By Budd Bailey
It’s an odd day in the world of local journalism. Milt Northrop is not on the job for The Buffalo News.
Milt spent his last day on the job on Sunday night, cranking out the NFL Rewind column that he had written for the past several seasons. Therefore, as of today, he is not drawing a paycheck from the newspaper … for the first time since December of 1967.
What lasts 54 years these days? Practically nothing. But Milt did. No wonder he’s in the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. I’d write something here about a ton of institutional knowledge walking out the door as Milt departs. The problem is that he has been working at home since the pandemic started, so his departure has nothing to do with the closing of an office door behind him.
When I arrived in Buffalo in the summer of 1970, Milt was already in place for the Buffalo Evening News, as it was called in those days. I quickly started to enjoy the benefits of having a big-city newspaper arriving every day. It was the time when the NBA was about to start a run in Buffalo, and Milt had the assignment of covering the team. I quickly grew to respect Milt’s coverage of the Braves and the league.
The Braves left town in 1978, just around the time when I was starting to work my way into the local media. As a college newspaper major, I was always very interested in the work of the print reporters even though I was in radio. So I got to know him a little bit during friendly conversations at games; I think he worked on the Bills’ beat at some point around there. I also had the chance to know him personally because we were both in the Media Softball League.
On December 2, 1981, Milt was going to be my guest on my talk show at WEBR to talk about the Bills for a half-hour. About 90 minutes before air time, the Sabres traded Jim Schoenfeld, Danny Gare, Derek Smith and Bob Sauve to the Red Wings for a package of players. It was the biggest deal in team history at that point – and in terms of emotion, it may still be. I tried to call Milt to see if we could reschedule his appearance, but couldn’t reach him. So he showed up, and I explained that we couldn’t do a show on the Bills on this particular night. Milt said fine, sat down, and talked about the Sabres for a half-hour without missing a beat. You couldn’t stump him on anything regarding local sports.
That was evident during the time that the Bills had reporters to Rich Stadium for the NFL draft. I usually got stuck with the second day of the draft which covered rounds eight through 17 in that era, but someone told a story about what had happened in Day 1 the previous afternoon. The proceedings were crawling through the third round when there was an announcement about an obscure wide receiver who was picked by the Saints. Milt looked up and said, “Didn’t he go to Williamsville South?” Sure enough, Eugene Goodlow did suit up for the Billies before moving to Rochester. Only Milt would have been able to call that bit of information up in his head on demand.
Then there was the time that I went down to interview some of the Bills at their Fredonia training camp. Afterwards, the team usually invited reporters to the dining hall for lunch after the morning practice. Sam Anson and I sat down with Milt and Larry Felser, and we listened to them rattle off starting lineups from Southeastern Conference football teams from the late 1940s. It was quite impressive. I found myself wondering if I would still remember the teams of my youth when I got to that point in life. The answer, it turned out, was: for the most part, no.
Eventually, I landed a job at the Buffalo News in 1993 and worked with Milt on Sabres coverage. Later on we both ended up in the office at night. Often the only things that prevented us from staring at each other for hours were the computer screens between us. It wasn’t very private, but occasionally it was fun. Sometimes he’d make a reference to a sports figure from the distant past, and I’d be the only one in the room that got it. I’d say, “You really are old,” and we’d both laugh.
Other parts of the conversation were much more one-way in nature. Let’s just say that I rarely needed an executive summary from Rush Limbaugh’s program of the day when Milt was in the office. Those who thought that newsrooms were completely filled with liberals obviously didn’t work next to Milt. His was the loudest voice in the building on such matters.
Sometimes the only sounds from our corner of the office came when something went wrong with Milt’s computer, which was accompanied by his loud grunt and the odd slam at the desk that sent the keyboard into the air for a split-second. But I certainly came to respect his professionalism while working each and every day. There was no one in the office who was faster in writing a story when the situation called for it, and it often did.
Almost incredibly in hindsight, I retired at the News before Milt did in spite of a 20-year gap in our ages. He hung around for four more years. Lately, I had some of my favorite moments ever with Milt, and they concerned the Buffalo Braves. You could almost say I was completing a circle. Last year, I hosted a hour-long Zoom session for the Buffalo History Museum with Milt and author Tim Wendel to talk about the Braves’ history. It was great fun.
Then this summer, we had a few lunches as I peppered him with questions about the players on the Braves for a book idea I had. Milt went 71 for 71 in coming up with a story about the players on those teams. For someone who still treasurers those memories of the Braves, it didn’t get much better.
Along the way, Milt told me quietly that he was looking into retirement options. I sort of took the approach of “Yeah, I’ll believe it when I see it.” But he actually went through with those plans, and that’s where we are today. Milt can look back on a career that has seen him touch every level of sports, from high school to Super Bowls. HIs most impressive achievement might have been writing a weekly bowling column for years. He had lots of strikes and spares, and no misses. I don’t know if there’s going to be a retirement party for him soon. Such events are rare in a pandemic world. That’s too bad, because Milt certainly deserves that.
Speaking of retirement traditions, it used to be the case that when someone walked out of the newsroom for the last time, he or she would receive a long round of applause by his coworkers for a job well done. By the time it was my turn to leave in 2017, there was hardly anyone left in the office to applaud late at night. It hasn’t gotten any better since then, and much of the night crew works virtually. In Milt’s case, I would guess that on Sunday night he simply shut off his computer, and walked directly to an easy chair or – considering the hour – a bed for a night of sleep.
So consider this column a silent round of applause for my friend and former colleague. Milt deserves a long and happy retirement, full of computers that obey commands and acquaintances who will listen to him reminisce about a spectacular career that may never be duplicated in Buffalo.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)