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Hawk Harrelson is living history

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I’ll tell you one thing, he’s the most effusive broadcaster I’ve ever seen ...

Don Drysdale and Hawk Harrelson, 1983

Hawk Harrelson once said he wanted to die in the booth.

If you’ve spent more than five minutes around White Sox baseball, you know the story. The Hawk hoped he would shuffle off of this mortal coil shortly after delivering his signature home run catchphrase.

“YOU CAN PUT IT ON THE BOARD….”

Cut to black, “Sopranos” style.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen.

Instead, Hawk will give Sox fans the Long Goodbye. His remaining game assignments in 2017 (mostly road games) and his 20 games in 2018 will be a chance for us to reflect on the end of an era. The Hawk era spans ballparks, technology, and several generations of fans. When he started, fans who grew up cheering for Luke Appling had hard time forking over the money to watch the games on TV. When he retires, there will be at least seven Hawk Harrelson parody accounts on Twitter - all started by Sox fans who were born well into his second stint in the broadcast booth.

Hawk Harrelson is White Sox history.

Hawk Harrelson’s tenure in the broadcast booth aligns with Jerry Reindsorf’s time as owner. Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn completed their purchase of the White Sox in early 1981. With the baseball season just weeks away, the new owners entered the 1981 campaign with Bill Veeck’s infrastructure largely in place. They still had the softball uniforms designed by Mary Frances Veeck, Comiskey Park was unchanged, and they still had Veeck’s broadcasters: Harry Caray and Jimmy Piersall.

Einhorn, a former CBS Sports executive, thought the White Sox were giving away their TV rights. Bill Veeck believed TV broadcasts served as a commercial for the ballpark experience, and charged TV stations a relative pittance to run the games. Einhorn (and practically every other baseball owner) believed TV and radio rights were another revenue stream. Once the 1981 season ended, the White Sox broke their contract with WGN-TV to broadcast most games on an in-house Pay TV service called SportsVision.

WGN’s local broadcasts were picked up by cable systems coast-to-coast, and Harry Caray liked the national exposure. In November of 1981, Caray announced he was sticking with WGN and moving to the north side to call Cub games. One week later, the White Sox unveiled their new announcing team of Don Drysdale and Ken Harrelson.

Drysdale was a legendary Dodger pitcher, but he had developed into a fine broadcaster. He was the voice of the California Angels and part of the announcing crew for “Monday Night Baseball” on ABC. Harrelson called Red Sox games with Dick Stockton, as well as a contributor to the NBC “Game of the Week.”

In 1982, Drysdale and Harrelson were considered the conservative and professional alternative to the freewheeling Caray and Piersall. Einhorn thought it was outrageous that the broadcasters were bigger celebrities than the players. Piersall had insulted the players’ wives on Mike Royko’s TV talk show. The year before he had choked a reporter for the Daily Herald. As far as the Sox were concerned, circus had been replaced by two network caliber announcers.

Hawk and Drysdale went out of their way to play up their professionalism.

“I don’t think we’re entertainers,” Drysdale told UPI in 1981. “The ballclub is the entertainment. The game will dictate what I say.”

“The game is the thing,” Harrelson added.

Except none of that was true. Hawk claimed to have been the sober broadcaster in 1981, but he had already cemeted his reputation as one of baseball’s great characters. He was a local legend in Boston because he was on the “Impossible Dream” Red Sox in 1967. That happened because Hawk couldn’t stop running his mouth. Harrelson started 1967 with the Kansas City A’s. When manager Alvin Dark was released mid-season, Harrelson called owner Charlie Finley a menace to baseball. Harrelson followed Dark out the door, and signed with the Red Sox in the midst of a tight race for the American League pennant.

In Boston, Hawk was baseball’s version of Joe Namath. He wore flashy outfits, including a Nehru jacket on the cover of Sports Illustrated and his autobiography. He claimed to have invented the batting glove (he accidentally wore a golf glove to the ballpark, you see). He was so popular that there were protests at Fenway Park when Hawk was traded to Cleveland in 1969. A broken leg in spring training in 1970 led to his retirement from baseball in 1971.

After a few unsuccessful years as a professional golfer, Hawk returned to Boston in 1975 as a Red Sox broadcaster. Since he was an employee of WSBK-TV, and not the Red Sox, Hawk felt he had the freedom to criticize management. Which he did. When he ripped Red Sox GM Heywood Sullivan in a speech in April of 1981, some praised him for not being a homer. The strained relationship with the Red Sox, combined with a million dollar contract offer to broadcast White Sox games, led him to Chicago.

In the early going, the game provided plenty of entertainment. Reinsdorf and Einhorn opened up the checkbook, and supplanted Bill Veeck’s strong core of young pitchers (LaMarr Hoyt, Britt Burns, Richard Dotson) and hitters (Harold Baines) with free agents like Carlton Fisk, Greg Luzinski, and Floyd Bannister. The Sox won 87 games in 1982. The White Sox turned the corner in 1983, and Hawk had a front row seat:

1983 would prove to be the exception rather than the rule. After disappointing finishes in 1984 and 1985, management decided to make a change at the top. Roland Hemond, who had been General Manager since 1971, was out along with assistant GM Dave Dombrowski. Who came in depended on which path Einhorn and Reinsdorf would choose. They were considering two rebuilding plans. The conservative plan, and the radical plan. The radical plan involved pulling Hawk out of the broadcast booth and into the GM’s office.

They went with the radical plan.

Much has been written about Hawk’s tenure in the front office in 1986. Hawk hired a bunch of old baseball buddies to coach every facet of the game (Drysdale was put on the payroll to teach pitchers how to bust batters inside). And who can forget “The Hawk Wants You!”

The Sox won 72 games that year. But the real story was off the field. Tony LaRussa was fired in June. Bobby Bonilla was traded for Jose DeLeon. Carlton Fisk was shifted to left field. Although Hawk’s tenure has a GM has been described as a disaster (by Hawk himself), it’s really more of a wash.

The White Sox were old and slow by 1986. The pitching staff was in the middle of the pack. Yes, Bobby Bonilla was a big miss but Hawk did end up acquiring Ivan Calderon from the Seattle Mariners for a player to be named later.

LaRussa’s dismissal hurt because his Oakland A’s would go on to win three straight AL pennants. LaRussa was able to accomplish that because of names like Canseco, McGwire, Stewart, Welch, and Eckersley. There’s no way the White Sox would have had that record from 1986-1990 without some serious roster surgery.

Hawk quit before the end of the 1986 season. After that, he went into exile. He continued to call games for NBC. He also called Yankees games on Sports Channel New York.

Harrelson returned to the White Sox in 1990. This time he was paired up with Tom Paciorek. For fans born in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Hawk and Paciorek were White Sox baseball.

It was also obvious that Hawk 2.0 was a changed man. The 1960s iconoclast who threw darts at management was gone. This Hawk reserved his ire for the teams, players, or institutions that did the White Sox wrong. Take this game from 1991:

And then there were the catchphrases. “Put it on the board!” dated to Hawk’s time as a pro golfer. He used it during his first tour of duty as a Sox broadcaster. After 1990, it became grander and more expansive:

Can of corn. Gas! He gone! Duck snort. Kansas City Special. Hangwuffem.

The criticism rained down. Cheesy. Cornball. Homerism.

However, if you were a fan and you were in the moment….they were perfect for the moment.

As Hawk’s career moved on, sports broadcasting moved to meet him. ESPN built a multimedia empire out of sports personalities who used catchphrases when narrating highlights. When Fox acquired the rights to the NFC Football in 1994, the pre and postgame shows encouraged game analysis disguised as Hawk-style golf course banter. Seemingly every ex-player employed by MLB Network does a variation on Hawk’s routine.

In the ‘90s, Hawk took on another reputation: company man. Columnists and sports talk hosts upbraided Harrelson for praising every move made by the White Sox or Jerry Reinsdorf. That took on a darker dimension as the axis of the Chicago baseball universe permanently shifted to the Cubs. Jerry Reinsdorf led the hard line owners in the strike that ended the 1994 season (with the White Sox in first place). The White Sox pulled the pin on their 1997 season with the team three games out of first place. Harry Caray, the ex-Sox broadcaster, turned into an international celebrity. Comiskey Park was torn down and replaced by a publicly financed ballpark following a very bitter, public battle. Wrigley Field, meanwhile, was a tourist destination. A classic. As Sox fans grew impatient with ownership, they grew impatient with the person who sang their praises on TV.

In 2003, Hawk’s critics found a new word: luddite. The book “Moneyball” shined a light on how Billy Beane and the Oakand A’s used statistical analysis to scout players. Traditionalists scoffed at the new approach and no one scoffed louder than Hawk. It also didn’t help matters that White Sox GM Kenny Williams appeared in the book as comic relief. Whenever it was time to fleece an unsuspecting GM, the White Sox would come a-calling.

Hawk’s decade long war on Sabermetrics came to a head in a now infamous appearance on MLB Network in 2013:

The case of Hawk v. Stats set two large objects on a collision course. Hawk’s thoughts on advanced stats were probably no different than most players. But it put him in the crosshairs of computer savvy stats converts who would pen a 20,000 word rebuttal to some offhand comment Hawk made about Darin Erstad.

To parse everything Hawk says on the air is to miss his essential ingredient. The element of his style that made him endure for three decades. He’s an amplifier.

Hawk Harrelson amplifies any game situation. In 2008, when Gavin Floyd struck out Jason Giambi at a 12-pitch at bat at Yankee Stadium, Hawk’s “He gone!” was as loud and boisterous as I had ever heard. When Mark Buehrle finished his perfect game in 2009, Hawk articulated what was racing through the minds of everyone at (then) U.S. Cellular Field.

“Alexeiiiiiiiiiiii …. yes!”

A dispassionate announcer may have provided a more eloquent description, but no one did a better job of summarizing how we were all feeling at that moment in time.

Who didn’t want to hear “THAT BALL HIT DEEP!” in a big moment?

How about the emotional release of “JOE! CREDE!” on September 20, 2005?

On the other side of the coin, when the White Sox weren’t doing well, he would get pissy. Walkoff home runs were met by silence. Blowouts were met with extended stretches of dead air.

And then there were the moments when he did talk:

Again, who wasn’t furious at that particular moment in time?

The difference between Hawk and other broadcasters who wear their heart on their sleeve is that he never allowed anger or disappointment about game situations to curdle into cynicism. He isn’t bitter.

In Hawk’s world, everyone has the potential to come through in a big moment. They just have to see it in themselves. Could Juan Uribe get hot and carry a team? The numbers say no, but it’s baseball so anything’s possible. Maybe Todd Frazier could be better than Kris Bryant...if the balls Frazier hit started falling for hits. If a player got hurt, it was an unlucky break. Several times he left the booth to personally see if a player was OK.

Contrast that with Rob Dibble, who told Stephen Strasburg to “suck it up” before he was shut down before the end of the 2010 season. Dibble and the Nationals parted ways at the end of the year.

That positive outlook made him the best hype man in professional baseball. Hawk has seen so many great performances over his soon to be eight decades in professional baseball that it became a joke to Sox fans.

“I tell you what, Wimpy/Feisty/Stone Pony, Player (x) is the best at (y) I have ever seen.”

More often than not the magnitude of the accomplishment is inversely proportional to the true talent level of the player. Superlatives are Hawk’s stock in trade. Over the course of the 2011 season, Paul Konerko’s house in Scottsdale, Arizona continued to get bigger. Early on in the year, it was 10,000 square feet. By the time he hit his 31st home run, it was the size of a shopping mall.

His ability to sell anything is the reason why he’s the perfect speaker at SoxFest. He takes the stage and commands the room like an old-time revival preacher. By the time Hawk’s Old Time White Sox Salvation Show is over, you believe that year’s squad is capable of winning the World Series.

In the end, our relationship with Hawk has very little to do with the nuts and bolts of broadcasting. He’s been a part of our lives for decades.

Hawk signed his first White Sox contract in November of 1981. I was 17 months old. Next week, I turn 37. Hawk has been the voice of the White Sox my entire life.

He’s been a guest at birthdays, christenings, graduation parties, weddings, wakes, and funerals. He’s been in dorm rooms, college apartments, hospitals, bars, resorts, cruise ships, and iPads on the other side of the world.

He’s also a bridge to White Sox history. Hawk is part of a dwindling number of people who called games at Comiskey Park. He was there for Carlton Fisk, Harold Baines, Frank Thomas, Robin Ventura, Ozzie Guillen, Mark Buherle, Paul Konerko, Jon Garland, Chris Sale, and Jose Abreu.

My only regret is that the rebuild will not bear fruit by the time he hangs it up at the end of the 2018 season. The finished product will belong to Jason Benetti.

One chapter ends, another begins.