Born Howard William Cohen on March 25, 1918 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Cosell grew up in Brooklyn, New York. When he chose to study law at New York University, he was following the wishes of his parents, Isidore and Nellie Cohen, rather than his own interest in newspaper reporting. After serving as editor of the Law Review and making Phi Beta Kappa, he graduated in 1940 and took a job with a successful law firm. However, he was soon called to serve in World War II. He enlisted in the Army and was stationed at the New York Port of Embarkation in Brooklyn, where he became one of the youngest in the Army to earn the rank of major during the war. Having legally changed his name while a law student, Cosell also met and married WAC sergeant Mary Edith "Emmy" Abrams while he served at the Port. The Cosells would have a long and devoted marriage, in which Emmy served as Howard's emotional bedrock.
After leaving the Army, Cosell somewhat reluctantly returned to practicing law. For eight years he had his own private practice in Manhattan, serving clients including actors and athletes. He worked for the Little League of New York, a connection that led to his being
asked in 1953 to line up Little League players for an ABC radio show in which kids would ask questions of major league players. Cosell was soon cast as the show's unpaid host, and he became involved in snagging star players as well as making sure they were asked the right questions. On one program, Hank Bauer complained about having been benched by coach Casey Stengel, proving that players were responding to questions that they would have balked at if asked by a reporter. The success of the approach earned Cosell a longer time slot and extended the show's proposed six-week run into six years.