Friday, November 01, 2013

Uncle Milton

How many of you have the chance to work along side of a Hall of Famer almost every day? Not many, I'll bet.

I do. I work with Milt Northrop. Just to make sure there's no confusion, he's the one on the right in the picture.

Usually Hall of Famers are retired from their chosen profession and have moved on to other things, usually golf or gardening. Milt is 76, and he's not going anywhere. When it comes to journalism, the man is a lifer.

What's more, Milt carries large amounts of passion with him wherever he goes and whatever he does. It was evident in one of the first times we encountered each other. Naturally, it was on the softball field in the local media league.

I was pitching for WEBR, and Milt was playing for one of the News teams in that league. Milt hit a ground ball to second, I believe, and I went over to first base in case I was needed on a play. Now this being slow-pitch softball, and this being WEBR, we usually didn't have the depth to put someone at second who could actually field a grounder consistently. So I didn't bother to get particularly near the bag after the ball was kicked into right field.

Out of nowhere, Milt said something like, "Get out of my way, or I'll knock you over!!!!" I thought to myself, if this guy is like this when he is going to first base, what's he like when he's pursuing a story?

I found out at a Bills' game a short time later. One time Milt was interviewing someone in the Bills' locker room by himself. A television interviewer came along, and steered the player away from Milt and toward himself. Milt patiently waited for the TV interview to end - and then exploded at the guy.  Trust me, the TV reporter had it coming.

I eventually discovered that those explosions were quite infrequent, and that Milt was actually pretty charming most of the time. What's more, the man was a walking encyclopedia on anything connected with sports. One year at the Bills' draft, he and I were sitting around with a few others covering the  the draft at Rich Stadium's media room. Now in those innocent days of the early 1980s, we needed to look up a guy in Street and Smith's magazine when anyone got taken after the first round.

New Orleans had a third round pick, and selected Eugene Goodlow, a wide receiver from Kansas State. Milt looked up from his work and said out of nowhere, "Didn't he go to high school at Williamsville South?" Indeed, he did - attending the suburban Buffalo school for a couple of years before moving. Only Milt would know that.

Milt showed his versatility one December day in 1981. The Sabres had completed one of the biggest trades in their history, sending Jim Schoenfeld and Danny Gare among others to Detroit for Dale McCourt, Mike Foligno and Brent Peterson. With my usual sense of timing, I had arranged the Buffalo Evening News football writer - Milt - earlier to be my guest on my talk show. He arrived and I told him we couldn't talk about football on this particular night, and he was welcome to leave (I couldn't reach him by phone beforehand). Milt stayed for an hour, adding good insight into the deal. That was and is Milt - you couldn't stump him. Talking to him was like having the Internet at your disposal without the clumsy sign-on.

It was a skill that proved to be handy some years later. WGR had a trivia show with Chuck Dickerson about four times a year for a few years. We - Milt, Mike Haim, Mike Harrington, Bob Gaughan and I - would take questions, and Milt was always good for coming up with obscure answers. My favorite moment on that show was when someone called in a question about a 1930s hockey player. Since Milt was the senior member of the panel, we liked to kid him about his age. "You covered him, Milt - what sort of player was he?" I asked in a smarty-pants tone. Quick as a flash came the perfect answer - "Good face-off man."

Speaking of stories about talk shows, someone told me how Milt turned up on some radio show a while ago and started telling stories on the air. A listener was on his way to some business appointment and got caught up in the show. After a while, said listener decided that this was more interesting than the guy who was waiting for him. So the driver pulled over, called the office and said, "I'm having car trouble, I'll be there as soon as I can." Then he turned up the radio and listened to the rest of the show. That's Milt - get him going, and you can be spellbound.

When I got to the Buffalo News as an employee in 1994, I had the chance to work with Milt regularly. He had been there for more than 25 years already. We both covered the Sabres for a few years, and we've both been in the office for much of the past 12 years or so. What's more, let me assure you that he still carries that same passion he had the softball field. Sometimes it is revealed when one of the office computers acts up, which is good for the occasional scream and slam. Sometimes it comes out when someone makes a mistake about the spelling of a name in the high school report. Sometime it's about an article in another section of the paper that he perceives is showing more than a touch of liberal bias. Anytime anyone says that the media is filled with liberal thinkers, I point quickly to Milt as one of the examples of someone rooting for the other side. (There are several others by the way, even in the news department.)

And Milt still remembers everything. Sometimes I'll mention some obscure NBA backup center from the 1970s, when he was covering the Buffalo Braves, and I'll get a biography off the top of his head. The other day the name Carl Mays came up at work, as he was the winning pitcher when the Red Sox last wrapped up a World Series at Fenway Park. Milt had a sly little smile when he said, "Hey, Budd, what else was he known for?" Usually I'll answer such a question with a kidding "You are old!" But this time, I knew the answer - he was the pitcher who threw the ball who killed Indians infielder Ray Chapman around 1920. It's tough keeping up with Milt in such matters, so it was nice to be lucky this time.

You put in almost 50 years telling people what's going on in the sports world in one place and a high level of professionalism, and you deserve to be recognized. Milt's day came on Wednesday, when he was inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. He complained, a little, that such Halls are for the athletes, but didn't put up too much resistance. In other words, I'm sure it was quite a night for him.

Usually tributes to veterans in the business come in the form of obituaries. It will be comforting, then, when Milt and I work together again this weekend. He'll still be the fastest typist I've ever seen in a sports department, still yelling every so often, still making phone calls to collect information. In other words, he'll still care. Hopefully, he'll be showing that quality to our sports department for quite a while longer.

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