Photo by Tracie Van Auken, Courier Post
“Bob, who are some of the best teams up North this year,” Joe Hartmann would ask me at the start of every high school baseball season.
Joe wanted the scoop. He wanted to tell everyone he knew, too. He was a baseball junky.
Back in the late 1990s and through 2012, this writer was responsible for The Star-Ledger’s weekly Baseball Top 20. That thankless but enjoyable task would fortunately acquaint me with most of the giants of high school baseball in New Jersey. And Hartmann, who died on Saturday at the age of 90, was certainly one of them.
It would be difficult to find a man who cared more about the high school game, its players and coaches than Hartmann. Joe was so much more than a “good source” of South Jersey baseball information to me. He was a font of South Jersey baseball history and even had a firm grasp of statewide baseball history.
Longtime South Jersey high school sports reporter Phil Anastasia perhaps said it best, telling Kevin Minnick of NJ.com, “Joe was always positive. It was always what was best for the kids and the teams. You don’t always run into people like that. He never lost that. There was always an air of positivity around him. I remember he told me ‘where else can you find such splendid company?’ That’s how he felt about the kids. He loved being around the kids and he was genuine.”
It’s no secret that my old paper’s coverage of South Jersey sports was limited by deadlines and geography over the years as The Star-Ledger was primarily a North Jersey entity. But when you are putting together a representative statewide Top 20, you better do your homework from Sussex-to-Salem.
Joe wasn’t my only South Jersey source but he was the big one, and someone who turned me onto so many others in the South with deep knowledge on the area. That would prove critical in 1999 when I was assigned the overwhelming task of assembling the All-Century (1900-’99) Baseball Team.
Joe was in his 20s and 30s when the Greater Newark Tournament, a statewide, all groups, single-elimination tournament that crowned the No. 1 team in New Jersey, was roaring as THE major event of each high school baseball season. Joe loved talking about the old GNT and how it brought together the best teams in the state. Being from Essex County, the old GNT carried a lot of weight with me.
Hartmann was the head baseball coach at Eastern High School in Voorhees 1969-’86, where he posted a 223-178 career record. He was then the school’s athletic director 1970-’89.
Hartmann quickly became synonymous with South Jersey’s wonderful Diamond Classic, which crowns each year the top team in a seven-county area via a single-elimination tournament. The Diamond Classic is Joe Hartmann in so many ways. He organized it, built it and helped make it one of the truly great events in New Jersey every year.
It’s no coincidence that the Diamond Classic was fired up just one year after the old Greater Newark Tournament was relegated to an Essex County-only tournament in 1973. Hartmann got things rolling with the Diamond in 1974 and modeled it, in a lot of ways, after the old GNT. This spring the Diamond reaches its 48th year. Would that be possible without Hartmann’s vision? Unlikely.
Hartmann, more than anyone, turned me on to the Diamond Classic and made it very clear to me that it was a must-see event. I would cover the Diamond Classic, later renamed the Joe Hartmann Diamond Classic, almost every year through my last year at the paper in 2012. And I’ve continued to cover it since I arrived at Diamond Nation. So, Joe did that, too. He helped, through me, to bring the Diamond Classic to the rest of New Jersey.
The Diamond Classic, South Jersey and statewide baseball have all suffered a monumental loss, but all is good. Joe Hartmann has left each in outstanding shape for a continued long run of success. Thank you, Joe.