Ken “Hawk” Harrelson, the new executive vice-president of baseball operations for the White Sox, sits on the edge of his desk as a photographer from Sports Illustrated tries to set up a shot. The photographer has been playing around with the lighting in Harrelson’s Comiskey Park office for almost an hour now, and Harrelson, still gracious, is beginning to look—pardon the expression—like a caged hawk. Someone should have arranged for a stand-in. But who could stand in for the Hawk? On this wintry afternoon, Harrelson is wearing a huge, cream-colored cowboy hat and cowboy boots. A thick gold bracelet, reading HAWK, adorns his right wrist, and a large gold ring (a prize from the Red Sox championship season of 1967) dwarfs a finger. He is smoking a cigarette. The television set that faces his desk is, as usual, tuned to the afternoon soap operas.
Cowboy hats and soap operas. It’s tempting not to take Harrelson too seriously—to regard him as a colorful ex-ballplayer who talked his way into the broadcast booth and then the front office. But those who have listened to him analyze a game on television and those who have talked baseball with him know better. Harrelson understands how the game works on and off the field.
Even if the move from White Sox broadcaster to what is actually the general-manager spot caught the city and the baseball world by surprise, it didn’t surprise Harrelson, who had long known that he would one day own, manage, or serve as general manager for a club. Indeed, he turned down several such before leaving his lucrative announcing job to run the Sox.
Gifted in every sport he tried as a schoolboy in Savannah, Georgia, Harrelson broke into the major leagues as an outfielder-first baseman with Charlie Finley’s Kansas City Athletics in 1963. As flamboyant and outspoken as Finley, he was often in the team doghouse, often in the newspapers. When publicly criticized by Harrelson in 1967, Finley became so infuriated that he placed his rising star on irrevocable waivers. Thar move, in effect, made Harrelson the game’s first free agent because a technicality enabled him to make his own deal with any team be pleased. He joined Boston just in time to help the Red Sox win a pennant. The next season, he hit 35 home runs, became the American League’s Player ofthe Year, and took Boston by storm with his “mod” style. There was a designer clothing line, a television special, a town house with a houseboy, and an autobiography (he can be seen on the cover resplendent in a stylish Nehru jacket). Then, in 1969, the Red Sox, desperate for pitching, traded him to Cleveland. Harrelsan created a controversy once again when he refused to report to the Indians until he met with commissioner Bowie Kuhn and the Indians upped their ante. In 1971, a leg injury cut short his playing career, but he was back in the news shortly when he tried to earn a spot on the professional golf tour. Soon he was broadcasting for the Red Sox, and, in 1982, he joined Don Drysdale in the White Sox booth.
Harrelson, 44, is difficult to dislike. His Southern charm quickly puts a visitor at ease. He makes one feel like an old flriend. Your name is Steve, it soon becomes Stevie. There is little pretense and much confidence. In more than six hours, he never dodged a question about the Sox or his personal life. He is a man in himself and the situation. Actually, he is not unlike a hawk, soaring gracefully and intelligently above the landscape, viewing everything, aware of exactly what he wants and where he’s going.
Chicago: Which do you prefer, “Ken” or “Hawk”?
Harrelson: It doesn’t matter. “Hawk” is fine.
Chicago: Do you think there will be any change in the way people address you now that you‘re in the front office? Do you want people to address you differently?
Harrelson: No, there’s going to be a change; there’s no question about that. That’s just human nature. But it’s not necessary. Just because a man changes from one seat to another does not mean that respect and knowledge and dignity come with that position. You gotta earn it. So, no. As far as I’m concerned, I’d like people to be the same way they were prior to the change.
Chicago: How did you get the nickname?
Harrelson: Dick Howser [now the manager of the Kansas City Royals] started calling me “Henrietta Hawk” when we were in the minor leagues. That was when I wasn‘t hitting. Then when I started batting a little better he said, “I guess it’s time to drop the ‘Henrietta.’
Chicago: Did you think the name fit?
Harrelson: Yeah, it did. Anybody can be called Ken Harrelson, and I did have the features of a hawk. I thought it said a lot more about the way I was than “Ken” did. It was not a name, but a description. It’s like you’d call someone “Hey, Mild” or “Hey, Hot.” I was a hawk. So I started going around to the PA announcers in the minor leagues and asking them to introduce me as Hawk Harrelson.
Chicago: There was no shyness about doing that?
Harrelson: No. I told them I wanted to have some fun with this thing. At that time baseball players really didn‘t make a lot of money, so from the time I started playing I knew there would have to be other sources of income, one of those being marketability. When I made the decision to be called Hawk, it was done primarily with that in mind. It’s a helluva lot easier to merchandise or market a Hawk than it is a Ken.
Chicago: You were only 19 or 20 years old. How did you know so much about marketability?
Harrelson: Because I had an unusual upbringing in high school. I was paid to go. What happened was that at a very early age I was aware that if you could play well, there was a situation out there where people would pay you enough to play.
Chicago: How much did you get paid to play in high school?
Harrelson: When they recruited me, because one of the school’s boosters was invdlved with a local gas company, they were going to pay me to go out and paint tanks at the gas company once a week, and we also got a new gas heater for the winter and all the gas free, which was a big savings. And they paid for books, uniforms, tuition. I was making $40 a week, almost as much as my mom was.
Chicago: Your mother worked?
Harrelson: Yes. She was divorced and making 56 bucks a week working as a secretary at a meat-packing company, and she didn’t get any help from her ex. There was a period there, prior to my going to high school, that she was really hurting. There was a financial drain, but the most devastating part was the emotional drain. I’d watch her go over her checkbook and she’d just break down and cry. It just broke my heart. Sports was all-consuming with me at the time, so I told her I’d made up my mind to quit sports and get a part-time job. But she wouldn’t allow it. When they recruited me for high school, that made things a little easier for her financially. She could live with herself. I had a very, very close relationship with her. There may have been some sons who loved their mothers as much as I loved mine, but I’ll guarantee you, nobody ever loved their mother any more than I loved mine.
Chicago: She earned quite a reputation as your biggest fan, didn’t she?
Harrelson: She’d drive to all my games. One time we were in a basketball tournament out of town, and she drove 250 mites back and forth after work each day to see me play. When we went on the court getting ready for the tip-off in the semifinals, I looked around and couldn‘t find her. So I told the coach, “I’m not playing. My mother’s not here. I’m going to call the state patrol to see if she’s been in an accident.” He didn’t say a word. And he knew we weren’t going to win unless I played. But it didn’t make any difference to me. So I started to leave when all of a sudden, from the top of the rafters at Alexander Bell Memorial Coliseum where Georgia Tech played, I heard, “Son, son, I’m here, son.” So then I ran up and gave her a kiss, and the adults clapped and the students razzed me about being a mama’s boy. Meanwhile, as a sophomore, I went out and scored about 25 points that night and we won. But that’s the way I felt about her. I was a mama’s boy until she died six years ago, and still a mama’s boy.
Chicago: Was your father in town?
Harrelson: No. He was out of town. I only saw him a couple of times. I didn’t like him or respect him. From the time he left when I was eight, I never saw him until I was in the big leagues. After that he’d call and ask me to send him money, which I did reluctantly because it wasn’t fair to my mother.
Chicago: You played basketball, football, and bascball in high school. Did you always enjoy playing baseball the most?
Harrelson: No. If you’re talking about going and spending two hours, I’d have rather gone out and spent two hours on basketball or football. Basketball was my favorite sport to play. I made All-American in basketball and had 56 scholarship offers from major colleges. Football was second. Baseball was my third favorite to play, but I loved the game more than the others. I thought it was the hardest of all three to play, the best game of the three.
Chicago: Why is it the hardest?
Harrelson: If you’re talking about the physical part, baseball is the easiest to play. But the physical part is the easy part. lt’s mentally demanding. Baseball is a head game. You have variables involved that you don’t have in any other game. You have the biggest variable, which is the thrown object. The variables of the fast ball, slider, the curve that changes, the change in speed, angle, direction. You don’t know what the ball is going to do. The players are given more opportunities to go wrong than, say, playing on a 40-yard-by-100-yard football field which is always constant. If you throw a pass correctly and your receiver makes a catch, then it‘s going to be a catch on any football field in the world. Whereas you can hit a baseball 400 feet and in some places it’s a home run, and in others it’s just a can of corn. What telling you is that if you take a good athlete, it’s easier for him to excel in football or hasketball than it is in baseball.
Chicago: Do you think the average fan appreciates how hard baseball is to play?
Harrelson: It’s hard to appreciate unless you’ve been there. Unless you’ve been facing a Mantle or a Mays with the bases loaded and one out, or at home plate facing a Drysdale or a Koufax or a Catfish Hunter trying to drive in a man from third with no outs or one out in a tough ball game, you don’t have the knowledge to understand how tough it is to do something like that. It’s incredibly tough. It‘s not too hard to hit a home run when the score is 9 to 0, but when the game is on the line and you‘re facing outstanding major-league pitching or hitting, you just can’t make a mistake. If you make a mistake you lose. And in order to be successful you have to be so consistent it is incredible.
Take Dwight Gooden [of the New York Mets], for example. I don’t give a darn what kind of stuff he’s got, and we all know he’s got good stuff. But I’ve seen better stuff than that. Which is the point. He has knowledge—I call it “presence.“ You take a guy like [Joaquin] Andujar [of the Oakland Athletics]. He has no presence. But Gooden is 20 years old and knows how to pitch. The beautiful thing about watching Dwight Gooden is not that he’s got a 95-mile-an-hour fast ball and a great curve ball. A lot of guys have had that, but they didn’t win consistently. He’s got presence, and that’s what we’re trying to build here with the White Sox. We’ve seen two Cy Young Award winners this past year. One of them is 20 and the other is 21. It just goes to show you. I’m telling our people, Don’t be afraid if we‘ve got a kid who’s 20 or 21, even though he doesn’t have much experience. Don’t be afraid to tell us that the man can play in the major leagues.
Chicago: That was a fear in the past, wasn‘t it?
Harrelson: No question. But the game has changed. The rules may remain the same, but it‘s not anywhere near the way it was when I came in.
Chicago: In what ways?
Harrelson: Society today is different. When I was coming up, the worst thing I had to worry about was beer and cigarettes. I’d never even heard of marijuana, cocaine, or heroin in my life. These kids today got a lot to fight. not just talking about baseball players; talking about kids in society. They got it so much tougher than we had, it’s not even funny. We used to be able to go off someplace and get in a fight, and if you got your ass beat, you got your ass beat. Now you go off and get in a fight today, and you get shot, killed, dead. We might get a beer bottle over our heads. Today you’re liable to get a .45 between the eyes. Society has changed.
Chicago: And how does that translate to baseball?
Harrelson: This game is a reflection of society. If you’re a stranger coming into this country for the first time and you want to see how our society is, just go to a baseball game and study the players. People say today’s players are more selfish. But it’s not their fault.
Chicago: How else are today’s players different?
Harrelson: They’re smarter. They’re better athletes. The one thing that really upsets me is to hear ex-players say that these kids can’t play as well as they did. There’s one thing they are right about, though: that kids don’t know the fundamentals; they don‘t know how to play as well as we did. But that‘s only because we had three, four, five years in the minor leagues, and we had a chance to be had before we were good. We weren’t rushed. I was lucky because I got into the big leagues when I was 20. But that was the exception father than the rule. Today you’ve got a lot of kids who are 20, 21, 22 in the league.
Chicago: Does that put a burden on the club, to make sure the coaching at the majorleague level is better?
Harrelson: Minor-league level and major-league level. And that’s what I’m doing here with the White Sox. We’ve let a lot of people go. And there certainly are some victims there, no question about it, but in any transition thcre are going to be victims. But my philosophy is that when you have young kids coming up, they obviously have some talent or they wouldn’t be here in the first place. Then you gotta teach them how to play. And at that point you have to have people who have credentials and credibility. All our pitching coaches, all our minor-league instructors—whcn they are talking to a young kid, that kid is never going to have the cop-out of saying to himself, “How the hell does this guy know? He never played the game.” So now, rather than listening at one of our instructors, they’re going to listen to ‘em.
Chicago: Do minor leaguers really question instructors without big-league experience?
Harrelson: It’s been the case in a lot of organizations. Again, I’m not trying to disparage all non-major-league people. What I’m saying is, I’m not smart enough to pick out the exceptions to the rule. I know if I have a player down in the minor leagues and he’s having trouble, and I send Richie Allen or José Cardenal down there to talk with him, he’s going to listen.
Chicago: Is it this kind of reasoning that led you to name Moe Drabowsky as your relief-pitching coach?
Harrelson: That’s a big part of it. It would be awful hard for me to ask you to go out and explain to a pitcher with stuff how to get out a Cal Ripken or Eddie Murray with the bases loaded and one out, top of the ninth, to save a game. You couldn’t do it, because you‘ve never been there. Moe has been there. He knows the emotions that are involved, how to cope with them This is an emotional game, and emotions will control your head; your head will not control your emotions. Now, you have to get the head to try and channel those emotions. And unless you‘ve been there, you can’t get those things channeled, because you can’t give a guy a definite avenue to take. Moe can.
Chicago: Having two pitching coaches is rather novel, and it’s led some people to second-guess you. How did you come up with the idea?
Harrelson: I‘ve been thinking about this for years. I thought about it when I played. I’d be out there in right field, and all of a sudden there’s a pitching change. Out in the field I could look into the bullpens and see guys that were really not into the game. We‘re fortunate with the Sox to have one of the finest bullpen coaches in baseball, Art Kusnyer. But yet there’s something lost in the translation when Art tries to get somebody ready. It’s just too much to ask of him. He’s got enough to do without trying to pump somebody up.
When I was playing, I really couldn’t map it out, but I knew there should be two pitching coaches. It’s easier to handle five guys than it is ten. And then Moe sorted it out. I think I’d been offered a job to manage somewhere last year and I had him on my list as a pitching instructor, and he said you need one instructor for the starters and one for the relievers. And all of a sudden it seemed so simple. Then this situation with the Sex evolved.
You definitely need two, as you need two hitting coaches unless you’ve got a guru, and there are no gurus around since Charlie Lau. You need a guy who can relate to power hitters, and you need a guy who can relate to line-drive hitters, because there are two different mentalities, two different ways of approaching hitting.
Chicago: You mentioned that you started thinking about these things while you were still playing. In those days, did you ever think that you‘d be in this position?
Harrelson: No question about it. I always knew in my heart that I’d do one of three things: own a ball club, run a ball club, manage a ball club.
Chicago: Did you have a lot of opportunities before settling on the Sox job?
Harrelson: I‘ve had an opportunity to general-manage two ball clubs and manage four teams, but the situations just weren’t right.
Harrelson: One team was a second-division ball club that was too far away from being a contender. Another was a strong second-division club, but I knew the owner wouldn’t spend the money. Another was a contender that I really believed I could win with, but my wife, who is the most important part of my life, wasn’t ready for that. She didn’t understand what it would mean to be the wife of a person who was under that kind of media scrutiny and the fans‘ scrutiny. So I turned it down. Another one was a contending ball club that didn’t want to pay the money that I thought I was worth.
Chicago: How much did you think you were worth?
Harrelson: I asked for $400,000. At the time that would have made me the second-highest-paid manager in the business. So the owner says, “Well, Hawk, you‘ve never managed.” And I said, “Why the hell did you call me in the first place?” He says, “Well, we can’t afford it.” And I said, “I say this respectfully; If you can’t afford that, then you can‘t afford to hire me.”
I probably could have taken that club to the division title, but they hired somebody else and finished fifth. So I believe in paying a person what the job is worth or I’m not hiring anybody. And that’s one thing with the White Sox: We don’t try to get people cheaply. If we can‘t pay you a certain salary, if we can’t pay what the job is worth to manage or coach or be employed by the Chicago White Sox, then we’re hiring the wrong person. This is the Chicago White Sox; this is not a small park in the Midwest somewhere. This is one of the finest franchises in all of baseball. It means something to be a member of this organization. So we’re going to pay what the job is worth.
Chicago: So few players with long-term contracts seem to perform well in their first year. Do you believe in long-term contracts?
Harrelson: No, I don’t believe in them. You have exceptions to any rule. You know a guy like Harold Baines or Carlton Fisk is gonna play hard regardless of his contract situation. But I definitely have my doubts about signing pitchers. And that’s not to say these guys are bad people. I’m just saying that the opportunity is there for them to have a letdown in motivation more than it is for position-type players. Now, I’d have no qualms with a Richard Dotson or a Tom Seaver. We’re lucky in that we have a nucleus here of good individuals.
Chicago: When you were broadcasting, you often spoke about how players would work harder if they had one-year contracts instead of long-term contracts.
Harrelson: The system has progressed too far to go back to one-year contracts for players. And one team out of 26 can’t change that. We have to conform to the guidelines of the game set out by the majority to stay in business, to stay competitive. I’d like to change it, but at this point I wouldn’t try to venture into any daring-type scenario or to be a pioneer in that area.
Chicago: Maybe the secret is finding players who are in the last year of their contracts.
Harrelson: I’ve thought about that. As strange as it sounds, it is a definite possibility. But I can‘t do that right now because I don’t know what we have in this organization player-wise. Now, if Alvin Dark [the Sox’ minor-league director] does the job that I feel he’s going to do at the minor-league level, the instructors do the job, and we get to know our own personnel, then that’s an option. At this time next year, when I know more about our organization, I’ll be more prone to lean that way. Because you can take a shot on a guy if you feel like you have the people to replace him. Hypothetically speaking, you’d love to have 25 guys on the last year of their contract.
Chicago: Your move from the broadcasting booth to the front caught a lot of people by surprise. Had you been biding your time as an announcer, waiting until the right situation materialized‘?
Harrelson: Not at all. You don‘t take the loss of income I took to leave broadcasting and call it being in a holding pattern. [He laughs.]
Chicago: So you weren’t looking?
Harrelson: Not even looking. When Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn and I first started talking, it was just done as friends. We started talking about baseball in general, talent, the White Sox, possible acquisitions, just a general rap session, and evidently to them it was interesting.
Chicago: Was this at the end of last season?
Harrelson: Yeah. And then they had some appointments but said they wanted to continue, and I said, “All right,” because I enjoyed it, too. And so we had another meeting and another, and then about the third meeting I knew there was a little more on their minds than just general conversation. So we had another meeting and it just evolved into this.
Chicago: You’ve indicated you took a cut in income to make the switch. Was that a major source of concern?
Harrelson: Do you know how long our conversations took on my remuneration? Less than a minute. That’s all.
Chicago: Why did you take this job after turning down the others?
Harrelson: First of all, my wife was ready for it. My wife understands now what it is; she understands the inner circles of this business. I’m not in love with this job at all. I’m here right now to, hopefully, come in and get this organization in a posture of being a contender, year in, year out. The farm system, because of the philosophies we’re implementing, is going to be self-sustaining, so that whoever runs this club in the future—because it‘s not going to be me; I have no intentions of staying a long time—is going to be able to walk into a situation that‘ll be, hopefully, second to none. They can come in, and it will be clockwork. You’ll have the good minor-league system, the good organization, and the only thing you can do is, just don‘t screw it up.
Chicago: What’s your time frame?
Harrelson: I would say three years. My goal is not to be the best in the West [division] in or ’87. My goal is in to be as good as anybody in baseball. And that will tell you my goal is to be as good as anybody in the American League East because that’s where your best baseball is played. No other division is close. I don’t care if we have the defending world champions in our division.
Chicago: You’ve been quoted as saying that, in effect, the Sox were going to go for broke to win a championship this year.
Harrelson: That’s not true. We never said we’re going to try to win now or win next year. The only thing I’ve said is that we’re going to try and be competitive, and there’s a difference.
Chicago: So you’re not willing to gut your minor-league system?
Harrelson: No chance. I mean, I read that and just don’t know how anybody could have misconstrued what I said. We are not going to go out and raid our farm system. We’ve all seen the results of that.
Chicago: Besides your wife being ready, was there something about the challenge of the opportunity?
Harrelson: Ccrtainly that’s a big part of it.
Chicago: Did you feel you had something to prove to people who might not take you as seriously as they should?
Harrelson: Not a bit. I’ve got something to prove to myself. That’s all. That’s all. The only person I have to live with is me. If I can live with me, I can live with my wife, my wife can live with me, and she can live with the children. It filters down. If I can live with myself in this organization, everybody here will be happy. I have only one person to prove anything to in this world, and that’s me.
Chicago: Well, what’s your reaction when you hear talk that Hawk Harrelson is a great guy and he knows baseball, but he might be in over his head?
Harrelson: First of all, there’s nobody that knows me that has said that. Nobody. Everybody that knows Ken Harrelson has thought that this has just been a great moment. And I appreciate that. I think it‘s been proven by the several people we have brought in, like Alvin Dark. He wasn’t going to come back into baseball, but he loves what we’re trying to do.
Now, those other people. Listen, I’ve been ripped and knocked and made fun of for most of my life. I’ve read my fair share of articles that just ripped me apart, whether it‘s been as a ballplayer, golfer, anriouncer, whatever. And over the years you start to understand more about yourself and the system, and those things hurt less and less. You build up—it’s not an immunity; I don‘t think anyone ’s ever immune—but you build up an understanding of why. And if I can understand something, I can accept it. And that’s not to say all those stories were wrong. There are some pretty strong writers who ripped me, and in a lot of cases they were right. We learned an awful lot of constructive things from reading bad stories about me. I don’t get pissed. I just look at it and say, “Well, OK; let’s just try and analyze it.”
Chicago: Have you really been made fun of most of your life?
Harrelson: I’ve been taking abuse all of my life, because first in high school and junior high everybody was jealous of the way I played and because I was a mama’s boy.
Chicago: Did being flamboyant cause you trouble?
Harrelson: Yeah, when I got into professional sports and said in the Sporting News that nobody could beat me at arm wrestling, and backing it up. Nobody could beat me in bowling, and backing it up. No baseball player could beat me in golf, and backing it up. So there was a big resentment there.
Chicago: From other players?
Harrelson: Yeah, from a lot of players. And it was originally from guys that I didn’t know on my team. At the time, I didn’t know what the complex was that caused me to do that, and I was just proud that I could do things better than other people.
Chicago: Do you know now what caused you to act that way?
Harrelson: Two personalities. I think that most people have an alter ego or a dual personality-type situation. I certainly do.
Chicago: How would you describe yours?
Harrelson: Well, there have been times that I‘ve been in a big ball game, say in Fenway Park, when Yaz [Carl Yastrzemski of the Red Sox] would be at the plate and I’d be on deck, and I’d be saying to myself, All right, Ken, get out of there and let Hawk go to home plate. It was my system that I had developed that took pressure off me. I must have started, I guess, in or realizing that there was somebody besides Ken Harrelson. It was another individual, another personality.
Chicago: And who was Ken and who was the Hawk? Was the Hawk the flamboyant one who would say what was on his mind or say, “I’m the greatest”?
Chicago: And what was Ken?
Harrelson: Very quiet. introverted. Which he stiil is.
Chicago: Are the two still there?
Harrelson: Oh, yeah, there’s no question about it. I think now there’s a third—the moderator. I think now there’s a moderating that comes with experience and age and changing of values that you finally begin to develop so you don’t just have two personalities running rampant, but now you have somebody step in and moderate and you can have a blend of the two.
Chicago: Did the personalities talk to each other only in athletic competition?
Harrelson: Most of the time. I had played hardly any golf before playing in a big golf tournament when I was broadcasting in Boston. So I started thinking about what was the best way to play, and I figured if I could get the Hawk back in there, at least I’d have a shot. So a couple of weeks prior to the tournament I started trying to get myself in the frame of mind of getting the Hawk to come back and play, and I did. I got him. For some reason he did it, because I shot a firstround 68 that 1 had no business doing. I was just watching him play. And then the second day, I shot a 72 and was sitting at 140, only four shots off the lead. I think Lanny Wadkins and Ray Floyd were at 136. And then the third day we went out to play, and there were 26,000 people on the golf course and 22,000 were following me, which was actually the Hawk. But the golf course was hilly and my legs started cramping up. So I ended up winning $700 or $800, which I donated to charity. But there was no way Ken Harrelson could have done it. No way. But the Hawk did it, pulled it off.
Chicago: Was Ken Harrelson more likely to go 0 for 4 than the Hawk?
Harrelson: Oh, hell, yeah, there’s absolutely no question about it. He could hit a little bit. Ken Harrelson was just a very subpar hitter. The Hawk had some talent. He had some go. And he’s got a good head on his shoulders, too. He really does. He can use logic, common sense, a iittle bravado every now and then if he has to, a little macho if he has to. But again, I’m beginning to like the blend. I’m beginning to get an understanding. I think it’s a luxury to have another vehicle that will allow you to do things you would like to do.
Chicago: When you were broadcasting were you the Hawk or Ken?
Harrelson: If the club is winning, you more of the Hawk. If the club had been winning last year, I would have been double the Hawk. I think a lot of the Hawk came out when I was broadcasting on NBC because there was no allegiance to any club. You see, there’s only one way to have fun in baseball, and unfortunately got to rip the players a little bit. But if you do it in the right way, the players understand it. Because most of the funny things that come out of baseball happen because of an error or a hanging curve ball or something like that.
Chicago: There was a game against the Red Sox last year where Juan Agosto walked the leadoff man in the ninth and the Sox eventually blew a lead and lost.
Harrelson: Yep. That was the Hawk getting little hot. Only not so much at the players, but the reason behind it. I very seldom get on the players. I get on management because—just because a player is on the field and screws up is not his fault. In many instances, he shouldn‘t have been there in first place. So I don’t go to the surface, and Don [Drysdale] doesn’t, either. We went down to the roots of “Why?” We might not right come right out and say it. We left a lot to the imagination of the viewer. That’s the way the game should be broadcast.
Chicago: There was the game against Orioles in which Bob James hurt his knee and Mike Stanton couldn’t get anybody on and gave up a game-winning homer to Fred Lynn
Harrelson: The fan deserves more the just somebody in the booth who can tell you Mike Stanton was no good tonight. The way we went about that scenario was without mentioning names, saying, in effect, Sure, Mike Stanton blew the game, but it’s not his fault because he shouldn’t be there in the first place, and if he has to do that in the future then we‘re not going to win.
Chicago: So the savvy fan says, OK, these guys are telling me that the team isn‘t composed of the right people.
Chicago: And what is management’s pouse to you and Drysdale when they hear that?
Harrelson: There were some strained relationships, no question about it. Unless a guy is a complete homer, there are strained relationships between all good broadcasters and management.
Chicago: There seemed to be a real chemistry between you and Drysdale.
Harrelson: “Chemistry” is not the right word. I think “knowledge of the game” is the right term. In my opinion, I‘ve never heard two announcers that gave the viewer more of what was happening than Don and I did. We gave you the aspects from a pitcher, from a hitter. We gave you all the options, the ramifications, the whys and wherefores, everything that was available.
Chicago: Are you going to be using Drysdale to help the team on the field this year?
Harrelson: Don Drysdale knows as much about pitching as anybody I’ve ever talked to. There’s not one baseball man alive today that will tell you he knows more about pitching than Drysdale. And he happens to be in the White Sox organization. And he can communicate. It’s just another plus.
Chicago: Do you think he’d be a good manager someday if he wanted to?
Harrelson: No question about it. But he can‘t afford to.
Chicago: You mentioned that the Hawk was a pretty good hitter. In 1968, you hit 35 home runs, led the major leagues in runs batted in. This after some good, but not great, years in Kansas City. What happened?
Harrelson: You had a situation where Yastrzemski was hitting third, I was hitting fourth, Rico Petrocelli fifth, George Scott sixth, and Tony Conigliaro seventh. That’s a lot of thunder. It boils down to the line-up you’re playing in. I didn’t hit the ball any better in ‘68 than I did in yet years from now the historians will look back and say, “What made the big turnaround?” You don’t hit home runs in a park like Kansas City. Plus I didn’t have anybody hitting behind me, so they just pitched around me. All of a sudden I’m in a line-up like the Red Sox and they couldn’t pitch around me. So it’s who you play with. And that’s what I’m trying to do with this club now—get some balance.
Chicago: You talked about how a park can affect a hitter’s performance. Everyone knows how, say, the Cardinals have built a speedy team that takes advantage of their park. The Sox don‘t seem to have an identity. In light of the dimensions of Comiskey Park, is it speed and defense and pitching you’re looking for, or is it power? What kind of identity?
Harrelson: The most important thing you can give your manager is balance, and give him depth of some sort. But that’s only after you get pitching. Pitching to baseball is like the lungs or the heart to the body. That being the case, everything we’re working on is pitching. If you have good pitching, it allows the defense to make a mistake and still not worry about it. You can pitch enough to win a pennant, but you cannot hit enough to win. Everybody says pitching is 75 percent of the game. Well, to me, it’s 95 percent of the game. You give me a solid starting staff and solid bullpen, and I’ll contend with you every year.
Chicago: A few years ago, it seemed that everybody was saying the White Sox had the best pitching staff around, all those young left-handers and Dotson. What happened?
Harrelson: I don’t want to get into any kind of scenario that could be construed as derogatory towards [former manager] Roland Hemond.
Harrelson: Unfortunately, that’s the way the game is played. When a change is made and somebody comes in, you can take anything that I say and mirror it back and reflect on my predecessor. I don’t like that. I never have. Anytime there’s a change in the manager, anything the new manager says—“Well, we’re going to be aggressive”—all of a sudden now, you hear everybody say, “Well, his predecessor was passive.” And you know exactly where I’m coming from.
Chicago: There’s still a place for Roland Hemond in the organization?
Harrelson: Roland has a hell of a lot of value, and I hope he remains in a capacity for the White Sox. Certainly he‘s going to have input. I mean, it’d be crazy to take a man of his experience and not utilize his input.
Chicago: What happened to the White Sox after the team won the division in 1983? There was talk of a new baseball dynasty.
Harrelson: There are no more dynasties. You can forget about it. You’ll have good ball clubs that will be competitive year after year, but as far as dynasties like the Yankees used to have, those days are gone. Because of the fact that when it comes contract time, this guy’s going to want more money than you’re going to give him. So he’s a free agent, so he can go, and he’s gone. The dynasty went by the boards when free agency came in. And the dollar.
Chicago: Years ago the owners had all the leverage. Do you think the pendulum has swung over to the players a little too far now?
Harrelson: No question about it. You’ve got players and agents who will tell you that.
Chicago: Are the players in danger of killing the goose that laid the golden egg?
Harrelson: No, the game is too big for them in that respect. No, but the players are in danger in this particular time frame of jeopardizing franchises from the losses incurred.
Chicago: Can the drug situation jeopardize the game?
Harrelson: The drug situation will get straightened out.
Chicago: Do you foresee some kind of testing?
Harrelson: Yes. I know if I were a player, I’d want it in my contract just to set me apart from the real defendants who are users. They’ll never get rid of the drug situation totally, because baseball’s only a reflection of society. So long as there’s a problem in the country, there’ll be a drug problem in sports. But it will get cleaned up, and for a while, as we know, it was running rampant. [Baseball commissioner] Peter Ueberroth is doing a helluva job to give the players a kick in the fanny, but the players will clean it up. I respect the players. They’ve taken care of the game for 100 years and will continue to do so.
Chicago: You didn’t seem to have much respect for the players during last year‘s strike.
Harrelson: I thought it was absolutely terrible. There was no common sense being used. The pendulum had swung too far to the players. Marvin Miller [former head of the players‘ union] had made great strides in getting the union to where it was; Don Fehr [current head of the union], his primary motive was that he didn‘t want to be the one who lost. And anytime you get a man in that position, common sense goes out the window because of personal goals and egos. I know one thing: If you individually had talked to these guys and there was an individual vote, there would have been no strike.
Chicago: How did you think Ueberroth cnnducted himself during the strike negotiations? Some owners weren‘t too happy.
Harrelson: I think the settlement that was finally reached shocked some owners. They felt he had let them down. But I’m a Ueberroth fan. I think he’s a strong man, and I think if he did in fact do what some of the owners thought he did, then he saw this as an avenue to get this thing under control, with drugs and everything else. Because I would say if you didn’t have a strong man like Ueberroth, baseball was on a self-destructive road.
Chicago: Getting back to the game on the field, you’ve made some moves over the winter to shore up the pitching.
Harrelson: With the trade for Dave Schmidt, we waltzed right on by Kansas City as far as the bullpen goes. First of all, Bob James, in my opinion, is a better pitcher than Dan Quisenberry. And we now have two setup guys, which Kansas City doesn’t have. My first priority is bullpen. With the platoon situation, you need a strong bullpen. Everybody looks at the starting staff, and—sure, if you’re able to go out and get yourseif five Seavers you can do a lot of things there, too. But we don’t have that. So you gotta figure how you’re gonna win a pennant—with your starters or your bullpen? It just so happens we’re in decent shape both ways. If we win a pennant this year, it will only be because of our pitching, not our hitters.
Chicago: And you’re happy with the trade that brought you Joe Cowley from the Yankees?
Harrelson: I‘ve liked Cowley since I first saw him. I like guys who win. Numbers really don’t mean anything. Batting averages don’t mean anything to me. ERAs really don’t mean that much because I know guys who if they really wanted could have had really good ERAs, but the one thing they cared about was to win. That‘s all. Cowley’s been in the league a little over a year and he’s 21 and 8.
Chicago: Do you like the word “chemistry” when it’s applied to a ball club?
Harrelson: It’s actually one of the few clichés, or terms, that is underused. It’s part of our philosophy, but of course when you fancy yourself smart enough to think you can create it, that’s an awful tough job. Actually it evolves back to what I think is the basic ingredient in winning and that’s having a common bond.
Chicago: Did the ‘83 Sox have that?
Harrelson: They had chemistry.
Chicago: And where did it go in ‘84?
Harrelson: Well, you see, I’m not smart enough to answer that. Nobody is. If you were that smart, well, an analogy would be: How would you like to bottle the scent of a newborn child and sell it as cologne? Nobody’s ever been able to do it. To me that’s the greatest smell in the world, a newborn child. Can you imagine a man wearing cologne like that around? I mean this guy would die at the age of 20 of overwork. [He laughs.] It’s the same thing with chemistry; nobody is smart enough year after year to create a common bond.
Chicago: So how do you build a winning team?
Harrelson: The first criteria is to instill among the people the will to work hard and give 100 percent, but there’s more to it than that. That’s just saying we’re going to win. That’s bull. What happens when you run up against a club like the Tigers in when they started out 35 and 5? When you say you’re going to win, you absolutely paint yourself into a corner. If you‘ve committed yourself to winning, it’s hard to get back on the right track. Whereas, if you’ve committed yourself to being competitive, it’s a lot easier to recover.
Chicago: That’s a mature attitude, to distinguish between winning and being competitive. Were you that philosophical when you were a ballplayer?
Harrelson: No, not really. At the time, the only thing you want to do is win. But then, as I got older, I realized that to win all the time is just impossible. There are so many more possibilities and opportunities that will take you out of winning than out of being competitive. You can be competitive every day, but you oan’t win every day. And that’s what we’re going to try to give our players from the minor leagues on up, give them a method for becoming competitive.
Chicago: How do you motivate today’s players?
Harrelson: I think “motivate” is a terrible term to hang on a manager or coach. When a guy is hired, peopie say he’s a great motivator. That‘s bull. Yeah, there have been some. Vince Lombardi was a great motivator. But he’s dead. had some world leaders who were great motivators, but most of them are dead. We don’t really have any as far as leaders go today.
Chicago: Can’t certain players—team leaders—motivate their teammates?
Harrelson: You get some guys who have those qualities. In 1983, I think probably the biggest team leader on the Sox was Jerry Koosman, and he was a pitcher. But the next year he was gone. There were some other guys who tried to pick up the slack, but nobody couid. If you were able to be with the same group for a number of years, say, like in Oakland, there Sal Bando was a true team leader. But that’s a different scenario than today, because the turnover wasn’t as great. The team leader today is becoming a lost animal.
Chicago: Sox fans seem to be divided over Tony LaRussa’s ability. You chose to rehire him. What is it you like about him?
Harrelson: Tony breaks in young players as well as anybody I’ve ever seen. Tony has got as much balls as any manager I’ve ever seen. He’s very confident of his own abilities, and another thing he does extremely well is that when he feels he has an opportunity to grasp control of the momentum in a game, he’ll go for it. He doesn’t get it all the time, but he‘ll go for it. He can manufacture runs I as well as anybody in this league. Obviously, when you’re in the situation where he’s been the last couple of years, because the talent has not been on the field, and you try to manufacture runs, when it backfires you’re going to look bad.
Right now, in this league, hell, there‘s nobody better. Billy Martin’s not working now. I consider Billy to be the best manager in baseball on a one-year contract. And Billy loves Tony. He thinks he’s one of the great young managers of the game. He’s told me many times, “I love to manage against this kid. He’s invigorating.” He said Tony makes you think. He said that managing against a lot of guys, it’s just like going to work, but with Tony you gotta be on your toes. I’m very pleased with our manager.
Chicago: I assume you’re pleased with your owners, too.
Harrelson: I want to tell you, the one thing I’ve learned being here four years is that with Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn you don’t need a contract. You don’t even need a handshake. All they have to do is tell you, and that’s exactly the way it is. Most guys you put in that class, you say, “Well, a handshake’s good enough for me.” You don’t even need that with them.
Chicago: You’ve had your run-ins with owners in the past, particularly Charlie Finley, who owned the Athletics when you played for them. How would you describe that relationship?
Harrelson: Personally, I don’t like him. But he did a lot of good things for baseball. He was very creative and innovative. I think historians will look back and say he was a definite asset to the game.
Chicago: Didn’t he and you bring a mule into Comiskey Park after the Sox had banned Finley from the park?
Harrelson: Yeah. He brought it into the locker room in a crate, and I had to push it out through the runway onto the field during the game. That’s where it stepped on me.
Chicago: What was the reaction of the crowd and the players? Harrelson: The players didn‘t like it. But we had to do that kind of thing. It was part of being a member of the Kansas City Athletics. Sometimes we had to go out at eight in the morning and stand by the mule and sign autographs.
Chicago: You rode the mule a few times, didn’t you?
Harrelson: Yeah. I remember riding in Yankee Stadium, when Roger Maris threw a bat and hit the mule in the ass and he started bucking. I swallowed my tobacco, and all of a sudden I swung underneath the mule and then those long teeth of his were about this far from my nose and I just knew he was gonna bite it off. He was just a baby, but he was big and he was excited. I had to worry about falling down and getting kicked. So finally I just punched him in the side of the head and got over him, and when I hit the ground I got the hell out of there.
Chicago: How much did Finley pay you when you came up to the big leagues?
Harrelson: My first two years, I was making the minimum—$6,500.
Chicago: But you had ways of supplementing that income.
Harrelson: Yeah. I used to have to go out and moonlight. I had three jobs. I played pool, golf, and baseball, and tried to make a living at all three.
Chicago: Did you hustle at pool and golf?
Harrelson: I’ve never hustled. Let me rephrase that: I will not say I’ve never hustled; I will say I‘ve never taken advantage of anybody. I look at hustling as going into a game when you know that you’re gonna win. So, no, I never hustled. If you want to say I looked for games—yes.
Chicago: Do you remember your greatest pool-hall victory?
Harrelson: I know my greatest pool loss. Three of us were in Tennessee, just driving around trying to suppiement our income, and we went into a pub and we won the table. And the guys we’d been playing made a few phone calls, and about half an hour later two guys came walking in and we just cleaned them out. And for some reason those hillbilies didn’t like it. So one of them hit one of my buddies, and I drilled him, and then we got the crap beat out of us. [He laughs.] They didn’t take the money, but I mean we paid for it. I remember my nose was splattered all over my face.
It’s funny; I remember the losing situations more than the winning situations. Of course, there were a lot more winning situations, so it seems like the losing situations always had more impact.
Chicago: You were a good enough golfer to try the professional tour after you retired, yet you never really made it. What happened?
Harrelson: Physically speaking’, I was as good as anybody out there. Physically. But I just got in the situation where I didn‘t learn how to play. My scores were directly related to the way I hit the ball, and you ean‘t survive out there like that. The secret to golf is not hitting the ball good and shooting a 65; the secret is hitting the ball bad and shooting a 72, and I never learned how to do that.
Chicago: Do you think that you couid have made it, if you’d had the mental outlook you have on things today?
Harrelson: No question about it. If I’d have stayed in two more years, I’d have been all right. But I just couldn’t financially stay in it, and I didn’t want to get a sponsor. But, no, if I’d have stayed in, I’d have been all right Because I had learned in those three and a half years a whole bunch about myself.
Chicago: Like what?
Harrelson: That I was just iike any other person. I always thought that I was gonna be A-OK, 100 percent terrific, win. That’s where I really got to hate the word “win.” If you put that “win” up there first and foremost and then something falls apart, you get brain cramp. I was reading a story about Jack Nicklaus, who I consider to have probably the most outstanding mind of any athlete I’ve ever met, and—Jack and I have talked a lot about this—all he’s done is tried to formulate mental processes that will allow him to overcome adversity and bounce back quickly. So if he double-bogeys a hole, he can come back from that; if he has a bad round or tournament, bad month or year, he can come back from that. And as long as he’s able to keep the juices flowing in that respect, he’ll be competitive. And that’s all he wants to be, competitive. ‘Cause if he’s competitive, he’s gonna slip in every now and then and win. And that’s one reason we’ve heard some of the most gracious remarks of any athlete after he’s been beaten in some tough tournaments. He says, “I feel very pleased. I‘ve been competitive. I’ve played as well as I could under the circumstances.” And it’s just like the Tigers in somebody got too hot. But we know this about the guy that beat him: If they played week in and week out, Jack’s gonna beat him. And that’s about the way it’s done, in my opinion, in life.
Chicago: How did you react to your failure on the golf tour?
Harrelson: I lost a lot of self-esteem. I lost a lot of what made Ken Harrelson go; a lot of the punk was taken out of me by failing in golf. And it was getting bad.
Chicago: What turned things around?
Harrelson: Meeting my wife.
Chicago: You were first married when you were in high school. You’re talking here about your second wife?
Harrelson: Unless I’m a bigamist. [He laughs.] Yes, I remarried in September of 1973.
Chicago: And your wife helped you turn things around?
Harrelson: She gave me the reason to change. She gave me the reason because of my love for her to become a different person than I was developing into by failing at golf. Because of the love I have for her, it gave me the impetus to try to work towards becoming a better person. And if a man or woman can work towards that, then good things happen.
Some of the guys that I played with, and a lot of people that I‘ve seen only occasionally over the past 13 years, still don’t believe the change in me. They cannot believe that I don’t screw around any more. They cannot believe that I don’t do a lot of the things I used to do. They have to be around me a little while to really understand it’s a different animal.
Chicago: Was it just a question of taming you?
Harrelson: Not at all. All these changes were self-imposed out of love and respect for her. I would never do anything to my wife to embarrass her.
Chicago: I know you had four children by your first marriage. Do you have children from your second marriage?
Harrelson: Two. My little boy is eight and my little girl is ten.
Chicago: Do they play sports?
Harrelson: My boy plays football, baseball, and hockey. And my girl is an outstanding gymnast. She’s very competitive. She wants to be another Mary Lou Retton.
Chicago: Do you encourage them to compete?
Harrelson: I don’t discourage them. I don’t believe in that. I believe in kids trying to have some fun, and if they want to have some fun, then they‘ll want to compete. But as far as trying to make them play, we encourage them, but don‘t prod them.
Chicago: What about your older children?
Harrelson: I don‘t know them that well. Haven’t had much contact with them.
Chicago: Do you regret that?
Harrelson: Sure. Sure. It’s just the way it worked out. Certainly, it’s something I regret. I’m close with my daughter from the first marriage, but not the other ones.
Chicago: In your autobiography, you wrote that you would wake up in the morning and tell yourself you were the greatest.
Harrelson: That happened. I wouldn’t say it aloud. I’d shout it to myself mentally. It’s like that old saying: Whether you think you can or whether you think you can‘t, you‘re right either way.
Chicago: Is it more important to-say things like that when you’re an athlete who’s competing?
Harrelson: No, I think it’s important in every aspect of life. There are some things I can’t do, but there are a lot of things I can do. So I’m not going to worry about the things I can’t do. I’m going to worry about the things I can do and improve upon that. I understand myself better now, and the only way I reached this point was to go through trials and tribulations of failing. The shortcomings that Ken Harrelson has, which are many, I know them and can joke about them. But there are certain things I can do that very proud of. And the best part is that I think I can even improve upon them. Because I’m not a closed-minded person. It’s ignorant. I grew up in that kind of society down South. I can remember the two separate water fountains, the separate toilet facilities. I can remember when blacks had to sit in the back. Vulgar, very vulgar. And I knew at the time, that was just not the way I believed. I thought it was terrible.
Now I used to be hard-headed. Once I got a thought, you couldn‘t budge me. It was etched in stone. But after you get knocked to your knees so many times because there’s somebody who’s got a better way, pretty soon you start to understand there are several ways to go about every solution. I’ll change my mind. But that doesn‘t make me weak. People misconstrue kindness and understanding for weakness. But if somebody misconstrues it with me, they’ve got a problem on their hands. Because now, if you betray me in that respect you got a problem. And chances are, with my past and the way things have evolved, you’re gonna lose. See, I don’t care if people like me. That’s immaterial. I don’t have time to get people to like me. I just want people, after they get to know me, to realize this: that what I tell you is the truth, and that I’m fair. Those two things are very important to me—that my word is good and I’m a fair person.
Chicago: Would you like to make any promises or predictions about the season?
Harrelson: Yeah. No question about it. I’ll give you a promise: We’ll be competitive. We’ll be aggressive. And if somebody beats us, they’re gonna know they’ve been in one helluva fight.
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