Sid Hartman and the Minneapolis Lakers
Before the days of great Lakers Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson in Los Angeles were the days of George Mikan, Jim Pollard and Vern Mikkelsen of the Minneapolis Lakers, who spearheaded the run of the first five Lakers championships.
Sid Hartman, the man who brought that team to Minneapolis in the first place and subsequently made all personnel and many business decisions, joined us on Lakers.com to look back at the first days of the franchise in advance of the current Lakers squad's Tuesday evening matchup with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Hartman, who detailed the events of the late 1940's and 50's in his book Sid!: The Sports Legends, the Inside Scoops and the Close Personal Friends, continues to write sports columns for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Nearly 92 years old, Hartman has been covering sports in Minnesota for 64 years.
Q: When you were a young man in your 20's, you offered $15,000 to Morris Winston, the owner of the Detroit Gems of the National Basketball League (NBL) and created the Minneapolis Lakers, set to join the NBL for the 1947-48 season. What is your primary recollection of that time?
Hartman: I was 26 years old in 1946 and at the time I was subscribing to a number of out of town papers including the Detroit News. I learned in reading the paper that the Detroit Gems team of the NBL was going bankrupt; having learned that I convinced Ben Berger and Morris Chalfin to stage an exhibition game between Sheboygan and Oshkosh to see if there was any interest in that in Minneapolis. To our surprise the game drew more than 5,000 people to the Minneapolis Auditorium. At that point I approached Berger to see if he had any interest in buying the Gems, who were for sale for $15,000. Berger, with his partner Morris Chalfin, wrote a check for $15,000. I flew to Detroit and made a deal with Morris Winston, owner of the Gems, to purchase the franchise. Shortly after that the transfer was okayed by the National Basketball League. The big plus of the Gem franchise was that they had finished last in the NBL and thus had the draft rights to George Mikan. For the first several months of the existence of the franchise I was running it without anybody else. But then with me working for the paper it was decided to bring in sportsman Max Winter as president. I would continue to do all the things I'd done before and work with him, who was very sharp and helped a lot. One reason I was allowed to avoid a conflict of interest with the paper was the fact that at that time every member of our staff had an outside job as a PR man for either the wrestling promoters, boxing promoters, etcetera. Getting back to Winter well he was a part of the success of the team. He spent the winters in Hawaii from October until March, so I was left to run all factions of the team during that period. Naturally I had some phone calls with him.
Q: How did Minneapolis respond to the team, and what did you do to market the franchise?
Hartman: I think we did a great job of marketing the product. We were the first sports team of any kind to have our own team film that we circulated all over the area. We were the first team to have our own band at the games called the Lakerettes. We were the first team to have a tow-truck in the parking lots in case people got stuck. The reception for the team was practically selling out every game. One of the things I did was I lined up company unions, like with Honeywell, and sold the tickets to them for 2-for-1 and they could sell them for full price and make money for some of their different events.
Q: How did the Lakers end up acquiring one of the game's first great players, George Mikan?
Hartman: In 1946 a rival league called the BAA had started with members in all the big cities, New York, Detroit, Chicago, there were members of that league who in 1947, when we started, who wanted to try to sign Mikan, who we had acquired as the first draft choice of the 1946 NBL draft. But Commissioner Morris Podoloff didn't want to get into a legal battle and made sure we kept Mikan's rights.
Q: You wrote in your book that Mikan was really difficult to sign to new contracts. What parallels can you draw between what it was like signing a pro basketball player than and how it is today?
Hartman: Before Mr. Winter joined the organization I had signed several players including Jim Pollard, a former Stanford great, who was playing for the Oakland Bittners. In order to sign Pollard for a record $12,000 a year, I had to take three of his Bittner teammates to join the team. At that time I also made a deal with the Chicago Stags to acquire two former Minnesota Gophers players, Tony Jaros and Don Carlson for $15,000 in a record pro basketball transaction, and also had signed several other players before Winter came along. While attending my first NBL meeting in Chicago Commissioner Doxie Moore made a speech about how salaries were getting out of line and specifically mentioned the kind of money Pollard was asking for. You could hear a pin drop when I got up and said we had already signed Pollard. Then there was the signing of coach John Kundla who at the time was a St. Thomas University coach. Our first choice was the successful Hamline coach Joel Hutton but he turned down a three-year $9,000 a year contract, about double what he was making, because he wanted to coach his son, who was a freshman in school. As a result after making about three trips to John Kundla's apartment I convinced him to take the job. From the day the Lakers started until the last day I was employed I was in complete charge of the draft, complete charge in all deals, every part of the basketball operation and everything else, with Winter not here most of the season. One deal I'll never forget is that we needed a point guard who could shoot in the worst way. At the time Rochester, our number one rival, had a surplus of guards and one Pep Saul was available. I knew Les Harrison, owner of the Royals, wouldn't trade Saul to us so I called Claire Bee, who was running the Baltimore Bullets at the time, and offered him $5,000 if he could get Saul and he could keep any money above what he had to pay. He made the deal, we got Saul, and he helped us win a number of championships and was Harrison upset.
Q: What was is like seeing the team you brought to Minneapolis win their first championship for the city (the first post-merger with the NBA title came in 1949)?
Hartman: Our first game was in Oshkosh and fortunately we won our opener and got a lot of attention at the time. We won the championship our first year but today it's not recognized because when there was a merger of four teams, Indianapolis, Rochester, Ft. Wayne, and the Lakers, the NBL became the NBA and they recognized the BAA champion Philadelphia team for that year.
Q: The Celtics were beginning their dynasty in the middle of the 1950's, and first beat the Lakers after the 1958-59 regular season in a 4-0 sweep, their first of eight consecutive titles. What is your recollection of the Celtics and particularly the captain of Boston's ship, Red Auerbach? Hartman: The Lakers while they were in the NBL and also the NBA had a very long winning streak against the Celtics, in fact it was 10 or 12 games. In one of the games Red Auerbach stopped the game to measure the height of the basket believing that Mikan was getting a big edge and fortunately for us the referees measured the basket and it was the right height. Auerbach had been instrumental in getting the lane widened going from six feet to 12 feet because they felt this would end the dominance of George Mikan, but it never did. One other thing, in that long Laker winning streak over the Celtics, Slater Martin was a Laker guard who put Bob Cousy in his pocket year in and year out and was one of the reasons the Lakers dominated the Celtics. To bring up another point that you asked, in 1949 while the NBA was still having the territorial draft we were able to get Vern Mikkelsen, who played for Hamline, as our first draft choice. That draft was very important for us since even though we'd won the championship the year before Mikkelsen, Slater, and Bob Harrison, who I drafted, became starters along with Mikan and Pollard. For the first time we had three big guys, Mikan, Pollard and Mikkelson starting and they were a big factor. In fact in a later draft when we didn't need a center we were able to draft Clyde Lovellette who at the time was playing AAU ball for Phillips 66 after being drafted from Kansas. We drafted him even though we didn't need him and Mr. Podoloff called a recess in the draft meeting because he didn't want us to get Lovellette, but the lawyers told him you can't change the constitution of your league during the draft.
Q: You say in your book that you had a trade agreement in place with Red Auerbach that would have sent Vern Mikkelsen to the Celtics in a move that would have likely made the Lakers the worst team in the NBA, which you argue you wanted since Bill Russell was coming out of San Francisco that year. You ended up canceling the deal against your own opinion in part because play-by-play announcer Dick Enroth loved Mikkeson, and Russell ultimately ended up in Boston. If that is your recollection of what happened, how do you think the NBA landscape would have changed had you went through with the Mikkelson deal?
Hartman: After Pollard retired and Mikan retired we were having trouble competing in 1956. Our record wasn't very good. So Bill Russell was the big star of that '56 draft coming out of San Francisco University and I had Pete Newell, who I had become good friends with through my friendship with Bob Knight, who was a California coach at the time, talk to Russell and see if he would consider playing with the Lakers if we were fortunate in drafting him. Russell in his books mentions the fact that he thought he was going to the Lakers. At the time the Celtics were a good team but they didn't have a center, they had Jim Loscutoff playing center. I called Red Auerbach and asked him if he'd be interested in a trade for Vern Mikkelsen who could be their center. At the time Mikkelsen wasn't winning with us because we didn't have Pollard and Mikan. We agreed to a trade where three former Kentucky players, Cliff Hagan, Frank Ramsey and Lou Tsioropoulos were in the service playing for Andrew Air Force base and were going to get out eventually and I agreed to trade Mikkelsen for those three guys at the trading deadline on February 15th. I figured that if we got those three guys and Russell in the next year's draft we could have a great team, and without Mikkelsen for the rest of the season I felt this would have made us the worst team in the league.
Q: Why did you leave the Lakers in 1957?
Hartman: One thing Max Winter did, among other things, was keeping the owners out of the operation of the team. If they tried to interfere both Winter and Chalfin would keep the owners out of meddling into the operation. But Winter sold his interest to Berger in 1956 because he was more interested at that time in getting a NFL team. He was instrumental, eventually, in getting the Vikings to Minneapolis. When he dropped out I no longer had my complete control. Berger went to lunch one day with a radio announcer named Dick Enroth, and even though he had okayed the deal he changed his mind. Unfortunately coach John Kundla was against it and also Mikkelson was against it as well. Shortly after that I resigned my position. And eventually Berger sold the team to Bob Short, who operated it in Minneapolis for a short time and then moved to Los Angeles.
Q: The team was sold to Short and his group in 1957 for $100,000, and he'd move the team onto Los Angeles three years later. How painful was it to see the team move, and were you still able to cheer for Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and all the later Lakers?
Hartman: I still rooted for the team, sure. They were a part of Minneapolis. The truth is there was little interest in the team with them not winning. The fans [in Minnesota] were spoiled by all the winning.