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Harrelson at work in 2012
It’s a perfect night for baseball. Harrelson, heading to his booth, fist-bumps a security guard, a commissary cashier, a couple of suits shooting the breeze in the hall—all of whom smile and say things like, “Go get ’em, Hawk!”
He rounds a corner and passes a plaque featuring a silver image of him and an inscription that declares the entire floor and its warren of media suites to be the Hawk Harrelson Broadcast Level. That honor was bestowed on him before the beginning of last season, a couple of months after he inked a new four-year deal to call White Sox games that virtually guarantees he will be around to celebrate a full 30 years as the TV voice of the team. A grin here, a little wave there, and Harrelson lands at last in his own personal catbird seat: a black swivel office chair pulled up against a ledge in a small glassed-in split-level booth a few rows above home plate.
At 6:35 the windows swing out, and with a whoosh, the muggy hot-dog-and-beer-fragrant breeze chases the air-conditioned chill into the warm summer evening. Hawk, his great head already bent to his scorecard, doesn’t dwell on the beauty of the diamond spread out before him: the perfect grass, the pinwheel scoreboard, the green seats filling with early arrivals. Plenty of time for that over the next three hours.
Instead, as he prepares, his eyes dart back and forth—alternating between notebooks and a flat screen with an in-progress game between the St. Louis Cardinals and one of the Sox’s division rivals, the Detroit Tigers. “That’s a good matchup,” Harrelson says to Stone, who looks up from his own preparations at the dueling pitchers and nods at the screen. “Yeah, I think Verlander’s going to be psyched for this one.”
The pair has been together since 2009, when Stone took over for Darrin Jackson, who now calls Sox games on the radio for WSCR-AM 670. Whispers to the contrary, Harrelson insists that he’s gotten along with all of his partners, including Jackson, who popped Harrelson with a verbal jab during one of their early broadcasts. “You need to change that cliché,” Jackson said, to the delight of Harrelson haters everywhere. “ ‘Can of corn’ is getting old.”
“Well, why don’t you think of something yourself,” Harrelson snapped.
The exchange hung in the air for several seconds; for the next few days, it lit up the lines at sports talk shows.
To this day, Jackson insists he was just ribbing Harrelson, who agrees the whole thing was overblown. And indeed, earlier on this night, when the two bumped into each other, they exchanged what seemed to be genuinely friendly words. “One of the sweetest guys you’ll ever want to meet,” Harrelson says about Jackson.
Harrelson and Stone are cordial and professional but say little between innings and almost never look at each other. Stone—who has a long and distinguished resumé, including working with legendary Cubs announcer Harry Caray—has seemed to many the perfect foil for Harrelson. His knowledge of the game and his personality are equally strong; he can stand up to the occasionally withering challenges of the Hawk.
“He knows baseball backward and forward,” Stone says. “He does get a little aggravated sometimes. When the team is winning and things are the way they should be, it can be a delightful broadcast. When the team is losing, he’s not really too happy about that, and then the broadcast is a little different. That’s just kind of the way it is in Hawkville.”
As the first pitch from Jake Peavy (“the Jakemeister,” in Hawkese) sizzles over the plate, I settle in for the broadcast. I begin by listening for Hawkisms and marking them down in my notebook. It doesn’t take long. At 7:11 comes the first strikeout and the first “He gone!” At the end of the inning, it’s “Their guys nothing, our guys coming to bat.” Over the next couple of innings, they come in bunches: “Now he’s got the catbird seat.” “Ducks on the pond.” “High and deep! Stretch!”
They come so fast and so often, I eventually stop writing and simply enjoy the show, his juggling act of recording each out, squeezing in promos, bantering with Stone (“Stone Pony”), turning a baseball over and over in his hand during the innings.
And of course, surreptitiously, I study the feature that quite literally defines him: the Nose. Wide, curving, webbed with the faintest filigree of capillaries, it juts from the middle of his face like Mussolini’s chin: defiant, fierce, indomitable. Forged from five breaks—one from an accidental baseball bat to the face when he was seven, two from football injuries, two from fists—it is his Samson’s hair, his Spidey web, his Excalibur.
“My nose is directly responsible for my name,” Harrelson wrote in his 1969 memoir, Hawk. “Indirectly, it’s responsible for just about everything else about me—my clothes, my hair, my shoes, my car, my apartment, my refusal to follow the crowd, my independence, my complete departure from convention. If I had an ordinary nose, I’d be an ordinary guy—regular enough, I suppose, but nobody you’d look at twice. But with my nose, I had to be different, if for no other reason than to divert attention from it.”
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Photograph: Nam Y. Huh/AP/Corbis