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Prince of the Sports Page

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Sid Hartman, the 85-year-old sports columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, is the rare writer who needs no surname. (Sid, like Prince, is a one-name superstar in Minnesota.) He is almost certainly the first sportswriter with his own bobblehead doll. (Five thousand of them sold out in four days at the Minnesota State Fair.) And he may be the only writer in history to have hired another writer to write his autobiography. "I don't have a college degree," Sid says by way of explanation. "I don't have a high school degree. If I went in looking for this job now? Forget it. I'd be selling vacuum cleaners."

Now after 60 years at the paper Sid has written eight miles of columns, 34 inches at a time, even though English sometimes appears to be his second language. On his hugely popular Sunday-morning radio show on WCCO, where he has moonlighted for 50 years, he has decried the "lack of inconsistency" among baseball umpires. He memorably confused skater Tara Lipinski with fellator Monica Lewinsky. Few Minnesotans will forget his interview with NBA star Spud Webb, whom Sid repeatedly addressed as Spider Webb.

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"They're building stadiums everywhere in this country," Sid lamented on the air in Minneapolis, "except here and Montreal."

And yet Sid -- you would no more call him "Hartman" than you would call Oprah "Winfrey" -- continues to serve up more scoops than Ben & Jerry combined. When former Vikings wide receiver Randy Moss famously said, "I play when I want to play," he said it into the microphone of Sid's tape recorder.

That mike, like Lady Liberty's torch, is always in Sid's hand, always beckoning. He doesn't take no for an answer. When Joe Namath was ducking most of the press in the early 1970s, Sid pursued the New York Jets' quarterback into the shower and conducted the interview in a wet tweed blazer. Sid's first editor, Dick Cullum, told him, "Writers are a dime a dozen, but reporters are impossible to find." And Sid, whose Rolodex now resembles the paddle wheel of the Mississippi Queen, never forgot it.

Sid introduced Ted Williams to Bob Knight, brokering a long and unbelievably profane friendship. Sid rode to the airport with Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford after the funeral of Roger Maris. Sid! (as Sid's ghostwritten memoir is called) carries blurbs by Williams, Wayne Gretzky and Tom Brokaw, who read Sid while growing up in South Dakota.

It doesn't hurt that Sid has doggedly written a thank-you note to every athlete he has ever interviewed. "Guys never forget that," says Sid, who used to send out 1,500 cards at Christmas. In his columns the phrase my close personal friend always precedes the boldface names of Knight, George Steinbrenner and Lou Holtz, in the way that Panamanian strongman always preceded Manuel Noriega's name in the news pages.

As a result, only one athlete -- Twins infielder Wally Backman -- ever really went off on Sid. Backman became incensed after hearing, from teammates Kent Hrbek and Kirby Puckett, that Sid Vicious had savaged him in the paper that morning. "Backman apologized," says Sid, "when he found out Hrbek and Puckett made it all up."

On separate occasions Vikings coach Bud Grant hid a live squirrel and a dead crow in Sid's automobile, to equally harrowing effect. Sid had met Grant at the University of Minnesota when Grant was a Gopher and Sid a cub reporter. Fifty years later Sid introduced Grant at the latter's induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The stoic coach wept and said, "It's a great day for Sid
and I. We've come a long way." Sid sobbed right alongside him.

"Today everything's a conflict of interest," sighs Sid, who for years was -- simultaneously -- a columnist and unofficial general manager of the five-time NBA champion Minneapolis Lakers. "It's a different world now." There follows a glum pause in the Metrodome press box, but the moment of melancholy passes quickly: A hot dog disappears down Sid's throat like a log down a water slide.

Let Siddhartha search for the meaning of life. Sid Hartman will keep searching for scoops and steaks. His hundred-decibel voice, which recalls the horn of a runaway tractor-trailer, is a permanent part of the ambience at Murray's ("The Home of Silver Butter Knife Steak") in downtown Minneapolis, where Sid began selling the Star, the Tribune and the Journal as a 10-year-old in 1930. Do the math: This is his 75th year working for the same paper, the 60th in the toy department.

When Sid was a third-grader, in 1928, one of his classmates wore a broken wristwatch he had found on the school playground. "We didn't have watches," says Sid. "We didn't have anything." So the kid kept eyeballing the watch during class, until the teacher, Mrs. Nettleton, said, "Jim, I hope someday you get a job on which you don't have to look at your watch all day."

Says Sid, 77 years later, his life an unbroken daisy chain of ball games: "I got that job."

Issue date: May 16, 2005

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