Legendary columnist Sid Hartman dies at 100

Legendary columnist Sid Hartman dies at 100

Sid Hartman, who started selling newspapers in 1928 and wrote about sports for the Star Tribune for the ensuing decades, died Sunday. He was 100.

“My father’s extraordinary and resilient life has come to a peaceful conclusion surrounded by his family,” his son, Chad Hartman, tweeted early Sunday afternoon.

Sid Hartman also was for decades a radio voice on WCCO.

Hartman was born on the north side of Minneapolis on March 15, 1920, and he worked for newspapers in his hometown for nearly his entire life. At the time of his death he was still writing three or four columns a week.

He gained a stature very few journalists have achieved, becoming one of this state’s legendary public figures. He was for years a power broker in the local sports scene, playing an integral role in the early success of the Minneapolis Lakers pro basketball team while serving as the team’s de facto general manager and working behind the scenes to help bring major league baseball to Minnesota.

He created a rags-to-riches story unlike any his hometown has seen, working his way from the very bottom of the newspaper industry to one of the most influential and popular figures ever to use a typewriter, and later computer, for his livelihood. He also became a popular radio personality for WCCO and for 20 years was a panelist on a Sunday night TV show. If Minnesotans referred to “Sid,” there was no doubt who they were talking about, much the same as the greatest of those he covered, men like “Kirby” and “Harmon” and “Bud.”

According to a count by Star Tribune staffer Joel Rippel, Hartman produced 21,235 bylined stories in his career, from 1944 until the one that ran on C2 of Sunday’s Sports section. That column was his 119th of 2020.

Much of Hartman’s success can be traced to his relentless reporting style. He developed and nurtured contacts, and his vocation was a labor of love. Hartman had no false illusions about his writing ability, one of the few newspaper journalists who required another reporter to write his “autobiography.”

Many of those he encountered in his job became his closest friends. Sports were Hartman’s life, around the clock, although in his later years he showed his softer side by becoming a doting grandfather.

The early years

Hartman started selling newspapers in 1928, a 9-year-old kid pedaling his bicycle to Newspaper Alley, where he would buy 100 copies of the Minneapolis Star, the Journal, the Morning Tribune or the Evening Tribune for $1.10, then sell them for two cents apiece.

“If you sold 100, you made 90 cents,” Hartman said.

Hartman’s basic task — selling newspapers — never changed, although his outlet for accomplishing the task did, starting when he was hired by sports editor Dick Cullum to work on the sports desk of the Minneapolis Times in 1944.

The Times was a latter-day version of the Evening Tribune. The Times was folded in 1948. Hartman was quickly hired at the Morning Tribune by Charlie Johnson, the executive sports editor of the Morning Tribune and the afternoon Star.

It was from there, writing his daily column of news and notes in the Tribune, that Hartman became a Minnesota legend.

The periodic readership surveys during Hartman’s long tenure at the Tribune (and then the Star Tribune starting in 1982) always told the same story: Sid Hartman’s column was a big reason that people bought the newspaper.

Hartman also worked for WCC0 Radio starting in 1955. He became as much of a fixture there as he was in the Minneapolis morning newspaper, with daily call-ins, with coaches’ interviews on pregame shows and with a long-running Sunday morning show that produced large ratings.

Hartman was successful in the business world. He was a partner with Al Rubinger in the apartment business. They started Sidal Realty in 1957 with a 26-unit building on Blaisdell Av. in Minneapolis and expanded gradually through the years. Rubinger passed away on July 21, 2016, at the age of 95. The Rubinger family still runs the business.

Actually, the partnership of Rubinger and Hartman had started in 1940, when they both were young men. They scraped together $500 and bought a lunch counter that also had a pool table. It was located across the street from 425 Portland Av. South, the address of the Star Tribune until 2015.

Hartman and Rubinger called it the Press Row Recreation Room. They owned it for 18 months, before selling for a small profit. It was there that Hartman got to know Cullum and some of the other sportswriters.

Hartman had gone from selling newspapers on corners to a news run for the Tribune circulation department. He would drop newspapers in bulk in an area of the city for carriers, then would collect from the carriers.

“It was a plum job,” he said. “You could make 50 bucks a week — big money in the late ’30s. I was a junior at North High, and I dropped out to take that job.”

He was in a panic in 1941, when the Tribune and the Times were sold to the Cowles family (already the owners of the Star and Journal) and his news run was eliminated.

“I was out of work,” Hartman said in his 1996 autobiography. “I started selling vacuum cleaners and had a chance to be world’s worst vacuum cleaner salesman. Fortunately, Louie Mohs saved me. He wound up as the circulation manager at the Times. There was only one news run at Times, in the downtown area, and Mohs gave it to me.”

The big break

Cullum was looking to hire someone for his Times sports desk in 1944. His friend Mohs said, “I got the guy for you,” and mentioned Hartman’s name.

Cullum knew Sid from earlier, from Hartman hanging around at a place called Kirk’s pool hall. Cullum agreed to give Sid a shot — for the kingly sum of $11.50 per week. It was soon apparent that reporting, not editing copy, would be Hartman’s strength as a newspaperman.

For his entire career, Hartman gave Cullum credit for this advice: Don’t worry about writing. Get the news. Writers are easy to find. Reporters aren’t.

Hartman said that Cullum, during those three-plus years they were together at the Times, used to taunt the sports editors at the powerful Tribune and Star over the scoops Hartman was delivering.

“This kid has the greatest legs of anybody I’ve seen in the business,” Cullum would say.

Cullum was referring to Hartman’s habit of nonstop enterprise in the search of news.

He still had those amazing legs in 2001, when the NCAA Final Four was held at the Metrodome.

The room for postgame interviews at the Metrodome was located straight up the loading ramp — a haul of a couple of hundred yards from the court and at an incline of 20 degrees.

“All the reporters were trudging up the ramp, trying to get a few quotes to beat deadline,” said Lenox Rawlings, a sportswriter for the Winston-Salem [N.C.] Journal. “Then, I saw this man, carrying an ancient, giant-sized tape recorder, sprint past all of us and go tearing up that ramp.

“I thought, ‘That looks like Sid.’ I looked again and said, ‘It is Sid.'”

Chris Schmitt, Sid’s daughter, said in the 1996 autobiography:

“Did you ever try walking with Sid? We’ll get out of the car. I’ll be getting the two kids organized. I will look up. He is two blocks away. I’ll start screaming, ‘Sid. Come back, Sid.'”

Hartman kept chugging past much younger reporters to stick the microphone from that ancient tape recorder and the ones that replaced it in the faces of coaches and athletes until the end of his career.

The Gophers beat

Hartman had sold newspapers outside Memorial Stadium, then sneaked into watch Bernie Bierman’s dynastic football teams, starting in the 1930s through 1941. After World War II, Bierman was back as coach and Sid was covering his team.

As important as was Gophers football to the public through 1941, Hartman said the hype and excitement was much greater after World War II.

“The war was over, people had money and the Big Ten started sending teams to the Rose Bowl,” Hartman said. “That was the crusade — to get to the Rose Bowl.”

Hartman developed a very close relationship with those post-War Gophers, particularly Bud Grant. Obviously, this later would serve Hartman very well when it came to access and information. Grant became the coach of the Vikings in 1967, and turned that football team — rather than the Gophers — into the most important story in Minnesota sports.

Grant remained so close to Hartman that, when he decided to retire for the first time after the 1983 season, he gave the story exclusively to Sid.

Grant said Hartman was such a constant presence around the post-War Gophers that the players composed this ditty: “Bernie loves us, yes we know, ’cause Sid Hartman tells us so.”

The Gophers missed a chance to go to the Rose Bowl in 1949. When they had a losing season in 1950, the wealthier, louder post-war boosters rose up and Bierman was fired.

By then, Hartman was writing both a daily column and covering the Gophers for the Minneapolis Tribune. In 1957, he became the sports editor of the Tribune. For more than a decade, he would write his column six days a week, run the sports department and also take care of his radio duties at WCCO.

Going big league

There were no clear lines between sports journalism and boosterism in this era. John Cowles Sr., the owner of the Star and Tribune, wanted more than anything to bring a major league baseball team to Minneapolis.

Charlie Johnson was both the executive sports editor of the Star and Tribune and the main spokesman for the task force trying to get a ballclub. Hartman was Johnson’s right-hand man, attending league meetings and taking part in the behind-the-scenes manipulating to get a team.

As was the custom then, Minneapolis and St. Paul had a tough time working together. So, the Minneapolis forces built Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington and the St. Paul forces built Midway Stadium, and they fought it out to land a team.

Minneapolis thought it had two clubs — first, the New York Giants, then the Cleveland Indians — before convincing Calvin Griffith to move the Washington Senators here after the 1960 season. Griffith’s team became the Minnesota Twins and an expansion group of Senators was placed in Washington.

“The excitement was unbelievable,” Hartman said in his autobiography. “For Minnesota to get a major league team after all the work we had done was the greatest feeling in the world. …

“Baseball was what made you big league. And the Star and the Tribune had done more in getting the Twins here than any outfit in town.”

The Twins and the expansion Vikings of the NFL were arriving in the Twin Cities only a year after the Minneapolis Lakers had departed for Los Angeles. Hartman’s involvement with the Lakers had been both vital and behind-the-scenes.

The NBA years

Hartman was the de facto general manager of the Lakers. The concession to journalism was that he did not often write about the Lakers in his newspaper column.

In 1947, Hartman took a $15,000 check from Morris Chalfen to Detroit. He met Morris Winston, the owner of the Detroit Gems, at the airport, gave him the check, and the National Basketball League franchise relocated to Minneapolis as the Lakers.

Chalfen’s partner was Ben Berger. Hartman, then 28, was offered the job as general manager, with the stipulation that he quit his newspaper job. He wouldn’t do that, so Max Winter — a former boxing promoter — became the official GM, with Hartman involved in personnel decisions.

“Involved” was not a word Sid would use, by the way. He insisted that he made all of the personnel decisions that turned the Lakers into a dynasty in the early years of pro basketball.

Hartman insisted he also had worked a trade with Boston that would have sent veteran Vern Mikkelsen to Boston and brought a chance to draft Bill Russell, the great University of San Francisco center, to the Lakers. Sid told and wrote that story so often it became part of his legend among Minnesotans, even after Boston’s Red Auerbach denied it.

For sure, Hartman and Winter were able to get the NBL’s rights to George Mikan. When they signed the great center early in the 1947-48 season, after his Chicago team had folded, the Lakers were a powerhouse.

The Lakers won the NBL title in 1948. The league then merged with the Basketball Association of America, the forerunner of the NBA. The Lakers won five NBA titles over the next six years.

Hartman left the Lakers operation in 1957. He had made his contacts in the NBA, though. He later would make the personnel decisions for an expansion team that came to Chicago in 1961 (the Packers, then Zephyrs), then moved to Baltimore as the Bullets.

“There was a redeye flight from Minneapolis that would land in Baltimore at 4 in the morning,” Hartman said in his autobiography. “I was on that flight all the time, spending the day in the Bullets office, then flying home.”

Flying home to write a daily column, run the Tribune sports department and get his radio interviews.

Loyal to his friends

Hartman was famous for his “close personal friends.” The term was coined by Steve Cannon, the WCCO radio personality with whom Sid appeared for years during afternoon drive time.

Hartman had four of those close friends with the Vikings: Bud Grant, Jerry Burns, Max Winter and Jim Finks. He was tight with Paul Giel, the athletic director at the University of Minnesota, and any influential Gophers coach — John Mariucci, Herb Brooks and Don Lucia, Bill Musselman, Jim Dutcher, Clem Haskins and Tubby Smith, Dick Seibert and John Anderson, and every football coach from Murray Warmath to P.J. Fleck.

He was tight with Lou Nanne, Walter Bush, Gordie Ritz and all the influential people with the North Stars.

The Twins? Years later, Twin Cities reporters could encounter Sam Mele, the manager of the Twins’ 1965 World Series team, in the Boston Red Sox training camp. Mele’s first question never varied: “How’s Sid doing?”

Hartman was so fond of Billy Martin, the Twins’ manager in 1969, that his relationship with owner Calvin Griffith always was strained after Martin’s firing.

Hartman became notorious for his bold, often-angry defenses of controversial figures: Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, basketball coach Bobby Knight, short-term Gophers football coach Lou Holtz, and even Norm Green, the owner who took the North Stars to Dallas.

Anyone who criticized Steinbrenner and Knight didn’t know them well enough to realize all the good they did for people. Holtz wouldn’t have left the Gophers for any place other than Notre Dame. And Green was forced to move to Dallas by an unbending Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission. Those were Sid’s views, and they weren’t going to change.

Hartman’s loyalty in the face of whatever odds exist was on display in December 1995. The Cleveland Browns were visiting the Metrodome to play the Vikings. Owner Art Modell already had made the deal to move his team to Baltimore.

Modell had become a most loathsome character to all Clevelanders and to anyone offended by an owner taking a storied franchise from its home.

Hartman and Modell were friends. Sid greeted the Browns’ visit that Saturday morning with an ode to Modell at the top of his column. Transplanted Clevelanders came to the front of the Dome press box that day to shout insults at Hartman.

No matter. If Modell was moving the Browns to Baltimore, Hartman figured it had to be the right thing to do.

The big scoop

These friendships — along with all that legwork — allowed Hartman to get endless stories and bits of information that were out of the reach of other media members.

There was no national scoop more startling for Hartman than that contained in the lead to his column on Dec. 15, 1974. He reported that Ara Parseghian would resign as Notre Dame’s football coach after the upcoming Orange Bowl. Parseghian was at the peak of his career and there had been no hint he was thinking of leaving Notre Dame.

Still, there it was in Hartman’s column: Parseghian set to leave Notre Dame. The Chicago newspapers heard about Hartman’s report that night and contacted Notre Dame officials. There were denials in those newspapers that Sunday morning.

Hartman was receiving calls from Chicago sports-writing acquaintances, telling him he was off base. And then, that afternoon, Notre Dame released the information that Parseghian would be quitting as football coach after the Orange Bowl.

The denials had not worried Hartman. His source was old friend Dan Devine, who already had agreed to leave the Green Bay Packers to become Notre Dame’s next coach.

Hartman sat on that part of the story, because Devine had given the Parseghian information with that stipulation.

Hartman always said he was a reporter, not a writer or grammarian. “I can’t spell ‘cat,”’ he would say, and generations of copy editors at the Tribune never argued with that.

Some years ago, a file was kept in the computer system of Hartman’s attempts at spelling that appeared in his original copy. Example: “pay per view” was “paper view” in Sid-ese.

The former Viking guard was “Sunday,” “Sundae” or “Sunne,” but rarely was he Milt Sunde when his name left what was then Sid’s typewriter.

Hartman’s radio dialogue also could be unforgettable. For instance, in lamenting the lung cancer that would eventually take the life of his friend Jim Finks, Sid told his WCCO listeners that Finks “smoked like a fish.”

Wasn’t Mr. Fix-it

Among his friends, Hartman was as famous for his lack of mechanical ability as he was for his loyalty. A few years back, Joe Swanson, then a teenager and the son of a Hartman friend, was riding in Sid’s Cadillac. He noticed a packaged CD of Frank Sinatra songs.

When the young man wanted to listen to the CD, just to hear what this Sinatra fellow sounded like, Hartman had to admit that he didn’t how to load the CD player in this thoroughly modern vehicle. And even if he had known, Sid admitted that he didn’t know how to remove the disc from its packaging.

Grant enjoyed retelling the story of a long-ago return trip from Superior, Wis., where Bud and Sid were visiting Grant’s folks. On a brutally cold night in the middle of a deep-snow winter, Hartman’s vehicle developed a flat tire on an old, winding road back to the Twin Cities.

The spare in Sid’s trunk also was flat, which was no surprise to Grant. Suddenly, stuck out there in the middle of nowhere at 3 o’clock in the morning, Hartman looked around, then started sprinting, directly into a snow-filled ditch, where he sunk to his waist.

“Where are you going, Sid?” asked the always stoic Grant.

“To that light,” said the often panicked Hartman.

“Long trip, Sid,” Grant said. “That’s the moon.”

Grant made his fame in football, but he also was one of the former Gophers that Hartman brought to the Lakers, to surround the superstars — Mikan, Mikkelson, Jim Pollard and Dugie Martin — on those championship teams.

Hartman’s influential basketball background was confirmed in September 2003, when he was a recipient of the Curt Gowdy Award at the National Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. The Gowdy Award goes to a media member, although Hartman’s work in putting together those Lakers championship teams also was cited.

In 2010, a statue of Hartman was unveiled outside of Target Center. The next year, before a game between the Timberwolves and Los Angeles Lakers, Hartman was honored for his contributions to both organizations. In 2016, the Minnesota Vikings dedicated the media entrance at U.S. Bank Stadium in Hartman’s name. The Twins and Gophers have also honored Hartman in recent years.

Getting Ted Williams to talk

Hartman’s autobiography, “Sid! The Sports Legends, the Inside Scoops and the Close Personal Friends,” was released in 1996. The people giving endorsements included Arnold Palmer, Wayne Gretzky, Ted Williams and Bob Costas, as well as Knight, Steinbrenner, Holtz, etc.

Hartman’s relationship with Williams dated to 1939, when he was a kid selling newspapers at Nicollet Park. Williams was playing for the Minneapolis Millers and Sid ran errands for him.

Hartman often told the story about Williams driving down Excelsior Boulevard 100 miles per hour in his new car, as Sid held on for dear life.

Years later, Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam could not get Williams to do an interview for a book he was writing on the 1949 baseball season. Halberstam heard about Hartman’s friendship with Williams and asked Sid to connect him with Williams.

The interview took place, and Halberstam sent Hartman a book, inscribed with a thank you for setting up the Williams interview.

Ten years after the autobiography was published, the Star Tribune published “Sid Hartman’s Great Minnesota Sports Moments.” This book’s back cover featured a quote: “I grew up on Sid Hartman columns about my Midwestern sports heroes — and I still think of him as a Hall of Fame newspaperman.” That came from Tom Brokaw.

If that book felt like a capstone of sorts to Hartman’s career, the publishers were off by about 15 years.

More than once, Hartman was asked in his 90s why he still was at it most every day.

“I don’t know what else I would do,” he’d say, the idea of relaxing and enjoying a slower pace not for one moment occurring to him.

Hartman, however, did speak often of his family, especially later in life. He celebrated his 99th birthday with family members and made sure to attend events for his grandchildren.

Hartman was married to Barbara Balfour in 1964. They were divorced in 1972. He had two children: adopted daughter Chris Schmitt and son Chad Hartman.

Chad followed his father into the sports media. He did play-by-play for the Timberwolves. He now hosts a general-interest show on WCCO-AM.

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