The sun was pouring down on the 16th fairway of the Miami Springs golf course, and one had to wonder why Ken Harrelson was reaching into his golf bag for an umbrella. Playing the James Bond part, he unscrewed a cap at the bottom of the umbrella handle and extracted a small cylindrical tube that contained an 86-proof elixir.
"Man, I'm draggin'," Harrelson said, offering an excuse before taking a taste, "but this should get me goin' again." It did. He took a five-iron from the same bag and hit a shot to within three feet of the hole. He made the putt for a birdie 3, then birdied the 18th hole and went on to win the National Baseball Players' Golf Tournament for the second straight year—this time by 17 strokes with a record 72-hole score of 290.
The victory should not have surprised anyone, because Harrelson boldly announced he would win the tournament the minute he arrived at the course for the first day's play. "Yep, I know I finished fifth last week in that players' tourney in Las Vegas, but I played like the village idiot out there," he said. "But this is Miami, baby, and no one's going to beat me down here, 'cause I'm going to concentrate on nothing but golf."
Since his teen-age days in Savannah, Harrelson, who plays first base for the Kansas City Athletics, has been telling people that he can beat them at the game of their choice, whether it be pool, golf, bowling, baseball, basketball, football, gin rummy, arm rasslin' or just about anything else. "Now, don't get me wrong," he says, "I'm no Cassius Clay who goes around bragging, 'I am the greatest' and all that stuff. But if someone says they're good at something, then I'll say I'm better than they are and challenge them right on the spot.
March 14, 1966
"Oh, I've lost at things a couple of times, sure. Curt Merz, he's a big 270-pounder who plays on the line for the Kansas City Chiefs, got me down once in arm rasslin', and Rocky Colavito once threw a baseball farther than me. But I never admit defeat. There's always tomorrow and another chance to win."
Despite all this, Harrelson does not qualify as a "flake," which in baseball's lexicon means someone who is a bit daffy. "Kenny just has this great confidence that he can beat everyone," says Albie Pearson of the Angels. "There's nothing flaky about that, is there?"
"No, I'm not a flake," says Harrelson, "but I guess I've got a little—well, really quite a bit—of hot dog in me. When I feel like doing something I do it. I think the fans like that. Being a hot dog hasn't worked against me, even though I've said and done a lot of bad things at the wrong time. Hell, who's perfect?
"In fact, I guess I've been in real trouble only once. That was down in Caracas, Venezuela, when I was playing winter ball. Billy Bryan, who catches for the A's now, was with me one night in a bar and these natives in the place were being real sarcastic about the States. One guy came at me with a broken bottle. Bryan smashed him over the head with a chair, but a couple of his buddies had guns and they stuck them in our stomachs.
"The cops came and took us down to the station house in a taxi. As I'm getting out of the cab, one of the cops says to me, 'Pay the taxi, kid, will you?' That was the damnedest. You had to pay your own way to jail."
Harrelson, who is only 24, has the hot-dog look. He wears his hair almost Beatle length to compensate, he claims, for a hawked nose and probably the biggest ears in baseball. "And like that guy Samson, I get my strength from my hair," he says. He wears blazers with a KSH—for Kenneth Smith Harrelson—monogram, and his baseball pants usually reach to his ankles. Naturally, he has his own portable pool cue, which proves very handy on rainy days on the road, and his golf bag carries the inscription THE HAWK, KANSAS CITY.
But Harrelson is not all hot dog. Last year he led the Athletics in runs batted in, with 66, and in home runs, with 23, even though the Kansas City park is one of the most difficult in the majors for a right-handed hitter. "This year," he says, "I'd like to hit 40 home runs—but I won't because of that ball park—and drive in 100 runs, which I should. A batting average isn't too important for a guy in my position, because I'm a run producer, but I'd like to hit at least .270." As for golf, most people who have seen him play think he is good enough to join the pro tour. Harrelson, of course, agrees.
"A couple of years ago some people were going to send me on tour, but the deal fell through," he says. "If I had the backing, say a two-year contract guaranteeing me $15,000 a year against a percentage of my winnings, I'd go out with the pros. If I could work at golf like I work at baseball—you know, really concentrate at it for seven or eight straight months—I know I'd be real good and could play with the best."
If he ever does go out on the tour, Harrelson would like to pattern himself after Arnold Palmer. "He's my idol, baby," Ken says. "I use Arnold Palmer golf clubs, Arnold Palmer golf balls, Arnold Palmer golf gloves and Arnold Palmer golf slacks. I'd even use the Arnold Palmer laundry if they had it in K.C. He's got more guts than anyone. He doesn't know what it is to gas."
Harrelson apparently has an idol for every sport. One night in Miami he met Willie Pastrano, the former light heavyweight champion, and told him, "Willie, baby, you were my idol."
"I was?" asked Pastrano, astonished.
"I had three fights as a kid," said Ken. "I won the first two, but in the third this guy broke my jaw and knocked me out in the first round. I saw nothin' but ceilin' for 10 minutes."
"I get it," said Pastrano. "I was your idol when you were flat on your back."
Harrelson recalled how he once broke a teammate's jaw with a right-hand punch. "I was supposed to be a great football player in high school, and the coach made me first-string quarterback at the start of my sophomore year. One day on the way to practice another kid and I were playing dollar blackjack at the back of the bus, and I won the last hand just as the bus stopped at the field. This kid, though, grabs the two bucks in the pot and runs out. I took the socks from his equipment bag and then chased him down. I told him he could have his socks if he gave me my two bucks. He tried to grab the socks, but I told him to stand back. He grabbed again and I popped him. I broke his jaw, but I also broke my own right hand and never did play much more quarterback."
Like many baseball players, Harrelson confines his off-the-diamond athletics to golf, pool and bowling, with a little arm wrestling tossed in.
"John Wyatt, our relief pitcher, and me are the best pool hustlers I've seen in baseball," Ken says. "I've never played Bo Belinsky, but people who have played us both tell me I'd beat him. I get a lot of challenges from baseball people, but they never usually materialize. I was telling some New York broadcasters how well I could shoot pool, and they talked about setting up a match with Phil Rizzuto. I didn't even know little Phil shot pool, but when I saw him I told him I'd never been beaten by anyone who had to stand on a chair to use a cue. That match never came off."
A few years ago Harrelson was looking for some way to hustle enough money to finance a trip from Savannah to the baseball golf tournament in Miami. He had lost $400 in a bowling match, which got him so mad he threw his bowling ball and shoes into a swamp near his home. "The next day I cooled off and went out to look for them, but I never could find the things." Happily, a pool shark landed in town and began to tell everyone how great he was.
"Sure enough," says Harrelson, "we got into a match and I beat him for $400. I ran home and told the wife that we had our stake for Miami and to pack up. But then I left my golf clubs on the front porch and in Miami I had to borrow a set of real whippy clubs from some pro. I had a lousy tournament."
As for arm wrestling, Harrelson "guesses" he is the best in baseball, but he insists that he has given up that sport. "Arm rasslin' is bad for your arm," he says, "and I've got to do too many things with my right arm."
Aside from that, about the only competitive concession Harrelson has ever made was in auto racing. "I used to have these two racing Corvettes—you know, the ones with only a motor and a frame? We'd have these drag races over those two-lane roads in the Georgia woods. Well, one night my buddy challenged me to pass him on a straightaway, and I told him that'd be easy. We were both acting just juvenile. I was going 150 miles an hour when my car hit a bump in the road. I regained control of the thing, but I was so scared I couldn't even drive home. Never mind tomorrow that time. Next day I didn't even want to drag the guy."
Last year, when Owner Charles O. Finley of the Athletics was looking for a player to ride his mule, Charlie O, around the field before games, it was Harrelson who accepted the challenge.
"I knew there'd be some money in it," he admits, "and I knew I could stay on the thing." He did manage to stay on most of the time, but one afternoon in Yankee Stadium in New York he abandoned a bouncy ride and jumped off when the mule began to gallop.
"I was getting paid $100," Harrelson says. "That only goes so far."