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Highlights, lasting impressions from Hawk Harrelson's 1969 autobiography

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White Sox broadcaster's fashion sense has changed, but his baseball sense remains largely the same

Hawk Harrelson wrote his autobiography Hawk -- or provided the material for it, anyway -- back in 1969. He was just 27 years old, and, as you might expect from an autobiography written by a 27-year-old, it's 1) an exercise in hubris, and 2) short on material to make it book length. He marks his territory from the opening line ("You handsome sonofagun, don't you ever die!"), exhausts every golf and gambling story he had, and he spent one chapter writing about how much Frank Howard eats.

There's not much of a point in issuing a full-and-proper review of a book that's 45 years old, long out of print, and published to cash in on a craze (and there was a craze, at least in Boston). It's not a literary masterpiece, but nobody's at risk of coming across it at Barnes & Noble and buying it on a whim.

Granted, I bought it on a whim at a used bookstore in Cooperstown, but I did so because it's a historical curiosity, and something of an origin story for the only White Sox broadcaster many Sox fans have ever known. Basically, you'll buy it if you want to, and if you want to buy it, you'll enjoy it on one level or another.

I had two reasons to want to buy it. The first was for laughs, intentional and otherwise, which I tweeted over the course of reading the book, along with other notable lines:

Beyond cheap thrills, I rifled through this time capsule for anecdotes or perspectives that stood out when applying them to Harrelson of the present day, whether they were consistent or ironic.

Star-divide

First, though, you have to filter out the superficiality. He spends most of an entire chapter talking about his clothes, and parts of many other chapters as well (examples are in the tweets above). He tries to present himself as a relatively simple guy, but the stories of having more expenses than earnings, and owing Charley Finley so much money that he garnished his wages, demolishes that façade. He's an easygoing guy, but one who ends up in a lot of fistfights. There's also the matter of his marriage at the time, which seems uncomfortable to discuss. He really only presents his then-wife Betty Ann in two contexts -- as somebody tangentially involved in an anecdote, or somebody who doesn't like him very much.

Harrelson owns up to his desire for attention numerous times over the course of the book, and that hasn't changed. It just doesn't seem as detrimental to his well being anymore, and an improved situation at home might've ended up grounding him. I recall an article from a few years ago that suggested meeting his current wife Aris forced him to grow up, at least a little.

"When I met her, I was retired from baseball, going into golf, failing and not a nice person," he explains. "I was angry, going out at night, getting into fights. The reality was if I didn't change my ways, I was going to lose her. So, I did."

Looking past the Hawk that was purely for show, there are more commonalities than stark differences. He gushes over Carl Yastrzemski and Frank Howard, he praises Alvin Dark for helping him become a ballplayer, he's generous with superlatives, he spends a lot of time talking about golf games, and there's even the foundation for the "approach-mechanics" relationship he always mentions about hitting.

[Granny] Hamner was the first manager I ever had who had spent much time in the major leagues, and he taught me a lot about what to expect there. He helped me particularly with my hitting. He was the first to tell me how big-league pitchers use patterns to set up hitters, and he taught me a lot about how certain situations are handled. He talked a lot about concentration. He was the first manager I ever had point out its importance.

I guess I expected the Nehru-jacketed, Mod version of Hawk to be a bigger departure from his current form when it came to baseball, but the clothes don't make the man there. He's pretty much the same guy, and it kinda makes sense when thinking about it a little bit more.

One of Harrelson's best qualities as a broadcaster is that he believes modern players are the most talented the game has even seen, and he doesn't get particularly hung up on the supposed flaws of individuals. Unlike the Marty Brennamans or Ryan Lefebvres of the broadcasting world, he's more likely to focus on the talent of a weirdo (think Carlos Gomez) than scold them for shortcomings. He figures the players will sort out the etiquette issues for themselves, and so he only gets irritated when umpires get in the way of baseball players meting out justice. That's not always the sanest line of thought, but it is consistent.

Star-divide

Maybe he just has a blind spot when it comes to front offices, because that's the only time he seems to forget what it's like being 20something.

The book's best material centers on Harrelson's tumultuous relationship with Kansas City A's owner Charley O. Finley. He opens with "Charley Finley wasn't the smartest baseball owner I ever knew, but he sure as hell was the most interesting. With him in charge, you never had to worry about being bored to death."

Over a few chapters, Harrelson lists all the ways Finley messed with him, the A's and the rest of baseball -- the wage-garnishing and other means of stinginess, policing uniforms, planting stories about player misbehavior in the media, never settling on a good manager, staging sideshows with his mule, and, in Harrelson's case, releasing disobedient players instead of actually trying to recoup some value.

Of course, when Harrelson took over as the White Sox's general manager before the 1986 season, he came to the position armed with  his own crazy ideas. It's fun reading Bill James' before-and-after assessment of Harrelson's one year on the job. From his 1986 Abstract:

To say what is good about Ken Harrelson, the man seems to have a clear and coherent idea about what he is trying to do, and about how he is going to do it. His emphasis for the ballclub is apparently going to be on defense, speed, line-drive hitting; this, at least, is what he has indicated, and as much could be inferred from such diverse actions as moving back home plate (making the lines longer), trading Wayne Tolleson and (apparently) shifting Carlton Fisk to outfield or designated hitter so as to install a catching combination of Joel Skinner and Ron Hassey. His personnel philosophy has been to provide what might be called "incentive pressure" or "constructive insecurity," keeping his manager on a one-year contract with a coach on staff (Doug Rader) of whom he is not enamored, and concentrating on bringing in enough major league players to provide competition for playing time for almost anybody on the roster.

And in the 1987 Abstract:

There's an old saying that you should choose your enemies carefully, because that's who you will eventually resemble. We are a strange race, in that as we move through life we tend to switch roles with people we once despised. The abused child grows up to abuse his own children. The rowdy student grows up to be a strict teacher. Ken Harrelson ran the White Sox exactly the way that Charles O. Finley ran the Kansas City A's in the sixties, when Harrelson played for KC. To a fan of those teams, each Hawk blunder seemed familiar. Finley loved to move the fences in and out. Every couple of years he would have some new idea about the kind of team that he was going to put together to win big with, and the first thing he would always do was move the fences to accommodate his notion. Then he would worry about the talent. Making trades on the seat of his pants without the advice and counsel of his organization, making personnel decisions on intuition and then forcing everyone beneath him to accept them, firing managers and general managers and assistant general managers to cover his own mistakes, getting down on players who were slumping or couldn't do what he asked them to do and trading them for half what they would have brought a year earlier, falling in love with unproven players and then giving up on them when they turned out to be ordinary - these are all very typical Charlie Finley moves. They didn't work twenty years ago, and they won't work twenty years from now.

That explains it about as well as anything else. If Harrelson took his attitude toward players and applied it to organizations, he might say there's more information than there's ever been, and more people wanting to make use of it.

Instead, for whatever reason, he's married his own mashup of baseball wisdom when it comes to running teams. He starts with traditional old-school baseball values, then Krazy-Glues on Finleyesque twists, like four hitting coaches, one-year contracts, and mandatory minor-league stints for players every two years, and even a disastrous stint in the GM's seat hasn't swayed him.

So, if you're trying to keep score, here's what my card looks like:

  • Hawk the Broadcaster would've been a fan of Hawk the Ballplayer.
  • Hawk the Broadcaster would've loved Hawk the GM.
  • Hawk the Ballplayer would've come to loathe Hawk the GM.
  • Hawk the GM's feeling towards Hawk the Ballplayer would've been mutual.

In his one-hour MLB Network special, Harrelson maintained that "Hawk" was a persona that covered for a more introverted "Ken." Maybe that disparity was far more drastic when he wrote his autobiography as a 27-year-old in 1969, but mellowing hasn't stopped him from containing multitudes.