Saturday, July 23, 2016

Ken Harrelson: Behaving Badly on a Plane and the Birth of Free Agency

Most fans of this generation know Ken Harrelson as an outspoken, controversial, occasionally obnoxious broadcaster for the Chicago White Sox. The previous generation knew him as an outspoken, controversial, occasionally obnoxious baseball player. He also should be remembered as the man who started the free agent revolution.

Ken Harrelson was a street-wise guy who always knew how to squeeze a few extra bucks out of his athletic potential. As a high schooler in Savannah, Georgia, on scholarship at a private academy, he played golf, football, basketball and baseball. He was good enough to warrant numerous college football scholarship offers and, as a high school All-American in basketball, had offers to places as prestigious as the University of Kentucky. Baseball was perhaps his fourth best sport, but he went with it because it promised quicker money than the other sports.

He signed with the A's for a $50,000 bonus. At an early minor league stop, he was given the nickname "Hawk" due to the obvious raptor-like appearance of the profile of his prodigiously protruding proboscis.

While he didn't appreciate the moniker initially, Harrelson soon embraced it and the name became part of a persona he created. After a couple of great years in the minors, Hawk Harrelson made it to the big leagues at the age of 21.

Once in Kansas City, however, his career stagnated. Despite the potential, by 1967 Harrelson was an obvious disappointment. His best season had been 1965 in which he hit 23 home runs while hitting .238. As was written in Sports Illustrated in 1968 about his days with the Athletics, "Harrelson had drifted and scuffled through five unimpressive seasons, averaging fewer than 50 runs batted in each year while developing a reputation as the game's best arm wrestler, pool shooter and golfer as well as being a man who played defense with all the finesse and surety of Venus de Milo."
[For the non-art enthusiasts in the crowd--that was not a compliment]:

In addition to underperforming, Harrelson made a nuisance of himself with several vehement outbursts toward owner Charley Finley and had the audacity to make incessant demands for unreasonable perks, like raises. Sick of such behavior, Finley dumped Harrelson to Washington in June of 1966, but then inexplicably purchased him back in June of 1967.

The big trouble started on a routine team trip from Boston to Kansas City on August 3 aboard a commercial TWA flight. They made stops in Baltimore and St. Louis which turned the normally two-and-a-half hour flight into six hours--too much time for some members of the team to behave themselves.

Mischievousness and frivolity abounded in the back of the plane and it attracted negative attention. The exact actions of players became shrouded in the "what happens here, stays here" mentality of a major league team and the players, as expected, have forever denied that anything out of the ordinary happened that night. Other accounts differ greatly, however. When viewed with all evidence, we can be certain of two things: 1) copious amounts of alcoholic beverages were consumed and, 2) butts were pinched without the express written consent of the commissioner of baseball or, apparently, of some of the owners of said butts.

Remember, this was the Mad Men era in which boys were allowed to be boys, dames were expected to tolerate leers and unauthorized advances and terms such as sexual harassment were never uttered. The fact that some people took offense to the actions on the plane points to the fact that some players did indeed indulge in very ungentlemanlike behavior and, possibly, a line of some sort was crossed.

Charley Finley, who was not on the flight, heard about the ruckus and, perhaps because it was a commercial flight with numerous innocent bystanders, and witnesses, decided he needed to do something to save face. For years afterwards players held announcer Monte Moore responsible for snitching, but it had actually been Charley's eleven-year-old son Paul, who was also on the flight, who ratted them out to the boss. Paul later told his cousin, Nancy Finley, that several of the stewardesses were bothered by the language and groping and it progressed to the point that one of them fled to the front of the plane and sat next to him (an adolescent boy's dream come true), telling him that was the only save place on the entire plane.

Finley held relief pitcher Lew Krausse most responsible and ordered him fined $500 and suspended. Obviously Krausse was not the only one involved. Some players felt that Krausse was singled out because he was the only player in the back of the plane who was not married and it would spare the others from certain domestic wrath. Incidentally, just a few months earlier, Finley had backed up Krausse and saved him from arrest after he had fired a pistol from his hotel room in a drunken stupor following a tough outing.

In addition to the punishment meted out on Krausse, on August 18, 1967 Finley sent the following memo to his team: "Effective immediately and for the balance of the season, all alcoholic drinks will no longer be served on commercial airlines to members of the Kansas City Athletics. The Kansas City Athletics will no longer tolerate the shenanigans of a very few individuals who obviously do not appreciate the privilege of playing in the major leagues and being treated like gentlemen. The attitude, activities and words of some of you have been deplorable."

As expected, the memo was met with anger among the team members. In addition to being appalled at Finley's gross misuse of basic grammar rules, the players were upset at being publicly shamed when Finley released the memo to the wire services.

The players rallied around their suspended teammate and drafted an uncomplimentary reply to Finley which they also released publicly.

Manager Al Dark refused to back Finley in the suspension and when Finley found out that Dark had known about the players' public rebuttal beforehand and did nothing to head it off, he fired Dark with the explanation that he had "lost control of his ball players."

Reporters flocked to Harrelson for his response to the whole affair, Harrelson predictably had a lot to say, little of it complimentary to his boss. He was quoted in the papers as saying that Finley was "a menace to baseball."

Finley called Harrelson in and demanded a public apology. Harrelson denied using the term "menace to baseball" but did not deny any of the rest of his statements and refused to retract them.

Finley then released Harrelson.

Initially horrified at being cut loose from his $12,000 a year job, Harrelson soon learned that he was free to make a deal for himself with any other willing team. He was a free agent. While Tommy Henrich had been freed from the Indians' farm system and allowed to make his own deal with another team (the Yankees) in 1937 and similar situation may have occurred with minor leaguers, it was the first time that an active major league player had been given the opportunity.

For Harrelson, the timing couldn't have been better. Although there was little drama in the National League as the St. Louis Cardinals were running away from everyone, four American League teams had battled all season for the top spot--a struggle in which three teams would still be in contention on the last afternoon of the season. And two of the contending teams were in desperate need of a good bat. The White Sox had great pitching but were scoring about as often as a coke-bottle-thick black-rimmed-glasses-wearing Physics nerd on a Christian college campus. The Red Sox, with their first sniff of a pennant in more than two decades, had recently just lost slugger Tony Conigliaro to a horrific beaning.

Before his dismissal, Harrelson had been on a modest hitting binge, rapping out a .336 average in the preceding five weeks, raising his season average to .305. That was just enough to give hitting-starved general managers heart palpitations in 1967.

Harrelson was savvy enough to put out the word, sit back and let the feeding frenzy take place. Several major league teams made offers and counter offers and the Tokyo Giants even got in on the act.

After three days of furious negotiations Harrelson signed with Boston. At a time when the major league average salary was $19,000 and virtually no one got anything other than a one-year contract, Harrelson inked a two-year deal and was given a whopping bonus reportedly between $50,000 and $75,000. The total package was worth $150,000. To put that in perspective, during the same 1967 season, Willie Mays, the most exciting player of the decade, made $105,000, Mickey Mantle, who was a walking Hall of Fame plaque, made $100,000 and Hank Aaron, who had 83 home runs and 236 RBIs the previous two seasons, made $92,000. Carl Yastzemski, on his way to a triple crown/MVP season and the highest paid player on the Red Sox, was down for a yearly wage of $50,000.

The leader of the players union, Marvin Miller, all baseball players, and everyone who ever dreamed of walking around with a briefcase and becoming a player agent watched the whole thing play out and a very large light bulb went off in their heads. That light bulb would eventually spell doom for baseball owners and their beloved reserve clause.

For the short term, the Red Sox did not quite get their money's worth. Harrelson had a few clutch hits in the last month, but ended up hitting just .200 with 3 home runs and 14 RBIs in 23 games. In the World Series lost to St. Louis, he was 1-for-13.

But the move to Boston worked out great for Harrelson. He blossomed in both Fenway Park and the city and became a cultural icon and a media magnet. He liked to thrill reporters with his ultra-mod wardrobe; think bell bottoms, cowboy hats, Nehru jackets, turtle necks, gaudy medallions around the neck and fuzzy boots. Not only that, but he could wear them with a straight face (no small accomplishment).

Being the sixties, any guy who worked that hard to stick it to the man was going to be popular. Fueled by a breakout season in 1968 in which, during the famous year of the pitcher, he hit 35 home runs and 109 RBIs and finished third in MVP voting, in addition to his off-field cultural appeal, he thrived. He later estimated that his off-field business interests brought in at least $200,000.

In April, 1969, however, he was unexpectedly traded to Cleveland. Harrelson, shocked and hurt, announced his retirement from baseball. He later reconsidered and turned in a 30 home run, 92 RBI season while hitting .221. It would be his last good year of baseball. An ankle injury in spring training the next year was the beginning of the end. Harrelson finished his playing career with pedestrian numbers of 131 home runs, 421 RBIs and a lifetime .239 average in parts of nine seasons. He dabbled in golf with little financial success, then returned to Boston and began a broadcasting career.

After being fired by Boston owner Haywood Sullivan in 1981 due to some unflattered remarks about the franchise, Harrelson took his act to Chicago. In 1986 he somehow convinced the owners of the White Sox to move him from the broadcast booth to the role of general manager without any experience. He took over a team that had won more games than any in the majors as recently as 1983 and, when he was let go at the end of the one year, the franchise was in shambles. Among his monumental moves that year was: 1) Moving 37-year-old future Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk to left field, 2) Trading future Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver for Steve Lyons and 3) firing future Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa.

Harrelson returned to the broadcast booth, where he has made his living since.

This year the 75-year-old Hawk Harrelson has hinted that his career may be coming to an end soon. No matter how you look at it, it's been a memorable ride.


  1. Doug: As a KC Athletics observer who found Charlie Finley obnoxious, and a Red Sox fan who always liked the Hawk, I appreciated the post. Seems like he also was allowed to wear white shoes while playing, though my memory might fail me. As I recall he was almost also as inept at fielding as his predecessor,Dr.Strangeglove, aka Dick Stuart. His moves as White Sox GM may have helped Fisk decide to wear a "B" on his HOF bust, and Seaver helped the Red Sox more than Steve "Psycho" Lyon did, so I also thank him for that and forgive his obnoxious WS broadcasting stint. When "he gone" from baseball, it will be a duller sport. We could use more of his ilk today.

  2. Well said. Guys like him are what make the game interesting; and great.

  3. I'd never heard that story before. Hawk is always entertaining, if nothing else.