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McGRATH: New film provides an outlet for unfiltered Hawk Harrelson

Ken Harrelssays thhis polarizing style stemmed from advice he received from TV legends Curt Gowdy Howard Cosell; Don’t try please

Ken Harrelson says that his polarizing style stemmed from advice he received from TV legends Curt Gowdy and Howard Cosell; Don’t try to please everybody. | Sun-Times library

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Updated: August 22, 2013 6:33AM



Ken Harrelson’s misshapen nose bears witness to his background as a scrapper, though the distinctive beak is only part of the story behind the ‘‘Hawk’’ handle that has defined him throughout his public life (more on that later).

Hawk acknowledged being rendered “10 toes up” by a smaller opponent in his only foray into organized boxing, but that didn’t stop Rocky Marciano from suggesting he fight Sonny Liston for $100,000 at Fenway Park in 1969.

That was one of the more startling claims to emerge from “The Colorful Life of Ken Harrelson,” a film study of the Hawk that aired on the MLB Network on Thursday evening. Marciano, the only heavyweight to retire as an undefeated champion, died in a plane crash days after the conversation ostensibly took place, so its authenticity couldn’t be verified.

That was the problem with the whole movie — no corroboration of anything Harrelson said. It was not the documentary it was billed as being but a solid hour of unadulterated, unabashed, certainly unapologetic Hawk, with enough names dropped to fill six gossip columns.

The resentful, suspicious, God-is-a-Cubs-fan White Sox loyalists who are Hawk’s core followers probably loved every minute of it.

Bob Costas’ role also was overstated; he was the narrator, not the interviewer. Had it been Costas rather than an MLB producer asking questions, some of Hawk’s more outlandish recollections might have been challenged.

But on a night with no games, the film was baseball’s best offering.

The nickname? Minor-league teammate Dick Howser was responsible, citing a resemblance to Henrietta Hawk, a fussy, busybody comic-strip character. On the day Harrelson warned Howser to dispense with the name, he also hit a home run, so it was conveniently shortened to Hawk.

It’s not so much a nickname as an alter ego, a flamboyant self-promoter who helps introvert Ken Harrelson overcome his inherent shyness. The 71-year-old man in his 28th year as lead dog in the White Sox broadcast booth? Hawk, no question.

Save for a magical 1968 season in which he slugged 35 homers and knocked in 109 runs for the Boston Red Sox, Harrelson was a pretty ordinary ballplayer, hitting .239 with 131 homers and 421 RBI over nine seasons. He has been a broadcaster pretty much non-stop since 1975 and brings the ego of a more accomplished hitter to the booth; Ozzie Guillen once suggested Hawk “sits up there like he was Mickey Mantle.”

Harrelson attributes his polarizing style to advice he got from Curt Gowdy and Howard Cosell: Don’t try to please everybody.

Gowdy and Cosell, incidentally, are among a bevy of luminaries Hawk recalled moving through his life at various times, joining Joe Namath, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Mantle and Vince Lombardi.

Hawk is fortunate that broadcasting worked out because he was a dismal failure when he ventured out of the booth to become White Sox general manager in 1986. He isn’t into self-deprecation, but he poked fun at himself for firing Hall of Fame-bound Tony La Russa as Sox manager, his signature bad move. Replacing capable young front-office staffers with cronies who had “played the game” was just as damaging to the organization, but no mention of that.

Hawk took a sound beating in the press and he said he knew he had to quit when he saw his daughter crying after reading a critical story. The men he fired had families, too.

On longevity alone, Harrelson merits Hall of Fame consideration. He’d be the fifth Chicago broadcaster honored, following Bob Elson, Jack Brickhouse, Harry Caray and Milo Hamilton. Each of those four worked both sides of town, but Hawk would pick up a dinner tab for Joe West and a roomful of umpires before he would align himself with any team other than the White Sox.

“When we lose,” he says in the film, “there isn’t a person in that clubhouse who’s more upset than I am.’’

If that fierce provincialism defines Harrelson, it also hurts his credibility, and thus his appeal to Hall of Fame voters. His diatribes against umpires are one thing. Worse is when innings, games, entire series pass with barely a mention of the opposing team, save for the occasional, ‘‘I love Jody Gerut.”

Harrelson is defiantly proud of his loyalty. In 2006, after Texas Rangers headhunter Vicente Padilla drilled A.J. Pierzynski twice in the same game, Hawk said he headed for the Rangers’ clubhouse with every intention of fighting Padilla until cooler heads talked him out of it.

He was 64 years old at the time. Hard to imagine that from Vin Scully.



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