The Hawk is beaming. After fist-bumping a cafeteria cashier, the announcer glides into his broadcast booth at U.S. Cellular Field. It’s early April, and Ken “Hawk” Harrelson has never felt more positive about the prospects for his beloved White Sox. “We’re as good as anyone in the league!” he says.
A few years ago, while calling a game at the Texas Rangers’ Ballpark in Arlington, Hawk wasn’t quite so cheery. In fact, he was straight-up pissed. And not in the way the longtime White Sox play-by-play man is prone to be when, say, his South Siders make an error or an umpire blows a call. No, this time, after watching Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski get beaned twice by the Rangers’ Vicente Padilla, Harrelson had seen all he could handle.
“I knew none of our guys were gonna do anything about it,” Hawk recalls, the grease of his distinct South Carolina twang practically dripping onto the microphone. “So after the game I went to their clubhouse and waited for this cocksucker to come out. And one of the Texas players came out and I said, ‘When’s [the pitcher] coming out?’ He looks at me and says, ‘Want me to check Hawk?’ I said, ‘Yah.’
“He went back in and he said, ‘He’s not coming out,'” Hawk laughs, and you just know the 73-year-old wishes he’d had an opportunity to coldcock that young gun. “That’s the way I am. If I ever lose that, then I’m going to retire.”
Yes, the prospect of a baseball announcer challenging a player 50 years his junior to a fight is entirely absurd. But not when you’re talking about Hawk: For more than 30 seasons (give or take), the former Red Sox slugger with an outsize beak and equally large persona has been kicking up dust from his perch in the broadcast booth, raising a racket on behalf of the Pale Hose, delighting their fans with his unwavering support – while simultaneously driving his outspoken detractors insane with his blatant homerism, outdated catchphrases (“Duck Snort,” “Can of Corn”) and now-legendary rants.
He’s won five Emmys, received the Ring Lardner Award for Excellence in Sports Journalism and currently calls games from the “Hawk Harrelson Broadcast Level” at U.S. Cellular. But ask Hawk – sitting here on Opening Day weekend, his white vest wrapped snugly over a pink-collared shirt, cream Izod loafers on his feet and 2005 World Series ring on his finger – why he can’t calm down, or perhaps play a few more rounds at his second home on the 17th tee at Bay Hill (where he lives in the offseason with his wife of 41 years, Aris), and you start to understand why he so often sulks the entirety of his 100-mile drive back to his Indiana home after the Sox get screwed.
“When a fan sees a call is blown, or they see a bad decision by an umpire, they can’t do anything except scream and yell in their house,” he says. “I want to be venting with them. Because I’m pissed just like they are. For me to get up here and try and cover it up is an insult to the fans. When I listen to an announcer trying to cover something up, I get upset. Because it’s bullshit.”
Those who love Hawk appreciate his candor, his unbridled passion for the team and his no-nonsense approach to broadcasting. “I don’t think Hawk’s style is coming around again. It’s unique to him,” broadcast partner Steve Stone says. “You can’t confuse him with anybody. And I think that’s good. Obviously when the team is struggling, he’s not the happiest man in the ballpark. In fact, he could be the least happy man in the ballpark.”
But his critics – and there are many – find his slow drawl infuriating, his extreme homerism grating and his refutation of modern advances in analysis, most notably Sabermetrics, just plain foolish. “X’s and O’s in baseball don’t mean a damn thing,” Hawk says when pressed on the latter topic. “We’ve got fans in the stands and watching at home who can actually run a baseball game as well as 85-90 percent of the managers.”
Hawk has run afoul of Major League Baseball, too, most notably in 2012, when he earned a reprimand from Bud Selig for his verbal tirade against umpire Mark Wegner (“Here’s an umpire in the American League that knows nothing about the game of baseball!” he said on the air.) Websites like Heave the Hawk have been pushing for Harrelson’s removal for years now. And while his contract comes up for renewal after this season, the prospect of a White Sox season without Hawk in the booth is unimaginable.
“He can’t separate himself from the team,” longtime Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rick Telander says. “If they had a slide out of the press box he’d be right down there in the umpire’s face. And he’d probably start a fight. And he probably wouldn’t mind.”
Hawk doesn’t disagree. “Sure, I get pissed off a lot during the ballgame. Because I treat every game like I was a player.”
Though if Hawk has built himself up as a man not to be trifled with, sitting here today, the Masters tournament on a small screen by his side and batting practice commencing below, his gentle Southern charm belies anything resembling a testy reputation. “I can’t remember the last time I was this excited going into a Spring Training,” Hawk says. He’d planned to cut back on his workload this year – he was looking at announcing roughly 120 games – but once White Sox GM Rick Hahn started making improvements this offseason, trading for Jeff Samardzija and signing David Robertson, Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche, Hawk changed his mind: “We’re having dinner, Aris and I, and I said, ‘Honey, we’re gonna do em’ all!” he laughs.
In his nine years as a player – the best of which came with Boston in 1968, when he clubbed 35 home runs, drove in 109 runs and finished third in AL MVP voting – Hawk was every bit as colorful as his modern-day antics might suggest. He wore his hair long, was fashion-forward, traveled in celebrity circles and even opened a Boston-area nightclub. “The Red Sox were looking for a personality,” Harrelson once said. “And it happened to be me.”
At the time, he was also developing a reputation as a superb golfer. (After retiring from baseball midway through the ’71 season, he went pro in golf; his temper got the best of him and he quickly left the PGA tour). In conversation he’s quick to relay stories of rounds with Ben Crenshaw and Arnold Palmer, with whom he played in a regular foursome for many years.
“Arnold and I butted heads for 40 years,” Hawk says. “Great guy. Can’t play anymore but he can’t hardly move. I see him every day in the winter. He’ll come out and watch us play the last four, five holes and then we’ll go in and have a cocktail and tell some lies.”
For a ham like Harrelson, a transition to the broadcast booth was inevitable. In 1975 the Red Sox paired him with longtime sports announcer Dick Stockton. While he didn’t fully develop his in-booth flair until the White Sox hired him in 1982, it was in Boston where Hawk learned the ropes. “[Longtime broadcaster] Gene Kirby was a tough guy,” he says. “He set my ass straight in a hurry about what my responsibilities were. He called me the first time the Red Sox were playing the Yankees and said, ‘Hawk, that telecast you’re going to be doing tonight is going to be seen by more people than you ever played for in your career.'”
Notwithstanding a one-year GM gig, in 1986, when he was hired – and quickly dispatched – by the White Sox, a decision longtime owner Jerry Reinsdorf has described as “disastrous,” Hawk has been calling White Sox games for the better part of the past three decades. Slowly, over time, he began to cultivate his now-famous style, including his catchphrases (“You can put it on the board! Yes!”), many of which he picked up on the golf course, and nicknames for players (Frank “The Big Hurt” Thomas). He also began developing a loyal following – not to mention a legion of people who despised his work.
Broadcast partner Stone – who previously worked with the equally divisive Harry Caray – believes it’s a positive that Hawk is so polarizing. “It’s good that people really love him and people don’t like him at all,” he says. “The worst thing that can happen to a broadcaster is indifference. If people have an opinion about you, whether on the high side or the low side, at least they’re thinking about you. At least you’ve registered with them.”
Hawk knows he wears his emotions on his sleeve. He doesn’t care.
“Every time we fly into this town I look out over the landscape, all the hundreds of thousands of homes, and I say to myself, ‘Hawk, you have a responsibility to all these people,'” he says. “It’s a somber, sobering thought. Because I do, and I understand that. They deserve a good ball club and they deserve to be told about that club in a proper manner.”
When he finishes, Hawk flips open his notebook and throws open the windows to the ballpark, revealing a freshly mowed infield and the glistening home plate below. He’s ready to call another Sox game. Over the next few hours, he’ll yell “Son of a Bitch!” when the Sox barely miss a homer, get on his feet and dance for adoring fans during the seventh-inning stretch and fist-bump anyone who enters the broadcast booth. But right now he’s just excited to be doing what he loves.
“This is a fun game,” Hawk says. “I’m 73 and boy I don’t feel it. When it gets to the point that I don’t enjoy coming to the ballpark then I’m outta here.” He pauses, the smile fades from his face and he becomes entirely serious. “Or if the White Sox start beating themselves.”