Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Fighting Words Q&A: Hawk Harrelson

The Hawk made Ken Harrelson's time in Boston an unforgettable one. Photo from this site.

Below is one of the more fascinating and unexpected interviews I conducted in the writing of Fighting Words. I wanted to talk to Ken “Hawk” Harrelson, the famed White Sox broadcaster and former Red Sox outfielder and broadcaster, because Carl Yastrzemski credited him with lightening the mood around the 1967 Red Sox, embracing the role of team spokesman and making it easier for Yastrzemski to concentrate on baseball.

I had no idea how highly Harrelson thought of Yastrzemski, nor of how Harrelson has come to view the “Hawk” as a different personality that overtakes him during pressure situations and allows the naturally shy and reserve Harrelson to thrive in those scenarios.

With the White Sox in town this week, I figured it was a good time to post this interview, which was conducted in the visitor’s television booth at Fenway Park in August 2007. Hope you find it as fun and interesting as I did.

What did you think of the passion you saw upon arriving in Boston in 1967?

It was something. It was really fantastic to be a part of. Because the franchise had been down so for long, it was almost like it was apathy among the fans. And then to come in here and see the packed house every night and the atmosphere and the attitude and just to watch Yaz play—that was unbelievable.

Carl said your presence really helped him, particularly when it came to dealing with the media and all the attention. How do you think you helped him?

I’d been the “Hawk” since I was 17. Dick Howser gave me that when I was 17 years old. And when I got here, again, it was only a nickname. Only the “Hawk” took a life of its own and I really became—we became buddies, he and I. Because I’m like Yaz. People who know me will tell you I’m very quiet and very introverted. But the “Hawk” was not. He was just the antithesis of that. And that’s what Yaz was talking about. And he’s right. It took a lot of pressure off a lot of the guys, and just like that helped them and helped Yaz. He helped me, hitting behind him in ’67 and ’68, you know? It made me realize what you had to do. And if you look back, you’ll see in ’67 and ’68, I had my two best years. And two big parts of that was because of Yaz: Hitting behind him and learning, when you’re facing good pitching out there—I’m not talking about mediocre pitching, I’m talking about 20-game winners—you better know how to ratchet it up a little bit. And that’s what he did in ’67. To this day, that’s the greatest offensive season I’ve ever seen by anybody.

We were talking the other day: Sometimes, you’ve got to go beyond the numbers. Now there were guys who had a lot better offensive years, numbers-wise than Yaz. But nobody ever had a better offensive year than he did, as far as when he hit it. Don’t tell me what you hit, I don’t give a [crap] what you hit. I’ve played with guys hitting 30 home runs and driving in 100 runs [and it] didn’t mean a damn thing. When he hit it, it was phenomenal. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: He was the renaissance of baseball in New England. And in fact, I used to call him Renaissance Man. He was the man. I mean, he brought all this back to one of the great franchises in the world and in sports. He was the one that revived it and literally made it what it is today.

Do you think it’s a coincidence that the best Red Sox teams have had guys who were able to absorb the media attention?

The biggest killer of performance is pressure. It’s not being overweight. It’s not getting enough sleep. It’s pressure. That’s what it is. It’s that simple. Yaz is the most fearless baseball player when it comes to pressure that I’ve ever seen.

Most of the time, guys who enjoy the limelight, pressure doesn’t get to them too much. It doesn’t bother them too much, because they have created a way to handle it. If you ever wanted to start with a guy who handled it, you start with Yastrzemski. It’s that simple. And then you would go to a guy like Michael Jordan.

When I got here and joined him, I watched him. I just watched him and you see him handle the media. To see him handle the pressure of the media, I’d never seen it before. I had never seen a player handle the pressure of the media, because it was phenomenal. Our lockers were catty cornered. I was here and he was there and in between was a beer cooler over here and the entrance to the showers right there. There was a room there and I had room to sit. And sometimes he would sit with his head in his hands like this [motions] for a long time. And I would sit there and watch him, and then he’d go into Vinny Orlando’s little room where he kept the hats and stuff. And then once the game started, he had everything under control.

Absolutely magnificent—his execution, his leadership in a time that no Red Sox player had ever faced, maybe ever. Maybe ever, including number nine [Ted Williams].

Did you think the Chicago media was as aware of and quick to reference the White Sox’ title drought as the Boston media was of the Red Sox’ drought?

I thought they presented it to the fans very well while it was happening. They had a great sense of the moment, never got ahead of themselves. It’s almost like they just went ahead and enjoyed [the White Sox' 2005 title] as much as the players and the fans did.

I understand the media’s job, and that’s the media’s job to look at things in an objective way and for the most part in a negative way. And there’s some members of the media that believe what they write can be an influence to the ballclub. And sometimes it can. The media today—I can’t imagine that same scenario with the media being like it is today, back in ’67. On a scale of 1 to 10, the media’s at a 10 today. Back in those days, compared to today, that media was like a 3. So I can’t imagine that same thing.

And then ’04 comes along. My wife and I were watching the playoffs, and when the Yankees were up 2-0, she asked me ‘Well, do the Red Sox still have a chance?’ I said ‘Hell yeah, they’ve got a chance.’ Then when they lost the next game [and] went down 3-0, she asked me again. I said ‘No, they don’t have no prayer.’ But that even made it better. If you had to write a script, that would have been exactly the script you would have written. And then when they won the World Series, I had tears in my eyes again, as I had tears in my eyes in ’86.

Can you expand a bit on how the “Hawk” emerged?

Fans made it. Fans brought him out. There’s an on-deck circle down there that we use to have. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in that thing and said ‘All right, Kenny, get out of the Hawk’s way and let him go,’ because he could do it. I couldn’t. And I’ve talked to some psychologists about it. They said it’s very common. They said ‘You were very fortunate to at least recognize that, even though you may not have understood it. You recognized it at an early age’ We all have—you have multiple personalities, everybody has them. You’re a different guy when you’re angry than when you’re happy than when you’re sad. We all have different personalities and I was able to recognize mine. I couldn’t stand the pressure. I didn’t like it one bit. Hawk loved it. Now, he didn’t come out all the time. But when he did, he did well.

But I was a product of the fans. And a lot of times, you know, you come out of the dugout and you’ve had a long night or a short night or whatever way you want to put it and you’ve got a hangover or you’re not feeling good. And all of a sudden you walk out of that dugout and there’s 35,000 fans there with their arms outstretched saying ‘Hawk, we love you.’ All of a sudden, poof, that hangover’s gone and you’re ready to play some baseball.

To a degree, he still [appears] when we get on the golf course. I remember a few years ago when I beat Rick Rhoden in the playoff of [a celebrity golf tournament]. Rhoden, I think he was leading us by seven shots at the turn. All of a sudden, my caddie and I are walking down [the fairway]. He’s like a second son to me and he knows about the 'Hawk.' He says ‘So where’s the Hawk?’ I said ‘He’s here. He just came in.’ And sure enough, we birdied five out of the last six holes, shot five under on the backside, got into a playoff and then birdied the first hole. I didn’t do it. I’m just watching him play.

Is it like an out-of-body experience when the "Hawk" arrives?

Yeah. He did it in the only senior event I played. I shot—he shot—69 and 71, so we were four under. If we shoot 64, 65, [they’ve] got a chance to win the tournament. We didn’t, because I took over rather than letting him do it. But on the 18th hole, we had a 40-footer for eagle. And all of a sudden we get up over the putter and I’m looking at it and there’s about 15,000 people around this thing. All of a sudden, 'Hawk' just turns around, looks at them and goes ‘Are you with me?’ like that. And I’m just dying, I’m embarrassed, because I never would have done that. But all of a sudden they say ‘Yeah!’ He gets up, knocks the son of a bitch right in the hole. And that was almost like an out of body experience. I had tears in my eyes.

I also had one happen to me here April 10, when I came back for the 40th reunion [of the 1967 team]. They introduced us and I got to first base and everything’s OK and I can feel the 'Hawk'—he’s enjoying it, he’s taking the moment in. And then all of a sudden, it was almost like I felt somebody tapping me on my shoulder and I started thinking about [the late] Joe Foy and Jerry Adair and Elston Howard. It was almost like saying ‘Hey, Hawk, don’t forget about us buddy,’ and when that happened, all of a sudden, I had tears in my eyes. Just welled up and I had tears in my eyes. Yes it was weird. It was almost like a vacuum that I hadn’t experienced.

He comes in sometimes. He comes in sometimes and I’m glad it’s only sometimes, because when he gets in, usually [there’s] a lot of stuff that’s written about it and talked about what he said. He’ll say some [stuff] that I’d never say. But, again, it’s not that unusual. We all have that. We all have that side to us. It’s an alter ego. When I had a chip shot to [force] that playoff with Rhoden, I’m talking to him. I’m saying ‘Hawk, let’s get these other guys with us. Let’s get our other friends,’ because we’ve all got parts. You’ve got Mr. Anger, Mr. Fear, you’ve got all these people and there are parts of you and they’ve been with you your whole life and they’re going to be with you until you’re dead. And if you want to recognize them, fine. If you want to have them work with you and be a part of your family, you’ll be fine. If you don’t and you exclude them, they’re gonna get pissed off, because they are parts of you and they want to be included.

So he and I got together and were talking over this chip shot. And it’s an impossible chip shot—in fact, Bobby Murcer and John Brodie were standing there and they’re just shaking their heads because it’s just an impossible chip shot. So I’m talking with 'Hawk,' I’m looking down and I’m not having the same reaction they are. And 'Hawk,' he’s [getting the] guys together. First thing, you know, we talked about it, and we say ‘Mr. Fear, we want you to be with us, but we want you to step aside right now.’ Get up and hit it and hit it absolutely perfect. This far from the hole, knocked it in. Bobby to this day says it was the greatest chip shot he’s ever seen. I said ‘You’re talking to the wrong guy I didn’t hit it.’ And it’s the truth. It was easy.

And I wouldn’t be surprised if Yaz didn’t have something going for him, the way he was in ’67. He was one of the few guys to show you how he can handle his mind He’s one of the guys, the older he got, he was a better fastball hitter at 40 than he was when he won the Triple Crown. How many guys you see like that?

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