Smith Harrelson was born on September 4, 1941, in Woodruff, South
Carolina. In the sixth grade, he moved to Savannah, Georgia, where he and
his older sister would grow up. Harrelson was the youngest child of a
single mother, Jessie, who was his biggest supporter, closest confidante,
and best friend. Jessie worked hard to support her son, and she held a
difficult and poor-paying job as a secretary in order to provide for him.
Fortunately, Ken had proved at a very young age that he was an
extraordinary athlete, and when it came time for him to go to high school,
the schools came to him, recruiting the athletic youngster by offering
jobs, money, and financial support as incentives.
Harrelson chose Benedictine Military School, because it was his mother's first
choice. And despite Harrelson's strong aversion to the school's strict military
code, he flourished as an athlete and obtained solid jobs through generous
alumni. By the time he was 17, Kenneth had matured into a street-smart young man
and become the family's primary breadwinner. Harrelson was an excellent baseball
player who hit three home runs in the first Little League game ever played in
Savannah, but was by nature a competitor who also played football, basketball
and golf. Ironically, he regarded baseball as his worst sport.
Despite being an excellent baseball player and a Basketball Schoolboy
All-American, Harrelson was fondest of football and he accepted a scholarship to
play at the University of Georgia. His mother, making no more than $65.00 a
week, asked him to reconsider, feeling that baseball would pay better, so her
doting son decided instead to play baseball professionally.
The two teams offering serious money were Kansas City and the Los Angeles
Dodgers, and Los Angeles promised a larger bonus, but Harrelson signed with the
A's because intrepid Kansas City scout Clyde Kluttz was able to convince him
that he would be in the majors faster if he chose the Athletics.
Ken Harrelson and Hawk Harrelson are two very different sides of Kenneth Smith
Harrelson, and, in a 2004 article for The State, the newspaper in Columbia,
South Caroilina, Patrick Obely pinpointed the exact moment that the two sides
met. It was a Gulf Coast Instructional League game in Florida in 1959, and one
of Harrelson's teammates, Dick Howser, had come up with a new name for him.
Harrelson's nose, which had been broken several times and had started to take on
a distinctly beak-like aspect, was a point of great amusement for Harrelson's
teammates and childhood friends. Howser, who thought that Harrelson looked like
a character in a popular comic strip, took to calling him "Henrietta Hawk" in a
Aggravating the matter was the fact that Harrelson, one of Kansas City's most
touted prospects, "wasn't doing squat as far as hitting goes," and the usually
thick-skinned teenager from Savannah began to take offense to Howser's name
calling, dubbing him "Slick" in retaliation. One day, after another especially
disappointing effort at the plate for Harrelson, Howser again poked fun at the
frustrated rookie, causing the latter to lose his cool. "Hey Slick, why don't
you lay off?" … "I'll lay off," Howser retorted, "when you get a hit."
Disgruntled but inspired, Harrelson took the field the next day and hit two
homers. "Okay," said Howser, "I'll drop the Henrietta." The name "Hawk" stuck.
After two more or less average years in the minor leagues in 1959 and 1960,
Harrelson started to show promise in 1961, where he hit 25 home runs, with 114
RBIs, and had a .301 average in 135 games. The next year, Harrelson exploded; in
a magnificent season with Binghamton, he set Eastern League records with 38
homers and 138 RBIs. In 1963, Harrelson continued to improve, and his solid play
with Portland of the Pacific Coast League, did not go unnoticed, as the
Athletics promoted Harrelson to the majors, where he began to discover his more
colorful side. In '64, Harrelson played only 49 games with the Athletics, who
finished in tenth place. In 1965, the Hawk would play 150 games and slug 23
homers--though the Athletics would still finish in tenth again anyway.
Harrelson was a shrewd businessman and colorful hustler who always understood
the value of a dollar, and, before long, he began to realize that the "Hawk"
character was a persona that could make him lots of money. Harrelson was right,
and as the outfielder began to hit home runs and grow more popular, "The Hawk"
began to surface more often, and, almost overnight, his flashy alter-ego made
Harrelson a fan favorite throughout the American League. After the 1964 season,
Harrelson decided to play winter baseball in Venezuela, and it was there that he
really discovered "The Hawk" personality.
Harrelson also learned some lessons about relating to fans during his early
years in Kansas City. One day, after a tough day at the plate, Harrelson, who
was in a hurry to get to a party, rebuffed a bunch of kids requesting his
autograph. While he was shoving his way through the overeager youngsters, he
felt a firm hand on the back of his neck, pulling him back towards the
clubhouse. Harrelson, by now incensed and ready to fight, turned towards the
person who the hand belonged to, but felt his anger melt away when he found
himself face to face with his mother's favorite player and his own childhood
hero, baseball legend Rocky Colavito. Colavito pulled Harrelson aside, and let
him have it, telling the rookie on no uncertain turns that he should always take
the time to sign autographs for the people who paid his salary. Harrelson never
forgot the lesson, and from that point on would treat the fans with respect and
Though "The Hawk" would soon make a name for himself on the baseball field, what
really would put him on the radar in professional baseball was his prowess on
the golf course. In 1964, just a year after his major league debut, Harrelson
played in his first golf tournament for major leaguers. After he earned second
place behind Albie Pearson, one of baseball's best golfers, many players,
managers, and owners began to take notice of the sweet-swinging outfielder.
Golfing, besides being The Hawk's passion, would become part of his legacy - the
popularization of the batting glove. One day in 1963 after two long rounds of
golfing with Athletics teammates Ted Bowsfield, Sammy Esposito and Gino Cimoli,
Harrelson developed painful blisters on his hands. Arriving at the ballpark for
that night's game, he found it would be easier to grip a bat if he wore the
gloves he had used earlier that day to golf. When The Hawk stepped to the plate
in the first inning against the New York Yankees, his teammates scoffed, but
after Harrelson had a great night at the plate, both the Athletics and the
Yankees showed up at the ballpark the next day wearing golf gloves. And thus,
the batting glove was born.1
Growing up with little money, Harrelson could always sense when there was
something to be earned. Raised in a rough-and-tumble area of Savannah, Harrelson
chose his battles carefully and cautiously measured his actions. Despite his
portrayal as an impulsive individual, the skinny baseball player learned how to
maneuver his way out of unavoidable tight spots, using perceptive street smarts,
the power of persuasion, and his extensive network of contacts and friends.
Harrelson's autobiographical tome, Hawk, written with Al Hirshberg in 1969,
describes the adventures of "The Hawk" in great detail. From pool hustling to
golfing for money, dozens of anecdotes depicting shrewd play and smooth
operating are contained in the book's 244 pages, and the stories, which start to
pick up speed around 1964, show us the reluctant, slow emergence of the
outspoken Hawk persona from the small-town Ken Harrelson, who took care of his
mama and spoke with a Southern accent.
However, not everyone was a fan of the flashy façade, and The Hawk ruffled a few
people's feathers and rubbed some the wrong way. Unfortunately, one such person
bothered by the outfielder's flamboyance was Charles O. Finley, who owned the
A's. Finley tried over and over again to irk The Hawk, and refused him a raise;
Harrelson had to call his mother for financial support. In 1966, after 63 games,
a series of heated public arguments and angry private exchanges, Harrelson was
traded to the Washington Senators, where he played for the remainder of the
season and some of the next before he was reluctantly reunited with Finley, who
bought him back in the early months of 1967.
Harrelson was having an excellent year (he had been hitting .273 at the time of
his release), he found himself the subject of one of the first free agent
bidding wars in modern baseball history. Among the bidders in the battle for
Harrelson were the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox were in the middle of a pennant
race and had started the season with Tony Conigliaro as their right fielder.
When Conigliaro, a popular and talented local sports hero, was tragically felled
by a fastball on August 18, ending his season and curtailing a very promising
career , the Sox began searching for a replacement. General Manager Dick
O'Connell saw the release of Harrelson as an opportunity to fill the gap left by
the injury to Conigliaro. After an intense struggle with several major league
teams (and even the Tokyo Giants), O'Connell and the Red Sox finally signed "The
Hawk" for $150,000 on August 28--approximately a $138,000 increase in salary.
In many ways, the signing of Hawk Harrelson marked the end of the age where the
owner was boss, and the beginning of the era in which players controlled their
own destinies. Harrelson was someone the Red Sox desperately needed, and while
O'Connell knew it, so did The Hawk. The end result, an incredibly lucrative
contract by the standards of the time period, was what Bill Reynolds called "a
sneak preview of free agency" in his book Lost Summer.
The Red Sox and Hawk Harrelson were a perfect fit, and it was really in Boston
that The Hawk took wing: the Red Sox needed a power-hitting right fielder, and
Harrelson, who was having a great season, filled the bill perfectly. And not
only did Boston love The Hawk, but The Hawk reciprocated that love.
"The Hawk was really a product of the fans of Boston," Harrelson says today,
"The Red Sox were a great team, but they didn't have any real personalities up
there... after some success, The Hawk evolved, and that is really how it
happened. For many reasons, one of them being that, Boston will always have a
special place in my heart." To Harrelson, The Hawk wasn't just some false
persona to utilize for monetary purposes--though that was a very nice side
effect--The Hawk was something that gave Harrelson, someone who always thought
of himself as an overachiever, support when he was behind or slumping. He
credits the fans with "bringing The Hawk to the forefront," and maintains that
he never could have been successful in baseball without The Hawk backing him up.
In 1967, the fans were behind Ken Harrelson--and The Hawk--all the way, and the
now-happy outfielder helped the Red Sox take the pennant. Besides being a solid
outfielder, he was also a great clubhouse influence who could take the strain of
a pennant race off other players, players like Carl Yastrzemski. Especially Carl
Yastrzemski. In 1967, Yaz was, as Harrelson wrote in his book, "the greatest
ballplayer who ever lived, in fact or fiction. Compared to him [fictional sports
hero] Frank Merriwell was a piker." Harrelson provided a great help in taking
the press load off the media-conscious Yaz. Like every other member of the 1967
team maintains, Harrelson recalls the Red Sox as having a great year, a magical,
unbelievable, impossible year. Everyone did their part, even self-proclaimed
Johnny-come-latelies like The Hawk. Harrelson did not have a good World Series,
and the Red Sox lost in seven games. In the clubhouse immediately after the
final game, Harrelson would finally lose his composure, sobbing uncontrollably
as the victorious St. Louis Cardinals celebrated just down the hall. Harrelson
had not played his best with the Red Sox, hitting just .200 with only 14 RBI,
and though Hawk had knocked out some clutch hits, including a key RBI in their
October 1, pennant-clinching game, it was a definite possibility that his poor
play would result in a trade.
Despite the rumored trade offers, by the spring of 1968, The Hawk was flying
high. Harrelson had established himself as one of the baseball's best golfers,
and won a number of golf tournaments in the off-season. As soon as Spring
Training started however, The Hawk totally dedicated himself to getting ready
for a good year, and even gave away his clubs so he could focus on baseball. Red
Sox fans, many of whom were initially upset at the thought of Harrelson
replacing their beloved Conigliaro, had begun to open their arms to their
flamboyant right fielder. Nonetheless, rookie Joe Lahoud was showing some
promise in right, and with George Scott already at first base, Harrelson's
second position, trade rumors regarding The Hawk abounded. Fortunately for
Harrelson--and, as it would turn out, the Red Sox--Conigliaro's injury still
prevented him from playing and Lahoud proved to still be too young. Shortly
after Opening Day, it became clear that the Hawk would roost in right field at
Fenway for at least one more season.
The 1968 season would become known as "The Year of the Pitcher," and in the
American League, Detroit Tigers righthander Denny McLain won 31 games and the
MVP award. But despite the mastery of pitching that year, the Hawk excelled. The
Red Sox won no pennant in 1968, but Harrelson helped keep them competitive. He
valued runs batted in above all other measures of individual success, and
leading the league in RBIs in 1968 with 109 is something he remains proud of
nearly 40 years later.
Again and again, The Hawk picked up the Sox, seemingly always getting a big hit
when one was most needed. He hit 35 home runs during the season, 13 of them
game-winners. Harrelson was enjoying Boston immensely and playing better than he
ever had before, and his effusive, explosive alter-ego, The Hawk, was having the
time of his life, earning more money then he ever had before--and spending that
money just as quickly, which only helped build the "Hawk" persona.
The Hawk had become more than just a nickname, it was now a commodity, and
lavish possessions proliferated. A lavender dune-buggy. A sandwich shop, an
insurance company and travel agency. A song by a popular Boston band entitled
"Don't Walk The Hawk." The emblem "Hawk" embroidered on every piece of clothing,
including his trademark Nehru jackets. He attended an Academy of Professional
Sports Show that was televised from Hollywood--and, reportedly, his attire made
the movie stars "look like rag pickers." The Hawk loved the attention, but
Harrelson was overwhelmed by it. Carl Yastrzemski, who was no stranger to
endorsements himself, offered some helpful financial advice: Hire Bob Woolf.
Woolf, a Boston lawyer who had become one of the world's most well-known sports
agents when he negotiated Larry Bird's contract with the Celtics in 1979, would
manage The Hawk's finances for the rest of his career and serve as a voice of
reason in times of trouble.
In the early stages of the 1969 season, in a shocking transaction, the Red Sox
dealt Harrelson to the Cleveland Indians along with Juan Pizarro and Dick
Ellsworth in exchange for Sonny Siebert, Joe Azcue, and Vicente Romo. George
Scott and Dalton Jones would split time at first base, and Tony Conigliaro would
try to making a comeback in right field. The move came as a paralyzing blow to
Harrelson, who loved Boston, and could not imagine leaving it. The previous
season, Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey had announced in a newspaper article that he
was thankful that the Red Sox had not traded Harrelson prior to spring training
in 1968: "Often," Yawkey said, "the best deals are the ones you don't make."
Harrelson's Red Sox teammates were distraught, and the Hawk himself was
inconsolable. Angry fans picketed the front office protesting the trade. Despite
Harrelson's public displays of disappointment, when Harrelson announced that he
would retire rather than play for another team, jaws dropped across the country,
and chaos reigned.
How could The Hawk nest anywhere else but Boston? He was loved by the fans,
loved by his teammates, loved by sponsors, endorsers, businessmen, and
consumers. Harrelson simply could not leave Boston--he would rather not play. On
the other hand, baseball meant too much to The Hawk to simply leave it behind.
For Red Sox General Manager Dick O'Connell, Cleveland Indians president Gabe
Paul, and Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, the situation was a nightmare. Azcue
and Siebert had already said they would not go back to Cleveland, and the other
three players involved in the transaction were caught in limbo--freshly dressed
in their new uniforms but not eligible to play. Meanwhile, Harrelson waited, in
the middle of the frenzy, exhausted from lack of sleep and emotionally in
shambles, The Hawk lay mostly dormant throughout the entire solemn ordeal, but
shone through briefly when Harrelson met Kuhn for the first time. Though the
distressed Harrelson had a serious matter on his mind, his flashy alter-ego was
distracted by the finely-dressed commissioner's attire, and, unable to help
himself, The Hawk commented extensively on the sartorial elegance of Kuhn's
suit. On April 21, Harrelson and his agent, Wolff, met with the commissioner, AL
President Joe Cronin, Paul, and O'Connell at the MLB offices in New York, and
resolved the situation. Harrelson loved baseball "too much to hurt it," and he
reported to Cleveland the next day, reunited with friend and former manager
tragedy struck in the form of a debilitating injury. Playing in a spring
training game on March 19 against his former team, the Oakland Athletics, Hawk
slid into second base and immediately felt a shooting pain in his leg. It was
broken. Harrelson was laid up for a long time, and while he was injured, rookie
Chris Chambliss took his place. After the 1971 season, having played only 69
games since his injury, The Hawk felt an emotion that was entirely new to him.
"I just lost my desire to play baseball," Harrelson says today, "I was still a
competitor, The Hawk was still there, but I didn't want to play baseball
anymore." Harrelson sadly announced that he would quit the game he had loved for
so long to pursue a professional golfing career. That pursuit ended badly, and
Harrelson turned back to baseball once more in 1975, coming back to Boston--this
time as an announcer. Many Boston fans have fond memories of Harrelson's work
behind the mike.
In 1981, Harrelson was hired as play-by-play announcer for the Chicago White
Sox, where he served until 1986, when he moved from the broadcast booth to the
front office, serving as the White Sox executive vice president of baseball
operations for a year. In 1987, Harrelson returned to the broadcast booth for
good, taking a position doing play-by-play for the New York Yankees. He returned
to the White Sox in 1991, and works there today in the same capacity. His
Southern twang and enthusiastic catchphrases have made him a fan favorite--and
also have led to some fans calling for his dismissal, claiming that his accent
is unintelligible and his baseball phrases hackneyed. Deep down, the competitive
nature of The Hawk is still there and whether he is defending Lew Krausse or
Jerry Reinsdorf, he never shies away from an issue. Today, The Hawk's opponent
isn't an owner named Charlie Finley, but a journalist named Jay Mariotti.
Mariotti, who constantly attacks Reinsdorf, has been affectionately nicknamed "Hiney
Bird" by The Hawk. Harrelson explains: "The Hiney Bird is a creature that flies
in perfectly concentric circles over and over again until it flies up its own
ass and disappears forever."