2005 Great Year for Harrelson, Sox
The White Sox are no longer Fright Sox. Renovated, U.S. Cellular Field (nee Comiskey Park) is no longer, as I once wrote, K-Mart without the charm. Chicago’s American League club is baseball’s 2005 marque. No one is happier than The Hawk.
Ken Harrelson has been the White Sox’ SuperStation WGN Voice since 1989. The Cubs’ Vince Lloyd would say, "Come on, let’s score a run." Pirates Voice Bob Prince bellowed, "We got ’em! We got ’em!" Many mikemen use "our side," "home team," and "us." The Hawk is their kind of guy.
Mel Allen balked at being called a homer: "I’m partisan, not prejudiced." Either/or: Harrelson is a hoot to hear. The Pale Hose were once albino. The Hawk still owned his nest. More than ever, the Sox are now "good guys." "Yes!" Ken affirms. The "black shirts" smack a homer. "Put it on the board!"
My fondness is heretical: Elites dislike Harrelson’s beating his own drum. I like how Hawk follows his own drummer, fusing instinct, flair, and jazz. Most viewers agree, craving personality and opinion. Fun is not a four-letter word.
Born in South Carolina, Harrelson, 10, moved to Savannah in 1951. Mother Jesse loved baseball. Sonny fancied "a [hoops] scholarship with Kentucky," played four sports at Benedictine College, and signed with Kansas City in 1959. Charles O. Finley soon bought the Athletics. "Cheap! Italicize it!" said Ken, joining them in 1963. On August 3, 1967, he flew from Boston to Missouri. "Other teams took charters. We took a regularly scheduled plane."
Somewhere over Pennsylvania Lew Krausse allegedly harassed a flight attendant. Charley dunned him $500. Ken stormed, "Finley is a menace." The A’s could deal him, or claim a $50,000 waiver. Instead, Finley released Hawk unconditionally: "a rare case," said the first baseman/outfielder, "where temper overrode his wallet."
Baseball’s first free agent signed with Boston, which "won the pennant in spite of me!" said Ken, hitting .200. Mate Carl Yastrzemski won the 1967 Triple Crown. "That winter I worked my butt off to beat him," forging 1968’s 35 homers and A.L.-high 109 RBI. "Better, fans wanted a character, so I gave ’em flair, bigger than life, the clothes" — love beads, bell bottoms, and cowboy hat.
"This was my Utopia," Hawk said. "You know how it is. A gentleman meets a lady. They’ve never seen each other before. Suddenly, sparks fly. It just happens. That’s how it was here." At one point he had 150 pairs of pants. A cedar chest housed seventy sweaters. "Remember the Nehru suit?" Harrelson bought thirty. "Before I wore five they were out of style."
In style: Ken introduced the batting glove and liked a one- handed catch. "With bad hands like mine, one hand is better than two." Above all, Duke Sims sired a name for Ken’s aquiline nose.
"I’d get mail addressed to ‘Hawk’" — his alter ego.
"In the on-deck circle I’d say, ‘Get out of Hawk’s way and let him go.’" Later, announcing, "I’d let my partner call a good game. But in a rout, you need entertainment. I’d tell myself, ‘Enter Hawk.’"
Enter Cleveland in 1969.
From Field to Mike
"Where else in the A.L. is the lake brown and the river a fire hazard?" Ken said. "I couldn’t believe [nor the Hub] where I’d been traded." Fans picketed. Switchboards jammed. Vowing to quit, he cried "like a baby." Till 2005, "baseball was never fun again."
A year later Harrelson broke a leg, took up golf, and found it a handicap. November 1974: "I decided to give it up. Golf ain’t cuttin’ it." At 3 a.m., clammy, he awoke. That morning the Red Sox called. "A year before g.m. **** O’Connell’d offered TV color. Now to renew it when he didn’t know I was shucking golf — unbelievable."
The first exhibition followed, Ken surviving till Tim Foli hit. "He’s a feisty little guy," ad-libbed the Hawk. "Lot of balls." WSBK-TV Voice **** Stockton’s jaw dropped. Even golf looked good. Quickly, he learned that Red Sox Nation is a forgiving, if not forgetting, lot. Harrelson learned not to refer on-air to gonads. He also learned what worked.
"Some guys, especially ex-jocks, coast on their name. At
the other end, some guys numb you with statistics." Shunning poles, he did up to 97 games yearly, called (1975) and blew (1978) a pennant, and chased a Series like Ahab, Moby ****.
"Lot’s of New England is remote. Radio matters," said Ned Martin, spreading with Jim Woods a portable ’70s feast. "TV was second banana," Hawk rued. Working, learning, he hoped to climb the tree.
From One Sox to Another
In early 1981, Boston mailed Carlton Fisk’s contract after the deadline. "The Red Sox," Ken said, are "in disarray, confused, and chaotic." The free agent bolted to Comiskey Park. Next year Harrelson, joining him, replaced Cubs-bound Holy Cow! in 1982. "Yes! He’s Harry Caray!" Hawk bayed of kitsch, heart, and camp. "And these were the Cubs" — America’s munchkin of a team. "All we could do was have fun, not number you to death." Harry could not have said it better.
The 1983 White Sox won the A.L. West. Tom Seaver won game 300 in August 1985. "Two outs! Fans come to their feet … The biggest media representation in Yankee Stadium in years!" said Harrelson. "So it’ll be two veterans — Seaver and Don Baylor, who represents the tying run. Baylor hitting at .240, 18 homers, 67 RBIs. High to left, playable! Reid Nichols camps underneath it! History!"
Ken became history after next year as Sox g.m. "Why’d I try it? My mama said, ‘Son,’re a good kid and I love you, but you ain’t the smartest thing I ever saw.’" Hawk flapped to Yanks’ 1987-88 SportsChannel TV. Axed again — "negative reaction from viewers and executives," cited the New York Post — he reclaimed the white-cubed rectangle on Chicago’s South Side.
Old Comiskey Park turned 80 July 1, 1990: New York’s Andy Hawkins lost a 4-0 no-hitter. On September 30, the once-Baseball Palace closed: Sox 2, Seattle 1, before 42,849. "THANKS for the Memories, 1910-90," read the board.
In 1991, its namesake copied the original’s grass, exploding scoreboard, and rose exterior. Missing: grace, caprice, and the old park’s open arches. New Comiskey solidified the Cubs’ prepotency. "They have atmosphere and location," said pitcher Bill Simas. The Sox had Harrelson: reading notes, citing birthdays, and wooing viewers one by one.
Hawk became 2000 Illinois Sportscaster of the Year. Frank Thomas was named back-to-back MVP. Sadly, disdain for new Comiskey grew. Sox brass changed the renamed Cell: The facelift is startling. The Big Guy didn’t need one: depending on the game, etching a 3-2 curve or "Three Faces of Eve." "Let the home team win!" booms Ken. This year it does.
Advice, and dissent. "[He grows] on you as little as the taste of lima beans," wrote USA Today‘s Stephen Borrelli. What seems vanilla to him tastes like chocolate to me. Like the ’05 White Sox, Hawk is a smorgasbord: a different treat each day.
Harrelson’s eight-year contract runs through 2008. By then the "good guys" may have their first post-1917 world title. "Yes!" the Midwest would chortle. You could put that one on the board.