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Bob Costas, still speaking his mind

It was at the World Series 38 years ago when a young Bob Costas introduced himself to the late Howard Cosell: "And I walk up very respectfully and say, 'Mr. Cosell, my name is Bob Costas. It's a pleasure to meet you.' And he says, 'I know how you are. You're the child who rhapsodizes about the infield fly rule. I'm sure you'll have a fine career!'"

Cosell, not known for understatement, whiffed that night, though he did have the rhapsodizing part right.

But Bob Costas' career has been much more than "fine." 

Baseball still has its hold on his heart, as he made clear when he and correspondent Jim Axelrod met at New York's Yankee Stadium. Costas never leaves home without his favorite baseball card: a 1958 Mickey Mantle, which he's carried with him wherever he goes, "since I was 18, 19 years old."

Sportscaster Bob Costas, right, with correspondent Jim Axelrod at Yankee Stadium.  CBS News

But it's hard to think of a televised sport Costas hasn't broadcast, winning 29 Emmy Awards and anchoring a dozen Olympic games, in a career that now spans nearly half-a-century … a career built on his father's need to know the scores.

"My Dad was an inveterate gambler," he recalled, "and he'd flip me the keys to the car. I'm 11, 12 years old! I'd go out in the driveway and I'd start fiddling with the dial, calibrating it like a safecraker to try and pick up KMOX from St. Louis, or Ernie Harwell on WJR in Detroit. And then, I would report the scores back to him. But at the same time, I was absorbing the different styles and cadences of the announcers, and it further cemented the idea in my mind, What a great job this is, to be one of those voices in the night, to be at the ballgame, to tell a story.

"My Dad died when I was only 18, he was only 42. I was on my way to Syracuse. He never saw or heard any game that I broadcast."

After college at Syracuse, Costas was calling pro basketball in St. Louis at 22 … the NFL for CBS at 24 … and NBC Sports came calling at 27.

Bob Costas covering the NFL for CBS in the 1970s.  CBS Sports

If his talent was "old pro," his face read "young teen," even to the boss who had hired him: "And he says, 'You know, you have a future here. How old are you?' I said, 'I'm 27.' He said, 'You look like you're 14. How much older would you look if you grew a beard?' 'Oh, five years, at least.' He perks up. He goes, 'Five years, really?' I said, 'Yeah. Because that's how long it would take to grow it!' And that was the end of that!"

But as supercharged as his climb up the broadcasting ladder was, Costas made sure to broaden his view once he got to the top. From 1988 to 1994, he hosted "Later," where he interviewed a wide range of people who had nothing to do with the world of sports. He interviewed Paul McCartney about John Lennon. He talked to former President Gerald Ford about the Warren Commission. He spent four night with comedian Mel Brooks.

Axelrod asked, "Did you know it was gonna be as satisfying as it was?"

"You know, the more I did it, the more I realized it," Costas replied.

He flirted with a life outside sports, turning down the "Today" show, and "60 Minutes."

The veterans sportscaster and commentator is bringing his passion to a new HBO discussion show, "Back on the Record with Bob Costas," examining the junctions of sports and culture. CBS News

"Yeah, I did get offered '60,'" he said. "My kids at that point were seven and four. You can say to a kid, 'You wanna go to the Bulls game?' You can introduce him to Michael Jordan. 'You wanna go to the World Series? Wanna go to the Olympics?' You can't say to a kid, 'I'm interviewing the secretary of state. Wanna come along?'"

But in 2018, when his time at NBC came to an end after almost 40 years, amid some tension over his criticism of the NFL's handling of head injuries ("It might've caused some discomfort," he said of his remarks), Costas knew he wasn't close to being done.

Axelrod asked, "Is your tank as full as it's ever been?"

"At this point I'm a show pony, not a plow horse," he laughed. "I'm not looking for inventory; I'm looking for, you know, a few things that move the needle for me."

And now, HBO is providing a well-lit platform, and a chance to blend those two parts of his broadcasting brain, with a new show, "Back on the Record with Bob Costas," in which he will examine the culture through the lens of sports.

"What do sports tell us about us?" asked Axelrod.

"I think it tells us a variety of things, some of them encouraging and some not. Some of the same mean-spiritedness that pervades the culture is part of sports, too."

Through a mix of panel discussions, long-form interviews and no-holds-barred commentary, Costas is examining junctions of sports and culture that tell us about "us" – like legalized gambling's ever-growing footprint: "All of these operations, they all have variations on this: The first $1,000 is free. Well, that's just a gambling version of a pusher in an alley saying to a kid, 'Hey, kid, the first one's free.'"

Or how some athletes have sent vaccinations through the looking glass: "That not doing what all the evidence indicates you should do, for yourself, for your family, for your country and community, not doing that is actually a statement of principle? Which is a crock of crap, but yeah."

At the age of 69, having been there, done that, and far exceeding Howard Cosell's predictions, Bob Costas doesn't have anything left to prove to anyone: "Relatively speaking, I might be venturing where other sportscasters don't go, but I don't think that makes me Edward R. Murrow," he said. "I'm just looking to do a good television show that contains well-crafted material about relevant topics. Not gonna change the course of civilization, but I hope it's a decent contribution to the discussion, and that there's more light than heat."

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Story produced by Amiel Weisfogel. Editor: Ed Givnish. 

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