This is the eighth in a series of stories profiling the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame’s Class of 2013.
By Aaron Mansfield
News Sports Reporter
Milt Northrop thinks his dad was embarrassed.
He can laugh about it today, nearly 70 years later, his hair chrome after five and a half decades in sports journalism: that time in his childhood he hit a baseball and ran to third base instead of first.
Dad sent him to camp. Sports camp.
There, Northrop learned to swim and box. His counselor taught him the Michigan fight song, and Northrop still sings “The Victors” today when he recalls the memory. He saw pictures of baseball uniforms in color for the first time. He remembers being struck by the Cardinals’ red.
The boy who ran to third base fell in love with sports.
Northrop has dedicated his life to studying and documenting athletics and has worked in The News’ sports department since 1967. His distinguished career as a sports journalist has earned him induction into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame on Wednesday.
The induction is an odd thing to Northrop. He’s always contended halls of fame are meant for athletes; he has trouble reasoning that he belongs. But get him started talking about his career and he can go on for hours — the stories flying effortlessly, the memories from his career both hilarious and incredible.
The athletes he has written about are big-time, some considered legends. He contends that he is not.
“I’m not flashy,” Northrop said. “I’m just there. I’ve been there for a long time … but, hey, I’m proud of my versatility. I’m proud of knowing what I’m talking about. I’m proud I remember stuff.”
Northrop joins an elite class of media members in the Hall, with names such as Larry Felser, Jim Kelley, Cy Kritzer, Phil Ranallo, Rick Azar, Chuck Healy and Van Miller.
Northrop graduated from the University of Connecticut in 1959 with a degree in government and history.
He never thought he’d get in, and to this day the surprise is clear in his voice when he says, “I got accepted!”
A fraternity brother was the assistant sports editor of the on-campus newspaper, The Daily Campus, and encouraged Northrop to join the staff.
After spending some time as a DJ for the student radio station, which had licensing problems and couldn’t go on airwaves, Northrop was delighted to have an opportunity to talk sports with an audience.
His first beat? The freshman soccer team.
Northrop worked his way up to the varsity soccer squad, then swimming, football, basketball and baseball and made some connections along the way, landing a gig with the athletic department doing media relations work.
He enjoyed covering sports, but Northrop planned to go to law school.
He was a natural writer, and his boss at UConn knew it. He told Northrop about an opening at the Willimantic Chronicle in Connecticut, but Northrop said, “I’ll probably get drafted.”
By the time he graduated, he hadn’t been drafted, and he decided to go for the job at the Chronicle. He got it. After working there for four months, he was promoted to sports editor.
When he went home excited to tell his mom the news, though, she gave him a devastating letter — he had been drafted.
Northrop spent six months on active duty with the National Guard and got back into newspapers after he returned home. He spent five and a half more years with his hometown unit of the Guard.
The two weeks between active duty and his hiring at the New Haven Journal-Courier were the only two weeks Northrop has been unemployed since he left for college.
He went from the Journal-Courier, where he covered primarily Yale athletics, to the New Haven Register, where he worked from 1962 to ’64. He eventually moved on to the Waterbury Republican as sports editor.
Northrop was ready for a change of state — and a raise — when he sent out applications to three hiring newspapers in 1967, one of which was The Washington Post and another that simply specified “Major Eastern City.”
He considered the possibilities. Philadelphia, maybe. Boston, perhaps.
He didn’t think about Buffalo, but when the offer came, he snatched it — though he was shocked to find nearly 6 inches of snow on the ground when he came in for the interview in early November.
Northrop worked his last day at the Waterbury Republican on a Saturday, drove to Buffalo on Sunday and started at The Buffalo Evening News on Monday. He was 30 when he arrived; he is now 76.
Northrop didn’t know much about Buffalo sports when he arrived. He remembers reading about the Bisons once or twice in the Sporting News and listening to a Canisius-St. Bonaventure basketball game on the radio. Now it’s likely very few people know more on the topic than he does.
He wrote his first News story about Buffalo State All-America goalie Sid Goodrich and spent most of his first few years at the paper editing copy with a pencil. He also did a lot of “true cutting and pasting,” he said.
The Buffalo Braves came to town in 1970, and with them came Northrop’s arrival as a beat writer.
He became the newspaper’s NBA reporter and covered the team during its entire run in the Queen City, from 1970 to ’78, when the franchise moved to California and became the San Diego Clippers (now the L.A. Clippers). He considers his time covering the Braves the highlight of his career.
“I loved the NBA, but I can’t watch the NBA now,” Northrop said. “I met some great people, did a lot of traveling. You get to know a whole lot of cool people and other writers around the country.”
He covered the Sabres and Bills some, too — though the ‘A’ key on his laptop didn’t work.
His favorite athletes he has covered are the Braves’ Randy Smith and Bob McAdoo and the Bills’ Jim Kelly.
Northrop lives in Williamsville with his wife, Michele. He has three children, Kerri Bigler, 51, Brendan Northrop, 48, and Heather Finn, 46, all of whom reside in Western New York.
He still clocks in to work at One News Plaza five days a week, returning to his roots to mainly serve as a copy editor now.
“I haven’t thought about stopping. I might die on the job,” he laughed. “The paper has always been good to me.
“I just try to be honest and report what happened and not attract attention to myself. Sometimes you can’t avoid it.”
He gets a chuckle remembering one time he was in the spotlight. He recalls a sign one fan put up in Buffalo Memorial Auditorium after he had criticized the play of the Braves’ Ernie DiGregorio. It read: “Northrop, get off Ernie D’s back!”
As for his own athletic experience, Northrop played football, basketball, baseball and ran track in high school, though he calls himself the last guy on the freshman baseball roster. In football, he started out as a center but switched to the defensive side of the ball.
“The first time I went up against the first team, I didn’t want to be a center any more,” Northrop said. “The nose guard punched me in the mouth.”
As a kid, he was a trivia nut and had an affinity for astronomy and numbers. Northrop still has almost all his notebooks since 1947 at home.
He grew up around sports, the oldest of seven kids; his father played semipro basketball and was a state track & field champion.
He often followed his dad to practice out of boredom. Northrop became a bat boy at Yale, where his father worked as a special events police officer.
Northrop isn’t quite sure which item he wants inducted with his entry into the hall. Most athletes contribute sneakers or some sort of equipment. But for a reporter?
“I’ve got an old typewriter; nobody will know what it is,” he said. “I don’t know what to give ’em.”
It’s a quandary few reporters encounter because Milt Northrop has attained an honor few earn: a hall of fame induction. It’s safe to say dad would be proud.
The Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame’s 23rd induction dinner will be held Wednesday at the Hyatt Regency Ballroom. Cost is $85 per person or $750 for a table of 10. Visit buffalosportshallfame.com/awards-dinner-tickets.