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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It’s night, and so cold outside that the guy on the radio keeps saying it’s dangerous. At a dining-room table inside a clean and cavernous home in the Minneapolis suburbs, Sid Hartman sits stiff and alone, his back to the door, his hands folded around a glass of water.
Sid’s only son, Chad Hartman—the home’s owner and occupant—meets me at the door and leads me into the room. There, I sit down across from the Twin Cities’ most famous curmudgeon. Sid does not turn to greet me. He merely acknowledges my presence with a sidelong glance and a soft growl, something just a few degrees warmer than “hmmmph.”
Sid has been in the public eye—as a radio host, as a TV personality, and as a newspaper reporter and marquee columnist—for more than 60 years, yet he does not make things easy on anyone who attempts to understand his world: where he comes from, how he does his job, or why, at 89, he continues to do it at all. This is not just because of his infamous irritability. Quite simply, he does not like to be pinned down. I had been trying to talk to him for weeks, to get him to sit and answer the most basic of questions. But whether I called him at his home, or got him on the phone at his Star Tribune office, he would always say the same thing: “This week is really busy. Let’s schedule something next week.” But then the next week would come and go, and … nothing.
I had all but convinced myself he was running out the clock, putting me off until I had no choice but to do the story without him. So I decided to do something I thought Sid might appreciate, even respect. I would out-Sid Sid. I wouldn’t take no for an answer. I would not go away. I would hound a man who had made a career of hounding people. And so I followed Sid everywhere: to games, to news conferences, inside press boxes.
I shadowed him as he shuffled from one end of one locker room to another, as he shook a team owner’s hand, and as he dodged the distended, naked backside of an oblivious lineman.
Then, one day, I got a call from Chad. “My father wants to make himself available,” he said. “Tonight. Can you come to my house?”
IF YOU GREW UP in California or Connecticut or Khartoum, the name Sid Hartman may not mean that much to you. But if you grew up in the Twin Cities, or anywhere within the once-vast reach of the Star Tribune or WCCO Radio, Sid Hartman isn’t just a sports writer. He’s an icon. Widely read, often mocked, the subject of a million jokes and the source of a thousand imitations, he is the closest thing we have to a civic mascot. It is not hyperbole to say that there are only four people alive so familiar to Minnesotans that they can be referred to by a single moniker: Jesse, Prince, Dylan—and Sid.
There are a lot of reasons for this sort of renown, not the least of which is Sid’s ubiquity. Every weekday morning, he appears on WCCO Radio to talk sports. Each Sunday, he co-hosts a popular two-and-a-half-hour radio call-in show. Four days a week, he pens a column for the Star Tribune, for whom he also does a weekly podcast (known as the SidCast). Most days, he lunches with some sports figure or another, and most nights he’s touring a post-game locker room with his giant Sony Pressman recorder in hand. “If Woody Allen is right—that 80 percent of success is showing up,” says sports broadcaster Bob Costas, “Sid is the most successful man in our business.”
But Sid’s inescapability can only explain so much about his stature. There’s also the outsized personality, the comic-book persona: a wild stew of arrogance, petulance, and utter shamelessness that has made him one of the most notorious figures in the state. At the mere mention of the man, one Twin Cities sports writer furrows his brow: “Sid Hartman? The devil himself!” Another confides that Sid has visited him in dreams: “He was trying to hit me, just swinging and swinging,” he says. “I could barely hold him back.” And yet, over the course of his career, Sid has charmed and cultivated some of the most powerful men in the worlds of sports, business, and even politics. It’s a result of a tendency, in the words of a colleague at the Star Tribune, to “champion the overdog.” One of Sid’s favorite subjects, former Indiana University basketball coach Bob Knight, wrote a foreword for Sid’s 1997 autobiography, Sid!, in which he marvels at how “Sid is able to pick up the telephone and call more people in sports than any writer in the country.” Knight’s remark isn’t an overstatement. The dust jacket of Sid’s book alone includes blurbs from Fran Tarkenton, Wayne Gretzky, Dave Winfield, Walter Mondale, Tom Brokaw, and Ted Williams. Sid famously calls these men his “close personal friends,” and the lengths he will go to build and maintain his relationships with them are infamous: not only lunches and dinners, but rides to and from the airport or the Mayo Clinic, and, legend has it, restaurant-booth counseling sessions for the offspring of more than one local coach.
Proximity to power yields its own sort of influence, and Sid has never hesitated to pull the levers at his disposal. Look closely enough at most of the big sports-related news events in Minnesota over the last seven decades—the arrival of the Lakers and Twins, the founding of the Vikings, the construction of the Metrodome—and you’re likely to find his fingerprints. In the 1980s, he fought so hard and so loudly for the dome that a local radio host joked that he’d been bought out by dome advocates with promises of a private tunnel connecting his office to the stadium.
The dome was built, of course, and Sid could count it as another success, one of the many triumphs, large and small, he’s had throughout his career. “For pure stamina spread over 50 years, for range of sources and contacts, Sid became a one-man epic,” Jim Klobuchar, Sid’s former competitor and colleague, has written. “For actual scoops … Hartman has no parallel in American sports journalism.” The rewards of such labor have been varied and many: Has any other sports writer ever had his own bobblehead doll? Has any other writer been honored with his own day at the Metrodome? Has another local journalist ever given an introduction speech at a Pro Football Hall of Fame ceremony? Sid has.
After 89 years on the planet, most men might conclude that all this was enough. But to Sid, it does not matter that his legacy is secure, that he doesn’t need the money. He will not leave on any terms but his own. When former CNN anchor Aaron Brown, introduced to Sid by his father years ago, learned that the Star Tribune had filed for bankruptcy, he thought of his old friend: “Jesus,” said Brown. “Sid’s going to outlive newspapers.” He’s certainly going to try.
ON A RECENT SUNDAY MORNING, Sid walks into the WCCO building in downtown Minneapolis with a manila envelope tucked under his arm. Inside the studio, he sits down in front of his microphone. Dave Mona, the co-host of Sports Huddle for the last 28 years, is already in front of his. Sid remains a newspaper guy to the core, but most Minnesotans known him through his radio work. “I bet more people have heard Sid on the radio than have heard Prince on the radio,” says former Sports Illustrated columnist and Bloomington native Steve Rushin.
Sid tips the envelope upside down. A pile of small blank envelopes and gift cards pour out. The gift cards are for Murray’s steak house. It’s a Sports Huddle tradition: every coach, player, or front-office type who spends time on the show gets a gift card for a Murray’s Silver Butterknife Steak dinner for two: $98.50.
Sid pulls out his traveling Rolodex—a black checkbook cover containing a mess of folded paper. There are invoices, a game schedule, a page ripped from a reporters’ notebook. For the first 10 minutes of the broadcast, listeners can hear him rustling through the pile—unfolding scraps of paper, skimming them, and folding them again. He goes through every piece of paper twice—even as he interviews Gophers football coach Tim Brewster. “Tim” … rustle, rustle … “let’s forget about the past” … rustle … “and focus on the future.”
The interview ends with Sid’s typical on-air farewell: “Treat yourself and your lovely bride to a dinner at Murray’s.”
Brewster hangs up. Sid opens a piece of paper and barks at his producer, Dave Schultz: “Call Flip Saunders. Here’s his number.”
Seconds later, with a commercial still running, Schultz reaches the former Timberwolves coach at his home. “Flip? This is David Schultz calling for Sid. You got a minute to be on the show? Great. I’m going to put you on hold.”
“You got him?” says Sid.
“Yeah, I think he was sleeping.”
For the next 10 minutes Sid fires off questions at Saunders as he fills out and stuffs Murray’s gift cards. More rustling. “Talk about their ability to pick up and play that zone....”
Even as Saunders is talking, Sid stuffs a Murray’s card in an envelope, writes the interviewee’s name on it, and sets it in a pile to be mailed.
He says goodbye: “Bring your nice Debbie to Murray’s instead of that McDonald’s.”
At this, Mona speaks up: “There goes a sponsor.”