(page 1 of 4)
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.
* * *
Illustration: Joe Ciardiello