Touch 'em All: Ken "The Hawk" Harrelson on inventing the batting glove, playing against the Mick, and the glory of halibut in Seattle
Today marks the finale of the White Sox second trip to Kansas City. The last time they were here, Around the Horn was fortunate enough to sit down with Ken “The Hawk” Harrelson, the longtime broadcaster for the South-siders. Harrelson has had one heck of a journey. He played for four Major League teams, including the Kansas City A’s. He served as General Manager for the White Sox. He was a professional golfer and even gave rise to a piece of baseball equipment you see everyday. He played from 1963-71 and was teammates with some of the biggest names in baseball history, including the late Royals Hall of Fame manager Dick Howser, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa and his pitching coach Dave Duncan, Kansas City A and Royal Moe Drabowsky and Hall of Famers Carl Yastrzemski and Carlton Fisk.
Around the Horn caught Hawk just after dinner to sit down for a Touch’em All interview. He was good enough to squeeze us in before he went on-air to call the Sox-Royals game on Wednesday July 9. With the Sox finishing up batting practice and the broadcast booth getting set for the game around us, the Hawk gave us 20 minutes of his undivided attention before we “grabbed some bench.” We were more than grateful. Here’s what we got, hope you enjoy…
Around the Horn: Thanks for letting us steal a few minutes. Let’s start with your Kansas City connection. You played for the Kansas City A’s for a few years. A lot of Kansas City fans have very fond memories of those A’s teams and Municipal Stadium.
Ken Harrelson: It was great. Great place to play, great town, great ballpark. Of course your first year in the big leagues is always exciting. But I played nine years and they were all exciting except for one year. A lot of people don’t understand what a great place Kansas City is to play. A lot of players do obviously, but that’s the reason the players stayed here and lived here. But this was one of the best places in baseball to play. I enjoyed it.
We had some (terrible) teams when I first started. But then all of a sudden because of Whitey Herzog, the scouts went out and found a lot of good young players. And then the draft came along in ’66 and we drafted Rick Monday, I think that was the first guy ever drafted in the history of the draft. About ’65, we started getting some good young players in there. I was at first base, Dick Green was at second, (Bert) Campaneris was at short, Sal Bando was at third. We had Joe Rudi in left, Rick Monday in center and Reggie Jackson in right. We had some good young pitchers – Catfish (Hunter) and Blue Moon (John Odom) and Lew Krausse.
And then I got into an argument with (owner Charlie) Finley in ’67 and he released me. That’s when I went to Boston. Then in ’68, that’s when the Athletics went out to Oakland and that became a great ballclub – five consecutive divisional titles, three consecutive World Championships in ’72, ’73 and ’74. When I went to the Red Sox in ’67 and helped them a little bit to win the pennant. We played in the World Series and got beat in seven games by the Cardinals.
But I always, like right now, love coming back to Kansas City. We’ve got two more trips in here. I just love it. I have a few good friends who still remain here but a lot of good acquaintances. I get a ton of fan mail and e-mails from Kansas City. A lot of people watch the games on WGN.
In fact, my favorite cities to go to are here and Boston, Seattle and Toronto, those are my four favorite cities.
ATH: Since you mention it, why Seattle and Toronto? You didn’t play for either of those teams. (in fact both were expansion teams in 1977, after the Hawk retired, but we didn’t mention that to him)
KH: No. It’s just I love Toronto. I love Seattle. Seattle is the most beautiful city in the world to fly into. You’re flying over Puget Sound and it’s just majestic.
And I’m a seafood freak. I love seafood. They’ve got some of great seafood out there. Especially when this friend of mine, the dentist that I used to see out there… ummm.
(to his broadcast partner Darin Jackson) What’s the name of that fish out there in Seattle?
When it’s in-season and they catch ’em. (and before Jackson can react) Halibut. (almost tasting the fish as he says it) Halibut. You get a piece of Halibut about that big, (he gestures with his hands the size a little bigger than a baseball) square about like that. His wife would cook it up. I’d go buy a couple of bottles of port, you know three or four hundred dollars a bottle, aged. It don’t get any better than that.
Plus, I was playing a lot of golf and the golf courses out in Seattle are just beautiful They’ve got Douglas Furs that look like they go up a thousand feet. And I hit every one of them.
I love Toronto because it’s just a neat city. It reminds me a lot of Chicago. Very clean, they’ve got some great restaurants and some great golf courses. And of course Boston, having played there and then broadcasting there – spending a lot of time in Boston, 14 years in Boston, altogether living there.
Last year I went back for the 40th anniversary of the ’67 team. It was the first time I’ve ever left the Club. I hadn’t seen some of those guys in 40 years. So it’s been something that, I’ve always said I’ve been the luckiest guy in the world. I’ve been able to have fun my whole life, never worked a day in my life. Everything I’ve ever done I’ve loved, playing baseball, playing golf. It’s been a great ride.
ATH: You spoke at the Legends Luncheon and you talked about how you weren’t getting paid much playing in Kansas City, but you were able to go out and augment you’re cash flow a little playing golf and playing pool.
KH: Well, when you’re making $6,000 a year and spending 30, you’ve got to supplement your income. And what I said was the truth. I actually made more money from golf and pool than I did my first couple of years playing Major League Baseball. I would go to the ballpark, play the game. And I only lived about a mile and a half from here – we knew this stadium was going to be built way back then. They had plans for it and this was the area they were going to build it in. A lot of the players lived out here in Raytown and that little bit.
But there was a pool room, I forget where it was, but I’d go to the pool room and I’d shoot pool until about 12:30, 1 o’clock. Try to pick up $40, 50, a hundred bucks, whatever I could make. And then I’d go home.
I’d get up early and I’d go to the golf course. We used to go to Staten Meadows – we called it the rock pile. They were great out there. The pros were great. We’d play all over, but mostly we went out there and we’d play 18. And if I wasn’t playing (in the game) that day, sometimes we’d play more. But usually Ted Bowsfield and I would play Gino Cimoli and Sammy Esposito. We’d play ’em and beat ’em everyday and I’d pick up $100-150 a day there. And then we’d go on the road and I’d play pool because we couldn’t take our golf clubs on the road.
But no, I had to do it and it was fun.
ATH: You’re credited with inventing the batting glove (some dispute that Hawk just re-popularized it, but we’ll let you be the judge). It has to come from your golf background, right?
KH: Yep, from here in Kansas City. We went out to play one day and I played 27 because I wasn’t supposed to be playing that day. And I changed my grip around a little bit. I went right from the golf course to the ballpark and I looked at the lineup card and I was in there. The Yankees had made a change. They were supposed to start Jim Bouton, I think it was, who was a right-hander. Anyway, they switched to Whitey Ford. I went out and took batting practice and I had a blister from changing my grip, right on my left hand. But I remembered I had my golf glove up in my jeans.
So now the game’s started and I put my golf glove on. It was a red All-Star golf glove. And when I went to the plate the first time in the bottom of the first inning, the Yankees were (all over me). “You (bleep). You, you…” I mean they were relentless, because back in those days bench-jockeying was common. So anyway, Whitey hung me a curveball first time up. I hit it about 450 in left-center field. But they stayed on me. Then later in the game, I hit another one out.
ATH: (extremely excited) Off Whitey again?
KH: I think it was off Whitey. I think it was off him again. It was off a left-hander.
The next day, all the Yankees came out of the clubhouse and were taking batting practice and they all had red golf gloves on. Mantle had the clubbie go out and buy a couple dozen read All-Star golf gloves. And that’s how the batting glove started. I never hit without one again.
But it was fun. It was fun. Mantle was a great guy. We were talking last night about speed. We’d mentioned that Joey Gathright was clocked at 3.4 (seconds) on a bunt down the first base line. Well they got Mickey Mantle at 3-point flat… a lot. He was the fastest guy to this day, I’ve ever seen.
Bo Jackson was the fastest right-handed hitter I’ve ever seen. I saw Bo get his first hit right here off Steve Carlton. He hit it down to Ted Hulett at third base and Hulett was too late and Bo was (makes a whooshing noise) across the bag.
But that’s how the batting glove got started. A lot of things, you know the stuff under my eyes and the foot off the ground – started all that stuff. Let’s put it this way. I was not a person of inhibitions. It didn’t bother me to do something out of the norm. In fact, I enjoyed it. You know when you’re hitting 12, 15 home runs, they call you a flake. Then you go and hit 35 and that’s charisma. That’s the dangers of perception.
(Around the Horn cannot completely verify this story, but it found a box score from September 4, 1964, a game versus the New York Yankees when Harrelson hit two homers in a 7-9 loss. Hawk hit one off Ford, and one off Pete Mikkelsen, the game’s winning pitcher that day) (as an extra note, Ford went 17-6 in 1964 with a 2.13 ERA, allowing just 10 homers).
ATH: Would you say that the game has changed a lot?
KH: Oh, yeah. The game has really changed a lot. Over the 49 years I’ve been in it, the game has changed a lot. Right now, the biggest change in the last 50 years is bullpens. Today, it’s just battle of the bullpens. I don’t care how good your starters are, I don’t care how good your team is, if you don’t have a good bullpen, you’re gonna lose. The managers, the guys have tried to shorten these things up. These guys are caring 12, 13 pitchers. We used to carry nine and 10. Some of these managers need 14, 15 the way they manage.
But it’s interesting to me to see the change in the evolution of the game because of the way it’s played. These guys physically are better players than we were. But they don’t have better teams that we had. Our teams knew how to play. We had 16 teams in the big leagues. There are 30 today. These kids are rushed up here before they learn how to play the game and some of them never do. Because they have a good year and all of a sudden they are making $8 million a year. And once they start making that big money, you can’t coach them anymore, because they’re not going to change because they’re making $8 million a year.
Everything in the game today is harder than when I played. Managing is harder, being a general manager is harder. Playing the game is harder because of the media pressure. The media pressure on a scale of one to 10, is a 10. Compared to when I played, it was a one or a two. Some guys just can’t handle the pressure. There would have been a lot of guys in my era, with that kind of media scrutiny, who would have folded like a tent because they couldn’t handle it either.
So I am not saying that we were right and these guys are wrong. I’m just saying the game has changed. We talk about starting pitching and they talk about trying to pick up 200 innings. That’s two-thirds of what it was when I started. When I first came up, it was close to 350. Then it went to 300, then 250 and now it’s at 200. And with agents involved in the game it’s going to keep going down. There were no agents when I was in the game. Agents have been a big part in the change of the game and they are just going to keep getting more powerful.
The greatest thing that’s happened to the game in the last 10 to 15 years has been Bud Selig. Bud has done an unbelievable job. There’s only been I think nine commissioners in the history of baseball. I’ve been through seven of them. I’ve been in this game all or parts of six decades and come 2010, it will be all or parts of seven. Not many guys have done that. Bud Selig has been one of the greatest assets this game has ever had. He’s been the greatest commissioner I’ve ever been involved with. He’s got everybody making money. Players are making terrific money. Owners are making terrific money. There’s not a one team that’s losing money in baseball. When he came in, there were 30 teams with 30 different agendas. He’s got them all on the same page. He’s the only guy to ever do that. They ought to put a gold statue of him in Cooperstown.
ATH: Well we know you need to get back to work. Thank you so much for your time, maybe we can get together again when you guys are back in town?
KH: Yea, I’ve got to mic check. But sure that’d be fine.