Skip to main content
Original Issue


Ken Harrelson, who encourages the notion that he resembles a certain bird, is swingingly saving a sad Red Sox year

No one can remember exactly when the first of the banners appeared in the right-field bleachers at Fenway Park in Boston reading HAWK-IT TO 'EM SOX!, and even The Hawk himself, Ken Harrelson, the boulevardier of the American League (see cover), is not quite sure whether it was early or late in May that the encouraging cheers began pouring out of those same bleachers: "Hawk Baby, we love you!" On the breast pocket of his tailored shirts and the flaps of his spiked shoes the word is spelled out, HAWK, and pasted to the front of the equipment box above his locker is a picture of a menacing hawk staring down, seemingly getting a bird's-eye view of the one man in the major leagues to have driven home more than 100 runs in this Year of the Zero. Suddenly, because he dresses, performs and speaks in a fashion that makes large and sometimes disturbing circles on baseball's normally placid waters, Ken Harrelson has become as fine and improbable a hero as the major leagues have produced in several seasons.

Until this year Harrelson had drifted and scuffled through five unimpressive seasons, averaging fewer than 50 runs batted in each year while developing a reputation as the game's best arm wrestler, pool shooter and golfer as well as being a man who played defense with all the finesse and surety of Venus de Milo. In those endless past seasons with such stirring teams as the Washington Senators and the Kansas City Athletics, Harrelson, some people maintained, was in such a hurry to leave the ball park that along about the sixth inning they could see his fingers begin to creep toward the top button of his uniform blouse. Others, however, saw within him the potential to produce runs should he ever find himself, by some quirk of fate, playing for a team that could put men on base in front of him.

This year there probably will be fewer than five men in the majors who bat in 100 runs or more. Back in 1950, when hitting was a vital part of baseball, there were 22 men with over 100 RBIs. Harrelson also stands second in the American League to Frank Howard in homers with 32 and is seventh in hitting at .280. In Boston, 1968 has become Hawk's Year. Harrelson treasures every moment of it, because he is one of the few men in history ever to beat the establishment and beat it good. Within the tiny, often blind little world of baseball he not only managed to become his own agent—and sign with a pennant-bound team on his own terms—but he also caused heads to spin because he insisted on dressing in a way that was not even vaguely suggestive of Connie Mack.

While franchises shift, expansion plans get muddled up and an infield fly in some cities is enough to touch off a major celebration, baseball is frantically trying to figure out what its young men should be allowed to wear in order to keep the image of the game within the framework of the 1800s. Gil Hodges, the manager of the New York Mets, has come out openly against love beads, perhaps on the theory that his players would be better off with rosary beads. Eddie Stanky, the deposed manager of the Chicago White Sox, used to get a red neck whenever he saw one of his heroes in a turtleneck. By contrast, Red Schoendienst, the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, is refreshingly modern on the subject of dress. He merely sits back, laughs and admires some of the splendiferous concoctions worn by Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton and Catcher Tim McCarver. He is with it enough to say, "Times sure have changed, they sure have." Boston Manager Dick Williams, a man who many believe likes nothing better than to win and have his players eat Red Heart, has taken a firm position on Harrelson's dress: "I don't care what The Hawk wears as long as he keeps hitting." Since both managers won pennants last year, that should—but, of course, will not—be the end of it with dudes like Harrelson.

Harrelson is indeed a swinging dresser, as well as a good theatrical performer, who, unlike most players today, does not sit around discussing the overwhelming advantages of the pension plan. During afternoon games he dabs crescents of shoe polish under his eyes to help cut the glare of the sun, and he tapes his wrists severely so that when he gets to the plate he presents a menacing appearance to the opposing pitcher. More and more throughout the American League he is being confronted with the Harrelson Shift, a defense that puts the second baseman to the left side of the bag, leaving only the first baseman on the right side of the infield. Sometimes he hits over or through the shift or drives an outside pitch to the opposite field and then wheels around the bases as the rightfielder tries to chase the ball down. When stationed in right field himself he makes all catches with one hand, bringing gasps and oohs from the crowds and heart palpitations to Manager Williams. To some people Ken Harrelson, age 27 and the father of three, is a put-on, a baseball player drawn from the minds of Ring Lardner and Tom Wolfe. And, like any player different from all the stereotypes of bland performers, he is referred to as a "hot dog." All he says is, "I play the way I play, and the guy I myself would pay to see play is Pete Rose of Cincinnati—little 'Charlie Hustle.' A lot of dumb people still say that Pete puts it on a bit himself."

Without Harrelson, Boston's "impossible dream" of 1967 would have turned into the "unbearable sorrow" of 1968. At the end of last week, despite a series of setbacks that struck the team long before the start of the season and has continued right through it, the Red Sox were in fourth place. They have done this without Tony Conigliaro, until he was injured last season one of the best young hitters in baseball; Jim Lonborg, the 22-game winner of 1967 who has been slow to recover from torn knee ligaments; and Jose Santiago, the team's second-best pitcher, who went on the disabled list with tendonitis. The pitching staff that is left has shown marked ability at turning close games into batting-practice sessions. Almost as distressing has been the performance of George (Great) Scott. The fine young first baseman, who last year hit .303 with 263 total bases, has virtually become George (Dread) Scott, with a batting average that has hovered around .180. Scott moans that Manager Williams has given up on him.

There are few franchises in professional sport that are as sound as Boston's and not many fans anywhere who feel as deeply toward their club as those of New England. At Fenway Park, where capacity is 33,524, the second smallest in baseball, the Red Sox will draw 1,800,000 spectators this season. Last year attendance was 1,727,832. Only in 1965, when the club lost 100 games, including 17 of 18 meetings with the champion Minnesota Twins, did the good people of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine and as far south as Hartford, Conn. become disenchanted. The Sox' wealthy owner of 35 years, Tom Yawkey, was not so much financially embarrassed by his team as he was ashamed of its record. The country-club atmosphere quickly changed in 1967 with the arrival of Manager Williams, and suddenly the New England summer became alive again. Busloads of children came from summer camps, and the stands filled with fathers who had not seen the Sox win in 21 years and sons who had found a set of players for not just one season but for many to come. In 1967 Carl Yastrzemski had a year that not even Walter Mitty would dare dream of. A fine rookie center-fielder named Reggie Smith was also developing as was a gritty young second baseman named Mike Andrews.

Realistically, nobody could believe that Yaz would be able to repeat his daily miracles in 1968, and he has not. The American League opposition decided to either walk Yastrzemski or to pitch to him in such a way that he would be unable to pull the ball. When he arrived at spring training this year Yastrzemski seemed drawn and tired from a winter of banquets and personal appearances, and his frustration began during the exhibition schedules as pitchers began to work around him. He got off to a fine start, however, and although the Sox at one point slipped to ninth place in the standings and Yaz was worked over constantly with pitches close to his head, he reached the first week of June with a batting average of .351. From that point on, though, he showed the effects of being tired, and his average dropped to a low of .272.

When Harrelson went to spring training last March it was doubted that he would get to Fenway Park in a Boston uniform for the 1968 season. He had been awful in the World Series, fighting off balls that were hit to him in right field as though they were going to eat him. At bat, only Orlando Cepeda of the Cards was a bigger disappointment. "I knew the Red Sox were trying to trade me," he says candidly, "and I thought for certain that I would end up with either Detroit or the Yankees, because each of them looked like they needed a right-handed power hitter to pinch-hit or play in spots."

The Red Sox had hoped that Conigliaro, who had collected 104 homers and 294 runs batted in by the age of 22, would be fully recovered, and they kept playing him while ignoring Harrelson. In the regular games against A squads in Florida he got to bat only 20 times, and only once was he allowed to bat as many as three times in one game. Manager Williams stuck Harrelson on "the dawn patrols," the teams that play those B games that draw little attention. Harrelson, however, hit well and says, "I worked harder than I ever had, threw batting practice and ran in the outfield. I knew that I was good enough to play somewhere and when the time came The Hawk was going to be ready."

The Hawk had joined Boston late last August after one of the strangest interludes in the history of the game. Although baseball is famous for feuds and stubbornness, Harrelson became one of the few men to profit from them when Charlie Finley, the owner of the Oakland (né Kansas City) Athletics, released him outright. Having heard about a ruckus on an airplane involving the A's, Finley became convinced that Manager Alvin Dark had lost control of the team. He fired Dark, almost rehired him and finally fired him for good.

The reaction of the players was violent, and this made Finley furious, particularly when Harrelson was quoted as saying that Finley was a menace to baseball. Harrelson admitted to Finley that he had been critical of him, but said that he had not called him a menace to baseball. Finley told Harrelson to draft a denial. While Harrelson sat thinking about what he would say, Finley called back to say that Harrelson had been given his unconditional release.

"At first," says Harrelson, "I could not believe it. Then I called the commissioner's office in New York and confirmed it." The unconditional release meant that Harrelson could sell himself to the highest bidder, and soon the bids began coming. "I was afraid," says The Hawk, "that Finley might have blackballed me with the other owners. I was sure that if he hadn't some teams would come after me because in my own mind I felt that I was hitting the ball harder than anybody in baseball outside of Yastrzemski."

Interior scouts, those nomads of the game who wander from city to city assessing players on other teams for possible later trades, had been impressed with Harrelson's hitting almost as much as Harrelson was himself. At the end of the first week of July 1967 Harrelson was down among the dregs of the league. But during the next five weeks he averaged nearly a run batted in a game, and this for a team that celebrated wild two-run sprees late into the night. Harrelson batted .336 during that period.

Seven teams—Boston, Detroit, the Chicago White Sox, Minnesota, the New York Yankees, Baltimore and the Atlanta Braves—approached Harrelson, who had none other than Alvin Dark to advise him. Harrelson accepted the Red Sox offer. He is believed to have received a bonus of $50,000 to $75,000 and a three-year contract.

The final irony of the Harrelson affair is that Finley's A's have now risen to fifth place. It is interesting to speculate where they might be with Harrelson. While the A's have lost 23 games by a run this year, Harrelson has produced 12 game-winning hits for Boston. Against Oakland he is batting .413. "I love to hit against that team," he says, "because I know Charlie is somewhere listening."

Two of Harrelson's diversions are sketching clothes and golf courses. "When Betty Ann, my wife, and I are driving along the highway," he says, "I think up courses and plan them in my own mind. On my courses it is often 350 yards from the tees to the fairway, so you gotta be able to hit the ball." Harrelson has shot a 65 and three times has won the Baseball Player's Golf Tournament in Miami, the first time in 1965, even though he had left his own clubs on his front porch in Savannah, Ga.

Harrelson has been extraordinarily gifted at playing games—any games—almost all his life. He was born in Woodruff, S.C., but his family later moved to Savannah, where he was best known as a basketball player and golfer in his younger days. Occasionally he fought in amateur boxing bouts but says, "There were only three of them and I won two. The other one, forget it. All I saw was the ceiling." He was offered a basketball scholarship at the University of Georgia and local people were interested in backing him in the pro golf tour. When he said he might like that he was classified by the U.S. Golf Association as a nonamateur and is thus ineligible to play in amateur tourneys. "I wrote to Joe Dey at Golf House in New York to get him to reclassify me as an amateur, but I have never gotten an answer."

Married at 17, he decided to ignore basketball and golf and instead accepted a $30,000 bonus from the A's in 1959 to play baseball. He soon began gathering what he calls, "the normal debts of a young man with a family—mortgage, cars and so forth." He borrowed money from Finley, a thing he says "many players do with the team they play for." Last year, having won his freedom from Finley and acquired the money from the Red Sox as a free agent, the first thing he did was buy his mother a Cadillac Eldorado, "because she had worked so hard to give me a chance by putting me through Benedictine Military Academy. I paid off my debts as quickly as I could, because for the first time in my life I could sign a check over the weekend and not have to run to the bank on Monday morning to cover it."

Under the Nehru jackets, turtleneck sweaters and the uniform blouse of the Red Sox, Ken Harrelson wears two medals: a St. Christopher—guardian of the traveler—and a St. Jude—the patron of lost causes. He almost became a lost cause when he was traded to Washington in 1966. Then-manager Gil Hodges and he did not get along, even though Hodges worked hard with The Hawk to make him a fair fielding first baseman. "Gil just didn't like the way I dressed or wore my hair," says Harrelson. "I wear my hair the way I do because of the size of my nose. My sister advised me years ago to have my hair styled so my nose wouldn't be so prominent. Gil told me to get my hair cut one day and it slipped my mind. The next day when I got to the park he told me not to bother to suit up until it was cut. Well, Bob Humphreys gave me a box cut so I could get dressed, but not too long afterward I was back in Kansas City."

Today clothing companies are starting to pursue The Hawk, and next year he hopes to have a line of shirts out. "If they are not too expensive," he says, "they will be called Hawk Shirts. If they are expensive they will be Ken Harrelson Shirts." On a recent trip to Chicago he bought $175 worth of medallions in 10 minutes, and he has a huge collection of sweaters, slacks, shirts and shoes. It has already been a fine season for The Hawk, and in Boston, if he keeps hitting, he will soon be able to walk on the Charles River. Hawk Baby, they really do love you.