The Last Sports Reporter
Sid Hartman is an icon, a crank, and the last of a dying breed. But if you think the legendary sports columnist is going to walk away from the job anytime soon, you don’t know Sid.
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BY THE 1960s, Sid had taken his column—and his rapidly expanding Rolodex—to the Minneapolis Tribune. He was writing for the paper seven days a week and serving as sports editor. Sid being Sid, he was also doing a spot—five minutes with a national sports star—each weekday for WCCO Radio.
In his own memoir, retired Star Tribune columnist Jim Klobuchar captures the Sid of this era. Klobuchar was covering sports for the Associated Press when he met the rival columnist. “Sid was an unreformable fan,” he writes. “Sid agonized and erupted from the kickoff to the last drip of beer from the upper-deck customers at Metropolitan Stadium. When the game was going badly for the Vikings, Sid was beyond consolation. He delivered thunderbolts of bitterness and excoriation directed impartially at the Vikings’ defensive backs, the Vikings’ pass rush, the National Football League, and the officials.”
During one football game between the U of M and Wisconsin in the early 1960s, the Gophers seemed to have the game wrapped up when Minnesota started drawing a series of penalties. In the press box, a Wisconsin State Journal reporter was stunned to spot Sid, who minutes before had been seated next to him, down on the field. He was standing shoulder to shoulder with Gopher coach Murray Warmath—arguing with the referee.
Klobuchar covered the University of Minnesota’s first Rose Bowl appearance, in 1961, where he got a firsthand look at Sid’s ferocious competitiveness. “He was on the field, in the dressing room, in the chow line, in the coaches’ hotel rooms, riding the team bus, and on the telephone around the clock,” Klobuchar writes. “You could also find him at the second urinal to the left in the locker room, fortuitously standing next to a star linebacker…. I’ve never seen a man work as supernaturally hard covering a story.”
A national audience would soon get a taste of Sid’s relentlessness. In 1967, the New York Giants played the New York Jets in New Haven, Connecticut—the first time football greats Fran Tarkenton and Joe Namath met on the field. After the game, reporters swarmed the Jets locker room hoping for a few minutes with Namath. He wasn’t talking to reporters. At least that was what he told everybody but Sid, to whom he reached out in peculiar fashion. He was headed for the showers, he said, and he’d answer Sid’s questions there. Sid followed Namath into the shower—fully clothed—to get his exclusive. News of Sid’s soggy interview made it into papers all over the country.
Sid could, at times, use his combativeness for worthy goals. In the early 1960s, the Twins, having been in Minnesota for scarcely a year, were the only team in Major League Baseball still segregating black players during spring training in Florida. “The black players stayed in a dump,” Sid remembers, “and the white players stayed at the Cherry Plaza Hotel—a real fancy place.” Sid started writing about the issue in his column, which led Minnesota governor Elmer Anderson to write to Twins owner Calvin Griffith. When Griffith ignored the governor, Sid arranged a meeting between Griffith and Rabbi Max Shapiro, an appointee to the state’s human rights commission. Griffith was upset with Sid’s advocacy, and told him to mind his own business. He wasn’t alone in his annoyance. Sid, a Jew who was defending blacks in a city pulsing with an undercurrent of racism and anti-Semitism, was repeatedly threatened on the phone and in the streets. Eventually, under heavy pressure by the state and intense media scrutiny (thanks to Sid), Griffith caved.
Usually, though, Sid’s combative nature was employed for less noble ends. In 1981, Jay Weiner was just 26 years old when the Star Tribune sent him to his first Twins spring training. “I get there and I introduce myself to Twins second baseman Rob Wilfong,” says Weiner, who has since left the paper. “He says: ‘Oh, you’re the new guy. Sid told me not to talk to you.’ That was my introduction to Sid Hartman.”
IN 1979, when the Minneapolis Star merged with the Tribune, the paper’s new managing editor, Tim McGuire, inherited Sid. “I was put in charge of sports,” he says, “and Sid became mine.” McGuire retired from the Star Tribune in 2002, but he still wears a cross around his neck that was given to him by his former employee. “To my friend Tim the Catholic,” it says, “from Sid the Jew.”
“He grew up in a very different time,” McGuire says. “My job was to bring him into the modern world. I never claimed any success—but I may have prevented some really horrible things.”
McGuire had reason to be on guard. Over the years, Sid has provided plenty of fodder for the ethics police of journalism. In the 1970s, for example, the Star discovered that Sid was helping to recruit athletes to the University of Minnesota, an organization he covered on a regular basis. “Sure, I helped if I could,” he’d later tell a reporter. “I’d make a call to a player and encourage them to come here.” His paper ordered him to stop. Thirty years later, McGuire can only say: “I think we got him out of recruiting.”
Sid’s propensity to transgress some of the most basic rules of modern journalism has long been a source of hand-wringing at the Star Tribune. Not so much for Sid. Even now, when Sid forces the words “conflict of interest” past his lips, there is clear disdain. Ask him when he was happiest, in fact, and he won’t regale you with tales of breaking stories or newsroom debauchery. “I think of all the fun I had running the Minneapolis Lakers,” he beams. Inside his home, a giant framed photograph hangs on a wall. It’s a team photo of the 1954 NBA champion Minneapolis Lakers. Sid is in the picture.
To detractors, Sid’s involvement with the Lakers is Exhibit A in the case against him. The Lakers were the first major-league team to come to Minneapolis—and it was Sid’s idea to bring them here. At the time, he had a side gig bringing pro ball clubs to the Minneapolis Auditorium for exhibition games, and he started telling any moneyed ear he could bend that the city needed its own professional basketball team. When the deal was finally done, and a team was purchased, it was Sid who delivered the check. He would go on to essentially serve as the team’s general manager—even as he wrote about sports for the newspaper and talked sports on the radio. “The writing business is different,” he says. “In those days all of the writers had a publicity job.” One reporter promoted fights. Another promoted baseball. “There was no such thing as ‘conflict of interest’ back then.”
He left the Lakers when ownership changed hands in 1957. Three years later, Minneapolis lost the team to Los Angeles, a move that still saddens Sid, albeit for different reasons that one might imagine. If Minneapolis could have held on to the Lakers, Sid insists, his son Chad “would be running an NBA team right now. There’d be no Lakers in California. He doesn’t think about that, but I do.” When Chad hears this, he merely shakes his head.
Sid still finds ways to get into trouble. In 2005, the Star Tribune’s top editors learned that an event honoring Sid would raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for athletic scholarships at the University of Minnesota, an institution Sid covers on a near-daily basis. “I’ve been at the paper for 60 years,” he told ombudsperson Kate Parry at the time. “I might drop dead tomorrow and not have a chance to do this. There’s nobody else who’s done more for this paper. That’s why it could be right for me and not for someone else. I’ve got a unique situation. There can be a little different rules for all I’ve done for this newspaper.” The issue was resolved when Sid agreed that the money raised would not be released until he was gone from the Star Tribune.
It’s easy to understand why Sid thinks there should be different rules for him. For most of his career, there were different rules for him. And for all the anxiety he’s caused his employers, they have never hesitated to use his vast contacts, which extended well beyond the world of sports. “We used him for business stories all the time,” says McGuire. “I’d say ‘Walk by the old man’s desk and have him make some calls.’ He’d simply come back and nod or shake his head. So many people fault Sid for being too close to his subjects, yet that’s given him a lot of scoops. There are national people—several sources—who have called him on stories where the first reporter shouldn’t be a reporter in Minnesota.”
THERE’S A PRICE TO BE PAID for Sid’s brand of obsessiveness. He’s lived alone since 1967, when his marriage to a runway model that began three years earlier, with an elopement in Baltimore, ended in divorce. He’s still in touch with his ex, who left Minnesota decades ago for a life in California. Today, his personal life, what there is of it, is wrapped up in Chad and his grandchildren. “Those three kids,” Sid says. “I worship the ground they walk on.” The youngest, 7-year-old Quinn, has had a long battle with a list of illnesses, and Sid often accompanies his son and grandson on hospital visits.
Sid’s devotion to his grandkids is often cited by his friends as proof that he’s not as much of a jerk as many people think, that in his old age he’s mellowed. “What bothers me these days,” says Jon Roe, “is that the ones that say he’s a jerk seem to be growing in number. I’m part of a small cult that says ‘Take it easy on my guy here.’”
Scott Litin is a card-carrying member of the “my guy” cult. Litin’s father, Eddie, was Sid’s boyhood friend. Edward Litin grew up to be head of psychiatry at the Mayo Clinic, initiating Sid’s long and very public relationship with Mayo, to which he regularly refers in his column as “the greatest hospital in the world.” Edward died young, and Sid looked after the family. Scott Litin carries a string of mind’s-eye snapshots from dinners and locker-room encounters arranged by Sid. “When Fran Tarkenton was brand new with the Vikings, he got us into the locker room and I got to meet him,” he says. Litin’s childhood hero was NFL defensive lineman Eugene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb. Sid set up a dinner. Litin still has a picture from the evening.
In an e-mail following our interview, Litin writes: “Be kind to old Sid. When you had to fight for every little thing growing up, it is hard to shake the old habits. He is actually quite sensitive underneath the rough exterior.”
In recent years, whether it’s because of the grandkids or his age, Sid’s rough exterior has softened a bit. He doesn’t yell at officials anymore, and his press-box rants have cooled. His scoops are fewer, too, but he’s still out reporting every day despite a wildly different media landscape. Most of Sid’s colleagues are amazed he tries at all.
“A lot of older guys send in their column once a week,” says Costas, “and they phone it in.”
“He can still do this in a highly competitive environment,” says Klobuchar. “He’s like Methuselah walking into the locker room. He’s talking to 20-year-old athletes—some of them millionaires. But I’m willing to bet every one of those players knows him and is willing to talk to him. He probably still gets points because of his protective style.”
Of course, no one knows the value of Sid more than Sid. “About a year or so ago when we started reporting Web statistics vigorously, he found out that his column was number one,” says Sid’s current editor, Glen Crevier. “He does not hesitate to let you know that. He always knows the numbers.”
AT CHAD HARTMAN’S dining-room table, when the talk turns to his rapport with those young millionaire athletes, Sid is quick to smile and boast: “We have fun. I kid them and they kid me.”
I ask him if he gets bored when he’s not working. It’s an obvious way to bring up an obvious topic: why, after all these years, he still bothers. Why is he still hanging out in locker rooms with supremely talented but mostly uninteresting young men? But after following him everywhere—to games, to news conferences, press boxes, from one end of one locker room to another—I already know the answer to whether he’s bored.
“Yup,” he says plainly.
Sid, it turns out, can’t stop working. Even when he’s on vacation, at his condo in Fort Lauderdale. “He’s got a view of the Atlantic Ocean,” says Chad. But all he does is watch TV and go see sports friends.
Sid laughs, then stares at his hands.
“Are you always going to do this?” I ask.
“I’d die if I didn’t,” he says. “I wouldn’t make it.”
Jeff Severns Guntzel is a senior editor at Utne Reader.