Put it on the board, Hawk Harrelson's career unlike any other

Hawk Harrelson acknowledges fans from his perch in the White Sox booth. David Banks/Getty Images

On an overcast Sunday earlier this season, Ken Harrelson sat behind the wheel of his white Hyundai Genesis and began the 90-minute commute from his home in Granger, Indiana, to the ballpark on Chicago's South Side. He used to make this drive more often. Soon he won't be making it at all. At the age of 77, after 34 years in the White Sox booth, Harrelson is stepping down at the end of the 2018 campaign, and Sunday's broadcast of the Cubs-White Sox crosstown showdown will be his last. This was his grand farewell, doing Sunday afternoon games. He'll stick around as a team ambassador until 2020, when he'll become the fourth person in history to spend parts of eight decades in the major leagues.

Usually, such a departure creates a vacuum. Yet even baseball, the most sentimental of sports, appears content with the arrangement. After he proudly refused to evolve as a broadcaster, Hawk's style is now decidedly out of tune with the modern game.

Objectivity has never been a prerequisite for great broadcasting, but few have tested that premise quite as aggressively as Harrelson. A 2012 Wall Street Journal study anointed Hawk the biggest homer in the majors -- he logged more instances of partisanship than the next five candidates combined. Whether he's weaponizing his voice against umpires, moping during losses or weeping after a perfect game, Hawk's unbridled passion scarcely hints at his incongruous standing in the industry.

He is uncouth, unpolished and aggressively resistant to change. Rather than playing along to the familiar rhythm of a baseball broadcast, Hawk projects his own discordant voice -- one with a capacity to polarize as well as exhilarate.

"You have people who love him, and you have people who hate him, but nobody is indifferent," says Steve Stone, his on-again, off-again broadcast partner for the past nine years. "Indifference -- apathy -- is a thing you want to avoid as a performer, because when people are apathetic, they don't care about you."

Last year, Harrelson saw his schedule reduced exclusively to road games to initiate his exit. That he and the White Sox considered flying out of a nearby airport for road trips the sensible option reflects Hawk's grueling game-day commute. His even shorter afternoon schedule this season eliminated the perilous night travel that worried his children.

"Semi-truck drivers and my temper don't mix," Hawk said with a smile at his retirement announcement. "Not at 3:30 in the morning, especially when it's raining, because I've got an ax handle in the back of my car along with some Mace. And I've literally chased some of those guys before. I'm just glad I haven't caught anybody because one of us would've been knocked out."

He has hearing aids in both ears and a white brace on his left wrist -- too many home runs and golf swings from a man who competed in the British Open and major leagues -- just below the 1967 American League pennant ring on his left hand. A 2005 Chicago White Sox World Series ring adorns his right.

One morning earlier this season, he woke up at 3:30 a.m. to allow for a nap, because that's what Ted Williams taught him. The structure of game day offers a welcome reprieve. He has adapted to domestic life -- loves making the bed, doing the laundry and watching "Walker, Texas Ranger" reruns on TV -- but it feels wrong for a guy like him to be caged up.

Harrelson used his drive-time solitude to prepare himself mentally; the way home offers time to decompress. Sometimes he listens to books on his Kindle, or music (Huey Lewis, Neil Diamond). After night games, he occasionally tunes in to the West Coast contests on Sirius. And sometimes, after a difficult loss or just when the spirit moves him, he reaches out to a familiar friend.

"There's a definite distinction between Ken and Hawk," Harrelson says, gazing out the window. "He's an entirely different entity than I am. And if there's nothing on, or if the time calls for it, we'll have a little talk."

He admits to things like this, things other public figures do not. More than anyone in his profession, whether as Ken Harrelson or Hawk, he is unguarded.

He credits a local psychologist for helping him distinguish between the man driving and the one who made him famous. While Harrelson didn't receive his nickname until he was 17 years old and in the minors, he says some variation of Hawk has been with him his entire life. Hawk, he explains, overtakes Ken during stressful situations and allows the naturally shy Ken to succeed.

To hear him tell it, Hawk is more than a nickname. His demonstrative baseball persona is a separate identity. For Ken Harrelson, Hawk is the outward manifestation of the hunger within -- a protection molded by the pressure of the major leagues.

"I loved being his teammate," says Carl Yastrzemski, who would often carpool with Harrelson when the two played in Boston. "I carried the game with me off the field, and I wish I could have forgotten it more at times. But it didn't bother him. He would talk to the press after we lost, and that took a lot of pressure away from everyone else. He could handle it."

Harrelson, however, says the role didn't come as naturally as it might have seemed. "I can't tell you how many times I was in the on-deck circle and said, 'All right, Kenny, get out of the Hawk's way and let him go,'" he recalled.

"I don't want to fight," Harrelson insists, adding sweetness to his South Carolina twang. "Never did. But Hawk loved it. And once he gets involved, I can't do anything about it. Hawk sometimes will not let me go. He's going to do what he wants to do.

"But there's other times," he continues, "when he's not there and he doesn't want to be there, for some reason. I don't know why. I'll go through the opening, and I'll know that something's not right -- with me. With Ken. And he'll leave me on my own sometimes, and fortunately I've had enough experience now to know, when that happens, to cope with it."

This past season, coping revolved around what to do with the larger gaps of time between games. "When you've been in the game as long as I have, you start to develop a routine," Harrelson says. "Your metabolism changes. February comes around, and my body's telling me, 'Hey, it's spring training time, buddy.' That's what I've been doing all my life. And now I don't have a routine anymore."

Harrelson cites a desire to devote more time to his grandchildren as the reason for his retirement -- a chance, he says, to make up for his shortcomings as a father. His wife, Aris, raised their two children largely on her own, and he has four children from a previous marriage, though he is in contact with only one. Last year, while watching his grandson Nico hit his first out-of-the-park home run, he realized how much he had been missing. Then, he responded the only way he knew how: by bellowing a personalized home run call to hallow Nico's feat. When asked whether it's fair to say that it's Hawk who is retiring and that this next chapter will be Ken's, Harrelson politely brushed the theory aside. "Hawk loves the kids, too," he said, grinning. "Hawk gets along with them, too. When he's with me, I have a better time with them. And they have a better time with him." Harrelson pauses. It seemed inconceivable that someone so emotionally linked to the outcome of White Sox games would want to walk away from his profession. In the past, he has described a fantasy of dying in the booth. He would watch the ball soar into the stands and deliver his signature home run call with his final breath. There was never any need to discuss what would come after baseball.

Harrelson isn't sure he has an answer. "I'm still figuring that out," he says after a contemplative pause. "It's been a hard adjustment.

"I know who I am," he continues. "I know who Hawk and I are. And as long as I know that, I'll tell you what: I can live with anything."

Harrelson first broke into the major leagues as an outfielder-first baseman for the Kansas City Athletics in 1963. Hawk, meanwhile, quickly forged a symbiotic relationship with Charlie Finley, the A's owner, sharing the boss's quest for notoriety. Hawk rode the team's mascot -- a mule named Charlie-O -- at Yankee Stadium, won the club arm-wrestling title and tolerated what he describes as Finley's rash and impulsive antics. He landed in Boston after a series of events that began with a boozy team flight from Boston to Kansas City, triggering the firing of manager Alvin Dark. The next day's paper quoted Hawk calling Finley "detrimental to the game." Finley, seething, handed Harrelson his unconditional release.

What seemed like a disaster in the moment sent Hawk's ego -- and his checkbook -- soaring, while providing a first taste of free agency's future impact in baseball. On Aug. 25, 1967, at 25, he was the target of a leaguewide bidding war won by the Red Sox, sending Hawk to Boston and its "Impossible Dream" team as it marched toward the 1967 World Series. While most players comported themselves conservatively, Hawk was a picture of late-'60s sartorial splendor: He'd wear bright colors, pairing loud stripes and check patterns; paisley bell-bottom pants, or purple trousers with white cowboy boots. He grew his hair long, drove a lavender dune buggy and sported love beads and large sunglasses.

Sometimes he even delivered on the field. Taking full advantage of the Green Monster at Fenway Park, Hawk belted a career-high 35 home runs, slugged .518 and led the majors with 109 RBIs in 1968, easily his most impressive season. His performance earned him a third-place finish in the MVP race, and The Sporting News named him its American League Player of the Year. He also made the cover of Sports Illustrated -- sporting a Nehru jacket, of course. He sent a copy to Finley.

But the Red Sox rewarded his efforts by trading him the following season, leaving a lasting scar; the A's had bounced him just two years before, and now the rug was being pulled from under him again. Without warning, Hawk was booted from the most inspired period of his career to Cleveland, a city where he never fit in. "Baseball," he says, "was never fun again." "You could see everything drain out of him," Yastrzemski recalls. "His heart and soul was in Boston. The fans loved him, and he loved the fans. He just never got over being traded." He threatened to quit baseball altogether rather than accept the trade. Fans picketed Fenway Park. The episode even prompted a public comment from commissioner Bowie Kuhn.

"The loss of Ken Harrelson," he said, "would be a tragedy for baseball."

Unequal attention gets paid to the baseball teams in Chicago. National outlets like this one forget the 2005 World Series, and even "Wheel of Fortune" once omitted the Sox from a puzzle on the city's sports teams.

The two teams' ballparks say it all. While the Cubs play in a bastion of baseball tradition, the Sox recently swapped their naming rights from a cellphone provider to a mortgage lender whose logo centers on a massive arrow pointing down.

The White Sox are the second team in their own city. And when national outlets do acknowledge their existence, it's often because of something Hawk said, or rather the way in which he said it. Hawk's style was unrelenting and often unwelcome. He was unaccommodating to others in the booth and made other ex-jocks sound like academics. To his many detractors, Hawk represented every old man yelling at someone to get off his lawn.

To many White Sox fans, though, Hawk represented something more. Hawk's volatility offered a remedy to the indignities of pouring yourself into a team that is constantly belittled or, worse yet, ignored. This is what Hawk has always intended.

"I'm with all of these people here," Hawk says near the stadium. "And most of them are with me. We are bonded in that respect. We're in this together."

For a fan base that operates under the weary assumption that fate is stacked against it, the gravity with which Hawk treats a random regular-season game rates from delusional to endearing. Baseball's biggest homer delivered the unspoken desire many fans wish for from any telecast: someone who is more than just a witness to the game.

The essence of Hawk wasn't his loony flareups, the catchphrases or the nicknames. It's not his meandering musings that make one wonder what game, if any, he was watching. It's that he cares so damn much, best reflected in the afternoon two years ago when he abandoned the booth during the live broadcast of a game to check on Todd Frazier after the third baseman lacerated his face going into the stands for a foul ball.

It's safe to assume that the original idea behind hiring Hawk Harrelson in Chicago was not to unleash a maniacal former player who reacts to blunders by yowling until he's blue in the face. The original idea, as agreed upon by co-owners Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn after their purchase of the White Sox in 1981, was to pair Harrelson with former Dodgers pitcher Don Drysdale in service of a network-style broadcast. Harrelson had already worked on Red Sox broadcasts several seasons -- before wearing out his welcome -- so he wasn't a newbie.

"I told them to play it straight because there were a lot of people in Chicago who don't root for the White Sox," Reinsdorf said recently from his office at Guaranteed Rate Field. "That went over like a lead balloon."

Chicago has a proud history of homerism in the booth, dating back to Jack Brickhouse, who was optimistic through multiple generations of lovably losing, to Harry Caray and now Hawk.

Hawk even talked himself out of the booth and into the front office in 1986 as the team's general manager. He lasted just one disastrous season, even firing future Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa before he was himself axed. He didn't return to the organization until Reinsdorf invited him back in 1990. His personality was too strong to keep away. "If Hawk weren't outgoing, he wouldn't be popular," Reinsdorf says. "He'd just be another guy."

The White Sox offered a chance for him to be something more. Hawk came back determined not to let another opportunity slip away. Something about his partnership with the organization bolstered him. The White Sox stood by him as his antics became more outlandish and his critics took aim at his homerism. Fans treated him like one of their own.

"He finally got to a place where he was appreciated," Chicago baseball writer Bruce Levine says. "You talk about some of the other stops over the course of his life, and he wasn't necessarily shown much loyalty. But the White Sox embraced him."

After a career defined by rejection, Hawk finally found a team that loved him with the same unconditional fervor he loved them. And feeling secure, he coined a wave of catchphrases: You can put it on the board, yes! ... Duck snort ... He gone! "He gave me the best nickname in baseball," said Frank Thomas, whose "Big Hurt" moniker is emblazoned on his Hall of Fame plaque.

Jason Benetti has been gradually stepping into Hawk's shoes in the booth, and his arrival contributed to a franchise-wide sense of transition. After a decade spent spinning its wheels, the front office finally eschewed the quick fix and pushed the detonator, restocking a farm system that now ranks among baseball's best.

Hawk won't enjoy the fruits of this rebuild. But if there's a running theme in Harrelson's life, it's that both Hawk and Ken are flawed, hell-bent and eternally hopeful. Even as he yields control, he has been gracious in welcoming Benetti into the broadcast booth, and he seems open to watching games outside it. "It's going to be fun," he said while discussing a potential crosstown World Series, "to watch us play the Cubs and kick their ass."

While other old-school announcers -- Caray, Vin Scully, Bob Uecker -- were acclaimed as national treasures, recognition for Harrelson outside Chicago has remained out of reach. No one clamored to coronate his career with a farewell tour like the parade of adulation Scully received in 2016.

Perhaps that's fitting. Scully was the embodiment of what baseball purists wish the game to be. Hawk represents the joyful absurdity of what baseball also is.