Al Hirshberg was writing a column for the Boston Herald-Traveler the first time he happened past Ken Harrelson's locker after a game. "I'd heard he was a pretty interesting guy, that he'd done a lot of daffy things," Hirshberg recalls, "and he didn't let me down. Ten minutes with him and I knew he was a book." Hirshberg already had written a book or two ("32 at the time, mostly juveniles and sports"). Among his subjects were Jimmy Piersall, Bob Cousy and Carl Yastrzemski but, he says, he never enjoyed writing one as much as Hawk, which will be published next week by Viking Press and from which we excerpt a two-part series beginning in this issue.
"The guy drove me crazy at first," says Hirshberg. "I called him for our first session and we set up an appointment for my place, 9 o'clock Monday morning. Nine, 10, 11 o'clock go by, and no Hawk. At noon I call him, and wake him up. 'Gee, Al, I'm sorry,' he says. 'Tomorrow for sure, same time.' Well, we didn't get together for the first time until that Friday. The Hawk is an active guy—and he likes to sleep."
Hirshberg discovered the Hawk to be the complete opposite of Yaz. Whereas Yastrzemski had been carefully groomed for a baseball career, Harrelson, in his own words, was "just a daffy guy who happened to be a ballplayer."
"With Yaz you had to fight to get him to sit down and talk into a tape recorder," says Hirshberg. "All I had to do was corner the Hawk. Once I did, he was great; he'd talk for hours."
July 13, 1969
With his research complete—and with Harrelson by his own account the most colorful and popular player in Boston following the summer of 1968—Hirshberg sat down to write last January and promptly had a heart attack. "It turned out to be a doubleheader," he says. "The doctor wouldn't let me near a typewriter until March."
On March 10 Hirshberg sat down again. "I'm a pretty fast typist," he says, "but even I couldn't believe how quickly the book was done. It took me just six weeks. Harrelson was so funny to write about I chuckled all the way through it. I almost forgot to put enough in about baseball."
Before Hirshberg had finished writing, however, his subject was gone—traded to Cleveland because the Red Sox needed pitching and catching even more than they needed Harrelson's bat. Shocked, the Hawk quit (see SI, June 30, Quitting Is the Name of Any Game) until Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and more than a few extra dollars persuaded him to report to the Indians. In Cleveland, Harrelson has picked up right where he left off in Boston. He lives in the city's swankiest apartment building—the same one that Cleveland Owner Vernon Stouffer calls home. He has his own TV show, takes a helicopter from his own housetop to the ball park anytime he feels like it and—well, read all about it starting on page 54.