plastic protective case and never leaves home without it. "If I wake up in the morning and go out to get a cup of coffee in jeans and a T-shirt, I'll put the card in my pocket because inevitably someone will stop me," he explains. "I don't want that guy, in his only encounter with me, to go home and tell his buddies, 'He's a fraud! I asked him to see the Mantle card, and he doesn't have it.' "
Costas knows fans harbor a passion for sports every bit as intense as his once was -- when a flawed father first took his 5-year-old son to the ballpark. But he no longer lives and dies by batting averages. He's an avid Broadway-goer (he recently took his daughter to Newsies), and while he's partial to John Sayles and Woody Allen ("I thought To Rome With Love was better than the reviews said it was"), he's not above a Jennifer Aniston rom-com.
But authenticity is paramount to Costas, making him unique in a media environment rife with bombast. Not Costas: "If I express an opinion, it's something that I have thought out and can defend. I don't deal in ad hominem attacks. I'm not a pot-shot artist."
THE COSTAS MARATHON -- 9 OLYMPICS WITH NBC: Since his start as a late-night Olympic show host in 1988, NBC has seen viewership of the games fluctuate.
- Seoul 1988: 25.3 million
- Barcelona 1992: 27.5 million
- Atlanta 1996: 33.1 million
- Sydney 2000: 21.5 million
- Salt Lake 2002: 31.9 million
- Athens 2004: 24.6 million
- Turin 2006: 20.2 million
- Beijing 2008: 27.7 million
- Vancouver 2010: 24.4 million
Source: Nielsen, average primetime audience