You gotta love Ken “Hawk” Harrelson.
Or hate him.
One or the other. There’s no in-between.
He’s either the most notorious “homer” to grace a major league broadcast booth since the passing of Harry Caray, or a knowledgeable analyst whose myriad anecdotes make watching any White Sox game an enjoyable diversion.
That’s true even when the Sox are awful. This prompted Harrelson to note, upon the sentencing of Cleveland kidnapper Ariel Castro two weeks ago, “They gave him 1,000 years without parole ... or the choice of spending the last two months with us,” he said.
One point you can’t argue, however: acquaintance-wise, Harrelson is the closest thing baseball has to Forrest Gump.
On the occasion of Harrelson’s 50th year in baseball, the MLB Network produced an hour-long special entitled, “Hawk: The Colorful Life of Ken Harrelson,” which premiered July 18. Narrated by Bob Costas, the show features Harrelson doing what he does best: spin stories.
“Joe and I, at one time, were pretty tight,” begins a tale about Joe Namath. “The night before they played the Colts, I was at the Palm Bay Club down in Miami. Joe and I were together, and we were together until about 1 or so o’clock in the morning.
“He was not drinking, and I ask him, ‘Joe, what’s going to happen tomorrow?’ He says, ‘Hawk, I’ll tell you what’s going to happen tomorrow. The Colts are in a zone (defense). They’re not going to change. They’re not going to change out of what got them here. I’m gonna 6-and 8-yard them to death, and we’re gonna win the ballgame.’
“He threw 4, 6, 8, 4, 6, 7. Midway through the first quarter, you knew the Jets had a good chance of winning, and they beat them.”
Harrelson’s flamboyant personality overrode an amazingly unremarkable major league career.
In nine seasons with the A’s (’63-’66, ’67), Senators (’66-’67), Red Sox (’67-’69) and Indians (’69-’71), he hit .239 with 131 home runs and 421 RBIs. In his all-star season of 1968, he hit .275 with 35 homers and a league-leading 109 RBIs.
But baseball barely held his interest.
“My first two years in the big leagues, I made more money playing golf, shooting pool, and arm wrestling than I did in baseball,” he said.
That changed in 1967, when he angered owner Charlie Finley enough to get himself fired from the A’s. As baseball’s first free agent, he signed with the Red Sox, who needed him to replace Tony Conigliaro in the outfield.
His salary jumped from $12,000 to $150,000, and the Hawk’s persona was born.
Soon, he was appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated sporting a lovely azure Nehru suit. Shooting pool with Jackie Gleason, at Gleason’s home. Playing in the 1972 British Open, after the encouragement of Jack Nicklaus.
Celebrating a birthday with Rocky Marciano, who wanted to fill Fenway Park for a fight between Hawk and Sonny Liston.
Sadly, Marciano died before that plan came to fruition.
A late round of golf, and an extra nine holes, caused Harrelson to keep wearing his golf glove during a game one day, and he hit two home runs off of Whitey Ford. The next day, Mickey Mantle sent the clubhouse boy out for a box of golf gloves, and all the Yankees wore them. That’s how the batting glove originated in baseball.
Here’s a guy who was asked to be a manager on three occasions, but “turned them down because my temper is not conducive to being a good manager,” he said. Hawk served as general manager for the White Sox in 1986.
Primarily, Harrelson’s been a broadcaster, for the Red Sox (75-81), Yankees (87-88) and White Sox (82-85, 1990-present). And who gave him advice on broadcasting? None other than Curt Gowdy and Howard Cosell. They both told him to be himself.
“They were both right,” said Harrelson. “You can’t please everybody.”
There was the time Harrelson ran into Lombardi at the ballpark in Washington. Harrelson had a preconceived dislike for Lombardi.
“After 10 minutes talking to him, I’d have run through a brick wall for him. That’s the type of personality he had. I even went to see him when he got sick.”
Of course, Harrelson knew Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, who didn’t particularly care for each other. At one time a trade was discussed, as their home ballparks were perfect for each other. So Harrelson asked Williams how many homers he would have hit in Yankee Stadium.
“‘Put me in Detroit," Williams said.
Harrelson said, "How many homers would you have averaged in Detroit?”
"He said, '75 a year' and you’ve got to believe him."
Harrelson said, "Well, tell me about DiMaggio."
Williams goes, “He’s the best right-handed hitter I ever saw.”
Then Harrelson asked DiMaggio how many homers he would have averaged in Fenway Park.
“‘Probably around 70 a year,’ and you got to believe him."
Harrelson said, "Well, tell me about Ted."
“He’s the best left-handed hitter I ever saw,” Williams responded. “Almost verbatim, the two of them.”
So the next time you hear Harrelson exclaim, "He gone!" or "Rack ‘em up" or beg a fly ball to stretch, you can put it on the board. Love him or loathe him, there’s only one Hawk.
Denton Ashway is a contributing columnist for The Times. It appears on Wednesday.