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Harrelson in 1968, taking a swing
Born in the mill town of Woodruff, South Carolina, and raised in Savannah, Georgia, Harrelson was deeply affected by his parents’ divorce. “The last thing I remember about [my father] was hitting him,” Harrelson says. “He and my mom got into an argument and he hit her. And I went over and hit him as hard as I could. Of course, an eight-year-old isn’t going to do anything with an adult, but he stopped and he just looked at me.” Harrelson’s breath catches for a moment. “He walked out the door, and I didn’t see him again until I was in the big leagues.”
His mother, Jessie, a secretary at a meat plant, earned only $56 a week. “There was a financial drain, but the most devastating part was the emotional drain,” Harrelson recalled in a 1986 interview with Chicago. “I’d watch her go over her checkbook and she’d just break down and cry.”
He badly wanted to help. Sports provided the means. Harrelson was a star athlete in nearly every sport growing up, including football and basketball. (When he took up golf at 17, he was shooting in the 90s within three months of his first round; he shot par after six months.) Baseball, the career he would eventually choose, was actually his worst sport, but because it was the one his mother preferred, it’s the one he pursued hardest.
Boosters from Harrelson’s high school, desperate to keep him playing ball there, paid him $40 a week to paint tanks at the local gas company. Later, he says, he added to family coffers—and bought himself drinks—by hustling pool.
One of his favorite stories is of the time he was in a basketball tournament and was waiting for his mother to arrive at a game. To get there, she had to drive more than 200 miles after work, but she had never failed him yet. As tip-off approached, however, she had not appeared. “Everybody knew how close my mom and me were,” he says. “And when she wasn’t there, I said I wasn’t going to play. Well, she used to wear a red wool suit to the games—we called it our lucky red suit—and two to three minutes before the tip-off, I look up, and there she is on the top row, shouting, ‘I’m here, son! I’m here!’ ” The next day a columnist wrote about the “mysterious lady in red” and how she saved the game.
“I remember one time we walked into the gym at the biggest school in the state,” Harrelson continues with a laugh, “and they had a picture of a 40-foot nose along one side of the gym, with the words ‘Mama’s Boy’ in smaller letters. I was proud of it.”
That moniker was much easier to take than taunts about his nose: Banana Nose, Hooknose, Schnoz, Eagle Beak. It wasn’t until he was 17 that the nickname Hawk landed and stuck. Ribbing Harrelson over a hitting slump, his minor-league teammate Dick Howser joked that he looked a little like the cartoon character Henrietta Hawk.
Harrelson hoisting bats for the Red Sox
“Hey, Slick,” Hawk recalls saying. “Why don’t you lay off?”
“I’ll drop the Henrietta when you get a hit,” Howser countered.
“Well, I started hitting,” Harrelson says, “and he did.”
Harrelson soon started thinking of the Hawk as a kind of alter ego—a hungrier, angrier version of Ken. It was the Hawk who got him to the big leagues, first with the Kansas City (now Oakland) Athletics in 1963 and later with the Boston Red Sox in 1967. In Beantown, it was the Hawk who gave him a breakout year—35 home runs and 109 RBIs—a season that earned him player of the year honors and a spot on the American League All-Star team.
“I can remember a lot of times on the on-deck circle in Fenway, a big game, and a man on third and one out or something, and Yaz [Carl Yastrzemski] would pop up,” Harrelson tells me. “I’d say, ‘All right, Kenny, get out of the Hawk’s way and let him go.’ The Hawk used to love that kind of stuff, when the game was on the line. Ken didn’t love it. Ken was scared shitless.”
While the blessing of his alter ego was confidence, the curse was temper—and occasional bad judgment. He married his high-school sweetheart, Betty Ann Pacifici, when he was just 17; the marriage was stormy. For a while, he raced hot rods, risking his neck on bush-league tracks in rural Georgia (he quit after almost killing himself in a $100 match race). He would fight “over nothing,” he says, including a bloody bar brawl in 1964 in Caracas, Venezuela, where he was playing winter ball for the A’s. Despite Harrelson’s pleas for leniency (“I’m a baseball player—El Hawko,” he told a desk sergeant), he was tossed “in a little cell that must have had 40 people in it, screaming and cursing and fighting.”
The Hawk persuaded him to agree to a 1967 publicity stunt by the owner of the A’s, Charley Finley. He rode a mule named Charley O. around Yankee Stadium. (“Roger Maris threw a bat and hit the mule in the ass and he started bucking,” Harrelson recalled in the 1986 Chicago article. “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 going to bite it off.”)
It turned out that he had more to fear from Finley. After Harrelson publicly criticized him for letting manager Alvin Dark go later that year, Finley released him from the team in a fury.
But what had seemed like a reckless move on Harrelson’s part paid off in a way that sent the Hawk—and Harrelson’s ego—soaring. His firing made him, in effect, baseball’s first free agent. He took full advantage, inking a hugely lucrative deal with the Red Sox that included a then-unheard-of $150,000 signing bonus.
In Boston in those days, Harrelson was almost as big a rock star as Mick Jagger. An avowed clotheshorse, he reveled in the part. “My hair was long, my clothes were sensationally different. I spent money as fast as I got it—and sometimes faster,” he recalled in Hawk. He showed up one night at a Boston Bruins game wearing a gold-and-white silk brocade suit with a Nehru collar and Edwardian lapels. The pants had 12-inch pleats. The shoes were made from the same material as the suit.
Boston was loving the Hawk. “The Red Sox were looking for a personality,” Harrelson says. “And it happened to be me. Wherever I went, writers, radio-TV people, photographers [mobbed me].” For one of his many television appearances at that time, he donned a blue sateen jacket, a white turtleneck, gray slacks with blue pinstripes, white shoes, and love beads. He also favored a heavy gold medallion on a gold chain, which he sports on the cover of his memoir.
Though by now he was a married man with four children, Harrelson decorated his pad bachelor-style: orange walls, black ceiling, white rugs. A sculpture of a big hawk clutching a rat sat on the counter of the bar. The backyard featured a multicolored fountain. His wheels? A tricked-out lavender dune buggy with velvet trim, four-inch-thick white carpeting, a bar, a small refrigerator, and a record player in the back—decades before MTV would dream up Pimp My Ride. As he notes in his memoir, the word “Hawk” was embroidered on just about everything he owned: “my slacks, my sweaters, my shirts, my jackets, my underwear, my baseball gear, and my car.”
Legends were growing around him. In his downtime, Harrelson had become one of the best golfers in the major leagues. After hitting the links one day before a game, his hands were blistered, so he wore his golf glove to bat. Today the batting glove is as integral a part of the game as the seventh-inning stretch, and it was Harrelson who invented—or at the very least popularized—the practice.
He was also way ahead of the curve in the trappings of celebrity. “To my knowledge, I was the first athlete to have a bodyguard,” he says.
Despite Harrelson’s popularity in Boston, the Red Sox, desperate for pitching, traded him to Cleveland in 1969. Devastated, he threatened to retire but eventually capitulated. He had a decent first year there, but a serious injury the second year (he broke his leg during a spring training game) helped him decide to quit the sport in 1971. (His marriage was crumbling too; he and Betty Ann would divorce the next year.)
Harrelson then took a step that few athletes would have attempted: He went pro in a different sport, trying to make it on the professional golf tour. Despite some success—in 1972 he played in the British Open, one of golf’s major tournaments, and won several small events—his habit of flying into rages held him back. “I’d go out with 14 clubs and come back with 5 or 6,” Harrelson says. “One reason I quit golf was because I was embarrassed.” Once again, he refers to his alter ego: “I couldn’t control the Hawk.”
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Photography: (top) AP Photo; (right) copyright Bettmann/Corbis/AP Images
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