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Hawk Harrelson Goes Out As Awfully As He Broadcasted

The close of the Hawk Harrelson Era has been neither sudden nor precipitous. It has been more like a leaky faucet, laboriously dripping drop-by-drop for the past two seasons since the team announced that 2018 would complete his 35-year tenure calling Sox games.

Last season, as he was winding down, he covered only road games. His duties this year have been confined to Sundays at home. He'll describe the three-game series this weekend against the Cubs, and that will be it.

The elongated swan song has been punctuated this month with Hawk Day on September 2nd followed by an hour-long documentary, Hawk, that aired for the first time last Thursday on NBC Sports Chicago, the local network partly owned by the White Sox.

Whereas Frank Thomas was summarily dismissed in 2005, Ozzie Guillen was axed in 2011, and the team cast away Mark Buehrle - Harrelson calls Buehrle his all-time favorite Sox player - to free agency in 2011 at the age of 32, Harrelson's departure has been a lovefest dictated primarily by Hawk himself.

And well it should be. Harrelson was the ultimate homer when it comes to broadcasters. He was castigated a number of times for blasting the umpires. He never ceased to point out that Sox pitchers needed to retaliate when Sox batters were plunked too often by opposing pitchers. Rarely would he come down on the local athletes for their own misplays and ineptitude.

In the film about his career, guys like A.J. Pierzynski, Paul Konerko, Bo Jackson and The Big Hurt - just one nickname for which Harrelson is credited - gushed about Hawk's unique abilities to paint the picture of Sox baseball. He loved the players, and they loved him back.
In explaining in the film the hiring of Harrelson in 1981, chairman Jerry Reinsdorf said, "We had an opening." He certainly did because Harry Caray bolted to the North Side when the Sox instituted Sportsvision, a subscription service, to carry the games. Hawk is fond of saying, "You can tie him, but you can't beat him," and that phrase easily can be applied to his and Caray's egos.

Harry understood very clearly that his voice would have far great exposure on WGN's superstation rather than on a pay-per-view service where Sox fans had to ante up for something that previously was free.

So, yes, there was an opening.

Harrelson and sidekick Don Drysdale filled it until Reinsdorf made the unwise decision to name Harrelson general manager of the ballclub in 1986, which turned out to be a disaster. Hawk's two most notorious moves were to fire manager Tony LaRussa and assistant GM David Dombrowski. By the way, neither were heard from in last week's film.

Harrelson's view of White Sox history is just that: his own. His remarks on Hawk Day included, "This [present and future] era in my opinion is going to be the greatest era possibly in White Sox baseball history."

It would be lovely if Hawk's premonition comes true. However, that is highly unlikely considering that for the 17 seasons between 1951 and 1967 the team never finished under .500. The Sox won at least 90 games in seven of those seasons. They played at a .562 winning percentage for 17 years!

In 1964, the ballclub won 98 games without winning a pennant because of - you guessed it - another group of athletes called the New York Yankees, who were winning at an even greater clip. There was no wild card in those days.

Hawk's history seems to include only the time he's been with the ballclub. On Hawk Day he offered that when Reinsdorf bought the team it was "in shambles," and he said his employer "might be the most loved owner in all of sports." He neglected to mention by whom.

He also failed to mention that Jerry bought the team from Bill Veeck, whose popularity with the fans was notorious. Veeck had a presence at the ballpark and around town while Reinsdorf is seldom seen by anyone other than the people who work for him.

And in an astounding and unexpected outburst on his day at The Grate, Harrelson, in a chronological account of his time with the Sox, angrily said, "Then in '94 something happened that I'll never forgive this man for. [Players Association executive director] Donald Fehr, he's the guy who caused the strike that had the World Series washed out, and I'll never forgive him for that."

Of course, this was directly out of the Reinsdorf playbook. At the time of the strike Newsweek said, "There are the 'hard-liners,' led by Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who seem determined to bury the union and spit on its grave."

If Reinsdorf had imposed his will on the union, today there would be a salary cap costing the players millions. To his credit Reinsdorf's players - Konerko and Jim Thome to name just two - tend to adore him as much as Harrelson.

Hawk, which ironically was co-produced by Matt Dahl, whose father Steve has his own place in White Sox history as the impresario of the infamous Disco Demolition, comes off as a tender depiction of Harrelson, who was raised by a single mom who made $56 a week in Savannah, Georgia. The first segment takes Harrelson back to Savannah where he is very open and honest about his relationship with his mom - his abusive father left for good when Harrelson was eight - and how he dealt with her death while he was broadcasting for the Yankees in the late '80s. There is no hiding Harrelson's tears, and they are exceptionally real.

However, the film is narrowly crafted, sticking to the themes of Harrelson as a flamboyant ballplayer, a dedicated family man, and a passionate, emotional individual. His dual persona of Ken vs. Hawk is emphasized throughout.

So there's not much, if anything, about how the times affected the man. Obviously he was raised in the South at the height of the Jim Crow era. He was 13 when the Brown decision was rendered. He is pictured in the gymnasium of his grammar school where a few kids - some of them black - frolic in the background. Yet Harrelson is not placed historically in terms of what was going on in the country at the time.

The segment about his Boston period as member of the Red Sox in 1967-69 portrays a jock at the height of his prowess in his mid-20s. Harrelson joined the team, which was headed to the World Series, for the final month of the '67 season. He didn't do much then, going 1-for-13 in the Series that the Cardinals won 4 games to 3.

However, the next season he became one of the most popular players in team history, hitting 35 homers and leading the league with 109 RBI. His long hair for the times, cowboy boots, and Nehru jackets landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

There were plenty of side benefits as well. Leading the film crew into a bar he frequented, Harrelson reminisced, "We had so much fun here. Told more lies than you could ever believe. You had to be almost an athlete to get in. [The proprietor] invited all the flight attendants and unescorted young ladies to come in. Tony C[onigliaro] and I used to go around and say, 'You can come, you can come,' and then we'd go up to my place or his place, you know."

Of course, we know. While baseball has changed, the life of a ballplayer no doubt remains much the same as it has been for decades. Harrelson's portrayal of the star's life might have turned off some viewers, but according to his broadcast successor Jason Benetti, this would not concern Hawk.

Benetti's bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, gee-I'm-so-thankful-to-be-here facade went up in smoke when he said, "Hawk's best attribute honestly is that he doesn't give a fuck about anything else that anyone says about him." And then Benetti said it again. Goodbye, innocence.

The final slice of the movie shows the family side of Harrelson at his home in Granger, Indiana. He is surrounded by friends and family, which include his wife Aris of 45 years. Harrelson has frequently described how meeting her rescued him from the depths of alcohol, his temper, and, by inference, womanizing.

Nowhere is it mentioned that he was married previously as a teenager, a marriage that produced four children who remain anonymous.

While this is Harrelson's story, it is in no way unique, regardless of the spin that he and the producers apply to it. Correcting prior sins and dedicating oneself to a healthy, wholesome life is admirable, but certainly not a story that belongs solely to Ken Harrelson.

Numerous times in the film people refer to him as a "family man." I daresay that most, if not all, of the people reading this piece would identify themselves in the same vein. Checking Instagram, I daily see photos of children and grandkids as we marvel and are grateful for the joys of our families. No one family unit has a monopoly on the happiness that families produce. The film narrowly avoids portraying this as an aberration rather than something cherished and practiced by so many of us.

So it is that the 77-year-old Hawk Harrelson assumes his spot in baseball annals. Revered by many fans and criticized by others, he definitely was an entertainer, especially early in his career when we were just getting to know him. But after Sunday's game, He Gone.


Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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