Is Chicago Sox Broadcaster Hawk Harrelson One of the All-Time Greats?

YOU GOTTA BE BLEEPIN’ ME!: A look at one of the most reviled voices in baseball

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Illustration by Joe Ciardiello

It’s 5:30 on a sweaty June afternoon. the Hawk swoops beak-first through the back halls of U.S. Cellular Field, where the Chicago White Sox are off to their best start in years. A little bit Johnny Cash, a little bit Leisure World with his silver hair and black polo shirt over black slacks, he rides the air-conditioned thermals like a bird of prey—if the bird were a Boca retiree on a fierce mall walk. His cream Izod loafers flap across the plush pile carpet as he wings his way toward his broadcast perch high above home plate. There he will alight and—as he has done for nearly three decades and some 6,000 broadcasts—spend the next three and a half hours cawing out the play-by-play for the 100,000 or so fans who typically tune in.

In a nasal South Carolina twang thick enough to pour on pancakes, he ladles out what to some is the broadcast equivalent of comfort food, dipped up from his bird feed sack full of stock phrases: “Can o’ corn!” “Duck snort!” “He gone!” “Mercy!” He makes others want to put on cowboy boots and kick in the television screen. Such is the power, the glory, and the preternatural gift to irk of Ken “Hawk” Harrelson, who turns 71 this month, the most wildly polarizing and arguably the most reviled sports broadcaster in Chicago (at least on the North Side) and, perhaps, in the country.

Consider: GQ magazine named Harrelson and partner Steve Stone the worst announcer team in all of baseball in 2010. And in February, FanGraphs, a website devoted to baseball statistics and analysis, also ranked the duo dead last. Both sources made it clear that the abysmal showing wasn’t the fault of Stone.

To his supporters, Hawk is an original: a folksy, funny, salty character in a flavorless porridge of broadcasting blandness. “He’s a beauty,” says longtime Chicago Tribune sports columnist Bob Verdi. “He’s entertaining. He’s show biz. Of course, if you’re a Cubs fan and you’re watching him, your blood’s probably boiling. But I don’t think Hawk cares about that.”

To his detractors—and they are legion—he’s an insufferable, cliché-spewing caricature: Harry Caray, minus the cuddly. He is prickly, petulant, and apt to go off on silly rambles, they say, chattering about glory-days esoterica, such as the best player he’s ever seen at breaking up a double play to extend an inning (Carlton Fisk).

Mostly, critics rip him for his “homerism”: his blatant, in-your-face rah-rahing for the “good guys”—always and only the White Sox. But it’s the accompanying operatic rants against umpires (who make boneheaded calls against “us”), along with bitter dustups against a handful of people close to the game, that have ruffled the most feathers.

There was the Joe West meltdown of 2010, in which Harrelson repeatedly called the home plate umpire a “joke” and a “disgrace to the umpiring profession.” There was his ugly feud with former Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti—a deeply controversial figure in his own right after several brushes with the law—with whom Hawk almost came to blows in a press box in 2004. Most often, such kerfuffles were met with amused chuckles, a segment or two of chat on the local sports talk shows, and maybe a brief dressing-down by Jerry Reinsdorf, the owner of the White Sox.

But earlier this season, the Hawkeroo (as he is known by both friends and foes) flew a little too close to the sun even for him. A rant against umpire Mark Wegner during a May 30 game against the Tampa Bay Rays, which became an instant YouTube classic, sparked debate among fans and the sports commentariat about when enough is enough. Wegner tossed out White Sox pitcher Jose Quintana for allegedly throwing at a batter, and Harrelson launched into a Hawkian harangue for the ages.

“What are you doing, Wegner?” he screamed, his voice quivering with rage. “You gotta be bleepin’ me. What in the hell are you doing? . . . Here’s an umpire in the American League that knows nothing about the game of baseball!” Harrelson not only criticized Wegner but called for his suspension.

In the aftermath, tail feathers tucked, Hawk had to explain himself to Reinsdorf—the explanation taking the form of an abject apology. He was also called to account by the commissioner of baseball, an almost unprecedented occurrence for a broadcaster. Even then, while sorry for the outburst, Hawk couldn’t promise it wouldn’t happen again.

For years there have been calls for Hawk to go. Tune in to any sports radio show, read the comment boxes on any online story about him, and for every passionate defense (“Love Hawk and I dread the day when he won’t be the voice of the Sox,” posted one commenter on the blog South Side Sox), there’s an equally passionate denunciation (“The fans of Chicago absolutely deserve better than this. There is no way I could ever endure a full season of listening to his bullshit,” a reader posted on Heave the Hawk, a site popular among Harrelson critics).

Yet Harrelson has won five Emmys and, two years ago, the Ring Lardner Award for excellence in sports journalism. The latter honor puts him in the company of such deeply respected broadcasters as Ernie Harwell, Bob Costas, Greg Gumbel, and Brent Musburger. After everything, and seemingly against all odds, not only has Hawk hung on—he’s soared. The obvious question is how.

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Illustration: Joe Ciardiello

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comments
2 years ago
Posted by moe

I never liked Hawk AT ALL until I heard him do an interview and he changed my mind. He seems to be a VERY nice guy... but the dud broadcasting duo still stinks. As a Detroiter, I can never understand why the WS broadcasters always spend so much time complimenting visiting players? I just laugh when I listen to them. I've NEVER heard that come out of a Detroit booth. Aside from player stats, that's about as much discussion time as another teams players will get. Hawk will go on non-stop saying how great the other teams guys are. Why would you not spend every available second commenting on good things about your own organization? The charities, the families, backgrounds etc...

Hawk has gotta go...along with his sidekick, sleepy.

2 years ago
Posted by SOXFAN22

Wow, what a moronic comment. I guess I shouldn't be surprised it comes from a Tiger fan. I have heard bits of their announcers on MLB network & let me tell you, if you think Steve Stone is sleepy....?! The reason Hawk & Stone Pony(coined by Steve Dahl, BTW) say good things about other players is that when they talk about other teams, they praise the good players on them. What a concept, huh? We have some very good players, & we are in first place but how boring would it be to just hear about us? The reason why Hawk is such a great broadcaster is he knows his baseball, & yes he is a homer. But you know who else was? Harry Caray. Whether it was with the Cardinals, A's, Sox(when he was at his best) or with the Cubs he was a homer. The only announcer I can really think of that isn't is Vin Scully.

2 years ago
Posted by barrycracker

This article fails to mention his fundamental failing as a broadcaster: his refusal to call the game-- his failure to actually broadcast. If you look away from the screen while cooking or peeing and the opponent scores, homers, or makes an impressive play you would never know it because Hawk refuses to tell you. Just dead air. So much dead air. Therefore he can't be called a professional by any objective standard. But this article makes me understand him better. There's "Ken" and there's "Hawk"--and that old excuse used by sociopaths and wife-beaters everywhere: It's like I was watching another person do it; I can't control him. Two totally self-unaware douchebags in one. Now I get it. Too bad they don't.

2 years ago
Posted by roons240

The picture is missing a primary Hawk-ism - "That ball hit deep". Got the "Stretch" part of it, missed the lead in.

2 years ago
Posted by Leisa Marthaler

Hawk is wonderful--what's wrong for cheering for the best team in baseball. Hawk and Stone make the play by play fun and interesting to listen to on the RADIO. Hawk stay as cool as you are....SOX Mangement don't mess with a good thing!!! You can put that on the board--YESSSSSS!

2 years ago
Posted by curby master

best broadcasters in history of sports since beginning of time

2 years ago
Posted by curby master

hawk is awesome. Critics are jealous cub fans!

1 year ago
Posted by choo

I couldn't believe how stupid this guy sounds. On a homerun, it's like a different person starts announcing. Did he really say "that ball hit deep"? Huh? He's absolutely horrible. How can people listen to this B.S.? Get down. It will. Thank you very much. Huh? This is Chicago, second largest city in the U.S. This guy couldn't get a job selling hot dogs in any other town.

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