White Sox Revisionism: Hawk Harrelson and A.J. Pierzynski

The White Sox’s longtime broadcaster and catcher are the most hated men at what they do, or at least the most divisive. They’re also arguably two of the best.

AJ Pierzynski fight Michael Barrett

 

This month, Bryan Smith has an entertaining profile of Ken “Hawk” Harrelson, a man in full: basically baseball’s first free agent; inventor, or at least re-popularizer, of the batting glove; the most mod man in Boston in the late ’60s; pool shark; almost-pro golfer; broadcaster-turned-GM-turned-broadcaster; and half of baseball’s most infamous TV team, ranked last in baseball by both GQ and Fangraphs.

As with many things regarding baseball, I’m more inclined to trust the thoughtful crowdsourcing at Fangraphs, and while Hawk and Stone came in last, the post and comments make clear that it has as much to do with Harrelson’s divisively folksy, homer-ic style as with any particular failings on their part:

It’d be easier to describe Hawk Harrelson as a “polarizing” figure among FanGraphs readers if there were more respondents who defended him. While I, personally, am less put off by Harrelson’s antics than many readers — and, in fact, prefer him to certain broadcasters who appear to revel in blandness and polish — there’s no question that Harrelson is entirely himself. One note: one respondent left a 389-word note regarding the Harrelson-Stone team. That’s nearly as long as many posts on this site, and indicative of the sort of powerful feelings Harrelson is capable of provoking.

Smith looks into why Harrelson has survived, and thrived, despite the fact that he annoys so many, and I think Jerry Reinsdorf has it right:

In fact, when the White Sox hired him in 1982, pairing him with the pitching great Don Drysdale, he was given express orders from owner Jerry Reinsdorf to play it straight. “I told them, ‘I do not want you rooting on the air for the home team. I want this to be a network-quality broadcast,’ ” Reinsdorf says. “So that’s what they gave me.”

The response? “Our fans were up in arms,” Reinsdorf answers with a laugh. “The Chicago market wants a homer. That’s why he does the homer routine. I personally don’t like it, but that’s what our fans want.”

To accompany Smith’s article, we dug up a very long 1986 interview with Harrelson. He’s smart and self-effacing, but there are glimmers of what drive nerdy baseball fans nuts (emphasis mine):

I‘ve liked [Joe] 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.

Cowley was not a particularly good pitcher, but he was very lucky: despite giving up 29 home runs in 30 games and walking 85 batters on 97 strikeouts in 1985, Cowley somehow kept his ERA under four and went 12-6, mostly because the Yankees put up five runs a game in his starts. Cowley was mostly bad for the White Sox, though he did rally at the end of the year and brought his ERA back under four; on September 19th of that year, he threw a no-hitter. A very Joe Cowley no-hitter: eight strikeouts, seven walks, “one of the most poorly thrown no-hitters of all-time.” (Also in 1986, Cowley became the first pitcher in the 20th century to strike out the first seven batters he faced, but gave up six runs, five earned, and didn’t make it out of the fifth inning.) Cowley never won another game and was out of baseball the next year, a shame since he put up fascinating numbers. For Cowley (and aging catcher Ron Hassey), Harrleson gave up the immensely talented Britt Burns, though Burns left baseball in 1986 because of a degenerative hip condition.

For the most part, Harrelson’s moves weren’t bad, but his mod coaching plan went nowhere, and he was gone after a year.

In other news about divisive figureheads of the franchise, Ben Reiter defends my favorite member of the team, A.J. Pierzynski:

Grinders, though, are worthless if they are not also skilled, and Pierzynski has long been an analytical and intuitive handler of Chicago’s pitching staff. This year, the White Sox’s staff has been in a state of nearly constant flux – 23 different pitchers have made appearances, and 11 have made starts – and yet still it has a cumulative ERA of 3.98, sixth-best in the American League.

Chris Sale, who has in his first year as a starter become a Cy Young candidate – he is 15-4, with a 2.65 ERA – believes he knows a primary reason for his, and the staff’s, success. “I put everything on A.J.,” Sale said. “I don’t call my own game, I don’t ever shake him off. Whatever fingers he puts down, that’s what I’m throwing. I’ve never shaken him off. Never.”

In the seven years Pierzynski has caught the Sox’s staff, they have the best WAR in baseball over that time.

 

Photograph: Chicago Tribune

 

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