Ken “The Hawk” Harrelson is etched into my DNA. Some folks loathed how the legendary Chicago White Sox broadcaster called games in his unique style, and others didn’t like how he threw out a litany of catchphrases like “Sacks packed with Sox” or “That’s a can of corn right there” – I’ve always adored how much of a self-proclaimed “homer” Harrelson stayed. The Hawk remained ride or die with the White Sox for over 30 years, almost as long as I’ve been alive, and for that, I tip my black cap.
Most new school broadcasters work their hardest to seem objective, Hawk never bothered. Objectivity? Nope. White Sox or fuck you – the man kept the same attitude just like the fans he served.
Trash talking the other team? You bet. Deriding the umpires for their lack of consistency for calls? He laid them to rest with brutal takedowns with a country boy twang. The Hawk let everyone in Major League Baseball know immediately, he was the voice of the fan, the working class White Sox Grabowski who wanted more from the team, he called games like we were all in the local dive together.
I remember first seeing White Sox games on television, hearing Hawk holler at a bad call, refusing to accept the strike zone, instantly holding a grudge toward the ump for the rest of the rubber match. Something about that inability to let it go, about his passion for the White Sox getting that edge drew the south side to him.
When you’re second banana to the Cubs, every little victory counts. And while we did eventually steal Steve Stone away from the north side, Hawk was that piss and vinegar Sox fans relied on. The man was an outspoken son of a bitch, but he was our son of a bitch.
When asked about Wrigley Field toward the end of his career the Hawk let them have it, “I will never step foot in that building again. Ever.” How could we not love him?
I had no idea what the hell a “hang whiffem” was, and really, I still don’t. But, Hawk made it seem like we were all in on his baseball hayride. When the Sox won the World Series, I stood in that melee, understanding not only the power of Paul Konkero handing over the ball to Jerry but also getting that win for Hawk was important, too. The guy spent decades calling the games for the Pale Horse when that final out was recorded, there was more than a professional joy – it was just as the Sox fans felt: the moment was ours. Our little, and often overlooked, club shined.
That’s why we adored him because, after seeing baseball evolve in not only Chicago but across the country, he understood the game happening off camera, the guys talking shit, the pace, the behind the scenes stuff. No, he wasn’t a scholar of the sport, and frankly, loved to hear himself talk when chatting about the old days, but that’s what made his run endearing – baseball is a pastoral sport steeped in history, and Hawk remained an iconic figure of the past: he was like your grandpa yelling at the TV.
When Hawk was partnered with Wimpy, many called the balanced duo one of the best in baseball, thanks to Wimpy’s ability to navigate some of Hawk’s more interesting habits. This partnership should have been the ones calling the White Sox World Series winners back in 1994, considering they were the best team in the game. But, thanks to the strike that ruined all of that, the White Sox were left in the lurch, watching the Cubs soar in popularity in the late 90s, thanks in part to Sammy Sosa (a guy we traded them) saving the game along with Mark McGuire and Barry Bonds. Hawk liked to remind us of that clunker of a deal every chance he could.
But, with those fist-shaking bellows about garbage calls, Hawk cared about his White Sox. When Todd Frazier dove into the stands, Hawk split from the booth for two innings to make sure he was ok. That’s loyalty.
Hawk was ride or die. That was it. If you weren’t all in on the White Sox, he had no time for you and it was obvious. When Big Frank had his primadonna moments, you know that wasn’t flying in Hawkville. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts Hawk would take Paul Konerko over Frank Thomas every day of the week, why? Because Paulie didn’t drag it out, he walked away from the game as White Sox captain, he went old school. Big Frank played a few dismal seasons with Oakland and Toronto, trying to re-establish himself as a premier hitter, but the era of the Big Hurt had passed. When Chris Sale hacked up his jersey like a child, Hawk wasn’t having it. He wanted undying mafia-style loyalty, just like us. He roared when Aaron Rowand crashed into walls or laughed when Jose Valentin stroked the best mustache in the history of the game.
The guy had a heart, he wanted the best from the White Sox organization, and it’s fans. The Hawk even tried his hand at playing GM for a season – it was a nightmare. He fired one of the best coaches to ever put together a lineup card in Tony LaRussa.
Hawk handed out some of the best nicknames in baseball, the Cubs were “the bad guys” while the White Sox were always “the good guys,” and Hall of Famer Frank Thomas was christened “The Big Hurt,” a name on his plaque in Cooperstown. One-time south side ace Jack McDowell earned the nickname “Blackjack” while another one of his names “One Dog,” stuck with Lance Johnson for the rest of his career. There’s the Hawkisms: “You Can Put It On The Board, YES!” when someone hits a home run or my favorite one-liner, “He Gone!” whenever someone gets a strikeout.
One of my favorite memories of watching a White Sox game was when someone was in the booth talking to Hawk and DJ in the pre-Steve Stone era. Whoever was on the rubber was dealing for the south side. Despite carrying on a conversation with the guest, casually in the middle asking a serious question, Hawk would still manage to slip in a casual “He Gone” with the same reserved understanding of a “yes, I agree.” The guy didn’t miss a beat.
When Mark Buehrle pitched a perfect game, Hawk nearly cried. When Paul Konerko retired, the Hawk could barely say his name. That’s a man who stood by his team just like a guy from the neighborhood.
As a White Sox fan, I’m not surprised Major League Baseball didn’t fall over itself to give Hawk the farewell tour like it did with Vin Skully, so whatever. It’s par for the course. We’re used to getting sand kicked in our faces, and I doubt it surprised him, either. As the White Sox are building into what hopefully becomes a powerhouse club (dear god, please pay off for us), Hawk will fade into White Sox legend, popping up occasionally, and hopefully for another trip to the big dance in October.
This all bears a question: does our guy on the south side get his statue like Harry Carrey? My gut say yes. He was our guy till the end, and he’ll probably go to his grave wearing his White Sox ring. We’ll never see another legend like Hawk, for generations of little kids who grow up ballplayers, it’s important to understand and respect the old school, they come from a different world, and Hawk was one of the last bricks left in the game, like the original Comiskey Park.
I don’t buy that he’ll stay retired, it’s not in his nature. When asked what he’s been up to since scaling his baseball schedule back, the Hawk replied: “All I’ve been doing is watching ‘Walker, Texas Ranger’ and turning a lot of Smirnoff into urine.” If that ain’t White Sox 101 – then what is? That is precisely why we loved the man.