A tragic Boston baseball anniversary was recently observed with the beaning of Tony Conigliaro 48 years ago. BSI’s Liam Skeffington recently covered the Tony C. story in great detail, but there was also another interesting connection to that tragedy that eventually surfaced later in the season – the signing of Ken Harrelson on this date in 1967.
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Harrelson was known as “Hawk” and just a glimpse of his profile would make you understand how he acquired that nickname. Harrelson was “New Age” for the 60s with all the proper dress – especially Nehru Suits – and a flamboyant lifestyle that would be similar to the Patriots Rob Gronkowski. Within this mix was a damn good ballplayer.
The loss of Conigliaro robbed the Red Sox of a power hitting right-hand bat that had already smacked 20 home runs and accounted for 67 RBI. All this and a .287 average. And Tony hit well on the road in ’67 as he was not a one trick Fenway Pony with his splits being quite comparable. A huge void in the batting order.
In Kansas City more drama was taking place with the Athletics, who had not yet vacated KC for Oakland. Charlie Finley, the A’s owner, was a notorious thorn to the crusty magnets who ran the game. This was George Steinbrenner without money and one single Charlie O. move got the Red Sox that much-needed bat. He fired manager Alvin Dark. The final straw in a variety of disputes Charlie O. had with his players.
The Hawk had no filters and called Charlie “A menace to baseball” and Charlie responded by simply firing the 25-year-old Hawk. Harrelson was posting a slash of .305/.361/.471 with six home runs and 30 RBI in 61 games for KC. For Harrelson the petulant Finley gave him the gift of free agency before there was such an item.
Harrelson was being paid $12,000 and it was reported his bonus with Boston was a $150,000. This was the era of Tom Yawkey and Yawkey was the wealthiest owner in the game with a long history of buying players from teams with a low funds situation. Right-hand bat problem solved!
Harrelson didn’t exactly light it up in his 23 Boston games only slugging three home runs and having 14 RBI to go with a .200 average, but his appearance did add depth and the fact is he became an instant fan favorite by stoking up the former “Dead Sox” fan base. Harrelson’s rather anemic Boston start carried over to the World Series against St. Louis when Harrelson’s average was .077. I remember watching post games interviews with Hawk sobbing away over the loss.
Where Hawk blossomed was in 1968 – the year of the pitcher – when he slugged 35 home runs, led the league with 109 RBI and hit .275. The next season saw a similar power stat line with 30 home runs and 92 RBI, but the average sunk to .221 and the strikeouts inflated to 102. Then, came the trade.
Harrelson was traded to the Indians in early 1969 and refused to show. Meanwhile the Boston baseball public was in a state of high anxiety angst over the departure of their beloved Hawk. Hawk professed devotion to Boston and claimed he is now retired and the trade was in turmoil for many of the players involved had already suited up with their new teams.
Eventually the matter was resolved and Hawk reported to Cleveland, where three years later a broken leg and his own lack of playing desire put an end to his career as a player. But not an end to Hawk and baseball.
First came a stint as an announcer where the colorful Harrelson was a hit broadcasting the Red Sox with Dick Stockton. Unfortunately, the axe fell when Hawk was critical of Sox co-owner, Haywood Sullivan. To this observer it was a well deserved critique. Harrelson took the mic for the White Sox and then moved into Director of Baseball Operations for the White Sox and then back to the broadcast booth with both the Yankees and White Sox. And did I mention the golf touring after retirement? The Hawk was good, but not that good.
The tumultuous Harrelson was one of the true showmen of baseball, especially in his Boston years, a larger than life figure who was one of the great all-time fan favorites at Fenway. Who else would have a lavender dune buggy? A broadcaster who could turn a quirky phrase better than Dennis Eckersley and to this day always available for an outrageous quote.
Sources: “Hawk” by Al Hirshberg
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