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Why Sid never stopped

When news broke Sunday that Sid Hartman had died, a few months past his 100th birthday, it still came as a surprise. Sid? Dead? Impossible. Everyone knew Sid would outlive us all.   

Sid Hartman shown in 2010
Sid Hartman shown in 2010
MinnPost file photo by Jana Freiband

Three years ago I asked Sid Hartman to write the foreword for my book, “Minnesota Made Me.” My editor, Bob Temple, suggested Sid, then a spry 97-year-old, correctly figuring a book about Minnesotans by a first-time author needed a famous Minnesotan attached to give it authenticity. Who better than the venerable Star Tribune sports columnist and probably the oldest working journalist in the country?

Neither of us wondered for a second whether Sid would live long enough for the book to be published, because Sid seemed indestructible. That’s why when news broke Sunday that Sid had died, a few months past his 100th birthday, it still came as a surprise. Sid? Dead? Impossible. We thought Sid would outlive us all.   

For the foreword, Sid and I spoke in a conference room at Star Tribune headquarters in downtown Minneapolis, down the hall from Sid’s office. Our arrangement: I would interview him, write something up, then send it to him for approval.

Near the end of our session, I asked him why he kept working at his age. Why not retire, kick back and spend more time with the grandkids? Undoubtedly he had plenty of money and a nice pension coming from the Strib. He had a statue outside the Target Center, and almost every press box in town had been named for him. What was left? Hadn’t he done enough?

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Sid’s hearing wasn’t the greatest, but he heard this perfectly. He leaned forward, eyes narrowing.

“I do what I love,” he said. “I love this job. A lot of guys want the paycheck every week. It’s not the paycheck for me. I just love doing it. That’s why I’m still doing it. … It still means a lot to me to get a scoop. If my health stays good, I’ll keep working until I’m 100 maybe.”

I left shaking my head. That will not be me, I thought. But it perfectly encapsulated Sid. The job was his life. No one ever needed to plan a retirement party for Sid Hartman, because it was never going to happen. 

Sid churned out four notes columns a week until cutting back to three in the last month or so. His final column, which he reported last week, ran in Sunday’s Star Tribune — his 21,235th bylined story according to the Strib, in a career that began with the old Minneapolis Times in 1944.

How’s this for longevity: When Sid started, Hitler was still in power and Jews couldn’t join the Auto Club of Minneapolis. His final column ran the same day Myron Medcalf debuted as the Star Tribune’s first Black local news columnist. 

I didn’t grow up in Minnesota, so I bring no multigenerational attachment to the Sid legacy. I’d never heard of Sid until 1996, my first season covering the Yankees for the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger.

Then-Gov. Mark Dayton being interviewed by Sid Hartman on WCCO-AM at the 2013 Minnesota State Fair.
MinnPost photo by Joe Kimball
Then-Gov. Mark Dayton being interviewed by Sid Hartman on WCCO-AM at the 2013 Minnesota State Fair.
As a newbie competing against a crew of veteran writers, I couldn’t get Yankees owner George Steinbrenner to return my calls. So when the Yankees came to Minneapolis and Sid’s column featured an exclusive interview with Steinbrenner, I was incredulous.  

“Who the hell is Sid Hartman?” I asked another writer. 

“Him,” he said, pointing to an old man two rows ahead of us in the Metrodome press box, yelling and carrying on about something on the field. 

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Only when I quit the Ledger and moved here in 2002 did I begin to understand the attachment Minnesota sports fans had with Sid. He was never a wordsmith; I can’t remember a single clever turn of phrase in any Sid Hartman column. That’s wasn’t him, and he never tried to be anything more than a dogged reporter who went everywhere and talked to everybody. 

Generations of Minnesotans relied on him for scoops he gleaned from ingratiating himself with movers and shakers. He rarely criticized anyone, especially at his beloved University of Minnesota. 

“I’m not a ripper,” Sid told me in the foreword interview. “If the news is negative, you’ve got to print it. But I don’t believe you rip 18- or 19-year old kids who play sports at the university. Some of the guys on this staff don’t agree with me, but that’s the way I believe.”

Give Sid this: He always did the work. Even the last few years, when he broke his hip and needed a walker and an attending nurse to get around, Sid showed up at games and press conferences. He never mailed it in. 

And yet, Sid often did things that made me shake my head. After a Vikings game at the Metrodome, I watched Sid help himself to a hot dog from the players’ postgame spread, a major violation of media protocol. No one said a word because, well, it was Sid. At the Vikings old Winter Park training site, Sid routinely cornered players for interviews in the equipment room that was off-limits to the rest of us. 

Until he broke his hip, Sid routinely pushed his way past other reporters to get to certain players. Major press conferences frequently featured a bizarre opening “question” from Sid, often in the form of a pointed opinion or insult.

Though Sid could be gruff with certain reporters, he and I got along, especially the last few years. Sid never called anyone by name. I was “Mr. New York Times,” after my primary freelance client. He often complimented the work of my wife, Rachel Blount, his Strib colleague. I came to appreciate Sid’s work ethic and longevity, though I hoped we wouldn’t find him one day slumped in his seat at Target Field. 

That his final column rolled off the presses hours before he breathed his last seemed appropriate. He worked right until the end, happily. Now someone else will have to convince us the Gophers are going to the Rose Bowl.