The speaker, a man close to the Boston Red Sox, was incensed over the team's management. Describing the club as "in disarray, confused and chaotic...almost the laughingstock of the American League." he told a group of University of Massachusetts students in February that the Sox could finish as low as sixth in the AL East. "When you have ballplayers like Rick Burleson, Fred Lynn and Carlton Fisk, who are among the best at their positions." he said, "and you cannot afford to sign them, you cannot afford to own a ball club."
The main target of the speaker's barbs was Boston General Manager Haywood Sullivan. "I'm going to separate Haywood Sullivan and [co-owner] Buddy Leroux," he continued. "I don't like to see a lot of the criticism that's come down on Buddy.... If he owned the club by himself, I don't think we'd be in the shape we're in."
Coming from a sportswriter or disenchanted ballplayer, these remarks would have been only mildly shocking. But in this case they created a real brouhaha because the speaker was former Boston Outfielder Ken (Hawk) Harrelson, the team's TV color man. Traditionally, local broadcasters toe the line. At the slightest deviation from official team policy, they're routinely fired. On the last day of the 1965 season, Red Barber had the cameras pan nearly empty Yankee Stadium in mute testimony to the dead dynasty. Barber claims the Yankees canned him for this.
"I'm glad Harrelson doesn't work for us, says Bob Richer, general manager of WITS, the radio station that carries Red Sox games. "To attack a club like that, particularly as a spokesman for the club—I suspect I would fire somebody like that." WITS had previously reassigned talk-show host Glen Ordway to other duties and had fired game announcer Rico Petrocelli for considerably less inflammatory remarks about the team.
April 13, 1981
But Harrelson wasn't fired. Unlike most local baseball broadcasters, who either are employed by the teams they cover or must be approved by them, Harrelson and his partner, Ned Martin, answer only to their station. "We retain the sole right to determine the broadcasters." says Joe Dimino, vice-president and general manager of Boston's WSBK-TV, a UHF station commonly known as TV 38. "It was a point we insisted on when we signed with the Red Sox in 1975. We don't tell them who to play at first base. Why should they tell us who to employ?
"Haywood seems to understand this." continues Dimino. "He called me and wanted to know why Ken said what he did in that speech, but at no time did he suggest we take him off the air. What bothers me is that other owners asked Haywood how he could put up with Hawk. It's an insult to fans that owners are so insecure they have to put words in their announcers' mouths."
Actually, Harrelson's criticism may have improved the Sox' TV situation. In the wake of the team's disappointing fourth-place finish last year, two of the seven New England stations that carried TV 38's Red Sox broadcasts, Channel 3 in Hartford, Conn. and Channel 22 in Springfield, Mass., had dropped the Boston games. More embarrassing, Channel 3, which reaches homes from Springfield to New Haven, Conn., replaced the Sox with the Yankees. However, some prospective advertisers believed that Harrelson's February critique would increase the Sox' TV audience. Sure enough, the first spring-training broadcast of the 1981 season pulled an "11," a higher rating than the regular-season games averaged last year.
But the Harrelson affair shouldn't be viewed as an unblemished victory for independent comment. Because TV 38 pays the Red Sox $2.3 million a year for broadcast rights, it's unrealistic to expect complete impartiality. "You tend to pick people the teams like," says Dimino. "You're working together. The station is trying to attract advertisers and present the team favorably without actually conning people, and the team is trying to attract fans. That doesn't mean 'homerism'; they can criticize, but they shouldn't second-guess. If, say, a situation calls for a bunt, the announcer should do his speculating before the pitch, not after the guy swings away and hits into a double play."
And in fact "homers" aren't always scorned. ABC's highly professional Chet Forte, the director of Monday Night Baseball, concedes that New York loyalist Phil Rizzuto, who works Yankee games on WPIX-TV and WABC, 77 radio, has a place on the airwaves. "People like his 'Holy cow!' mystified style," Forte says. Former Yankee publicist Marty Appel, now public-relations director for WPIX, says the mere existence of players' wives out there watching and listening influences announcers. "The wives are seeing games and misinterpreting remarks made about their husbands." he says. "And everyone who plays is mentioned on the air, which isn't the case in newspaper stories."
Harrelson himself pulls as hard for the Sox as anyone in Boston. "Everyone knows I'm a fan," he says, "and I hope what I said to those students is wrong. I'd love to eat my 10-gallon hat at the end of the season. But my loyalty doesn't rule out an announcer's responsibility to tell people what's going on. There are no more knowledgeable baseball fans than those in New England, and they want to hear the truth."
Harrelson gives it to them. Early in his broadcast of last Saturday's Red Sox-White Sox exhibition game, he said that Burleson's replacement at shortstop, Glenn Hoffman, had been taking undue criticism. But when Hoffman was unable to handle a short-hop grounder and was charged with an error, Harrelson pointed out that Hoffman "should have had it."
Day in, day out, the Hawk is a restrained, masterful analyst of the games he broadcasts. "Bad announcers, especially those at the network level, try to control the game, make it an event and dramatize it," he says. "Generally, the better the game, the less you say. If it's a bad game, you just eat it, like a quarterback whose protection has broken down." But that's when Harrelson is frequently at his best, filling the late innings of boring games with technical and psychological insights.
One of his proudest moments came late last season with Carl Yastrzemski at the plate. "I mentioned that I had been an 0-1, 0-2 hitter," Harrelson says, "and when you're that way you don't hit much. [His nine-year average was .239.] I said that Yaz is my antithesis: a 2-0, 2-1, 3-1 hitter. The first pitch to him was a ball. I said, 'He's just narrowing down his strike zone, limiting the pitches he'll offer at.' The second pitch was a ball. I said, 'He's got his strike zone narrowed down to about one-third its original size.' The count went to 3-0. I said. The next pitch will have to be exactly where he wants it, and if it is, you'll see a heck of a hack.' Well, it was, and he hit it out. It was as if they'd taken a film and edited it so that I could comment." This is insightful stuff, even for an ex-ballplayer, and indeed Harrelson was considered for the job of Red Sox manager in 1976 and 1980.
The Hawk has never been shy about speaking up. In 1967, while playing for the Kansas City A's, he said owner Charlie Finley was "detrimental to the club and, consequently, detrimental to baseball." That remark earned him an outright release. Amid much hoopla, the $12,000-a-year outfielder signed a three-year, $150,000 contract with the Red Sox. He earned it by helping Boston win the 1967 pennant and leading the majors in RBIs (109) the next year. In an era when athletes were still pretty conventional in dress and behavior, Harrelson wore long hair, Nehru jackets and love beads and employed a houseboy at his luxury apartment. He also popularized the use of golf gloves at the plate. After retiring as a player in 1971, he took an unsuccessful 3½-year fling at the pro golf tour. He made it a memorable one, though. Whenever he'd sink a long putt, Harrelson would take an exaggerated "Hawk walk" around the green.
Today, at 38, he lives in Boston with his second wife, Aris, and their children, Krista, 5, and Casey, 3; he earns an estimated $100,000 a year from broadcasting, endorsements and speeches.
Harrelson could undoubtedly go on to a network job—but only if he changed his style. Forte gives him high marks, but, sad to say, other network executives believe he's "not funny enough." Funny thing, the Hawk's fans are happy to take him the way he is.