Harrelson’s MLB Career Ended with Tribe – in Favor of the Links
Vince Guerrieri | On 21, Jun 2017
Last month, Ken Harrelson announced next year will be his final one in the White Sox broadcast booth.
Harrelson, who had already scaled back his broadcast schedule this year, will have the opportunity for a victory lap, but his retirement as a player, 46 years ago today in Boston as a member of the Indians, involved a news conference where he kept reporters waiting after a golf tournament – a sign of his future career aspirations.
Harrelson was a high school phenom in football, basketball, and baseball in Savannah, Georgia. His favorite sport was football, and he planned to go to the University of Georgia, but his mother suggested following the money, so Harrelson signed with the Athletics, making his major league debut four years later, in 1963.
The Athletics were then owned by Charles Finley, a Chicago insurance magnate who was described by sportswriter Jim Murray as “a self-made man who worships his creator.” Finley had a flair for promotion, with notable gimmicks as colored uniforms (which stuck) and orange baseballs for night games (which didn’t). Finley and Harrelson – both equally flamboyant – clashed, with the Athletics trading Harrelson to the Senators in 1966 and then bringing him back the following year – briefly. After Finley, in a fit of pique, fired manager Alvin Dark (there apparently were no hard feelings; Dark returned to the Athletics in 1974, leading them to their third straight World Series win), Harrelson was quoted as saying Finley was a “menace to baseball.” Harrelson, who said he never said he made the statement, was released – and summarily picked up by the Red Sox, looking for a replacement for slugger Tony Conigliaro, who had been laid low by a beaning a week earlier. Harrelson signed a contract for $150,000 (he had made $12,000 with the Athletics).
Harrelson was a key piece in the Red Sox’ “Impossible Dream” pennant, won on the last day of the season, and quickly became a fan favorite – despite a poor showing in the World Series. The following year, the Tigers won the pennant, but Hawk led the league with 109 RBI. After the 1968 season, he was traded to the Indians in a six-player deal. The reaction was extreme: Teammates were unhappy, Harrelson was distraught (even considering retirement) and fans picketed Fenway Park in outrage. But Harrelson accepted the move, which would reunite him with Dark.
In 1970, Harrelson broke his leg in spring training. He worked hard to make a comeback, but wasn’t happy with his career or the game in general, and on June 19, a front-page story in the Plain Dealer said Harrelson, facing being sent down to the minors, told Dark he intended to retire.
“I’ve got a chance to be a helluva golfer, and that’s what I want to do,” Harrelson said. “I was playing well enough to at least make my expenses on the tour (last winter), and then I had to leave for spring training.”
Harrelson was an avid golfer, which figures in the origin story of the batting glove. Harrelson didn’t expect to play in a baseball game one day, and he went out that morning and played 36 holes of golf, blistering his hands. When he was called upon as a pinch-hitter, he put a golf glove on one hand to hit, and the habit caught on.
He was going to work with teaching pro Bob Toski in Wisconsin in an effort to turn pro. Toski thought highly of his pupil.
“Harrelson hits the ball like an animal … I think he’ll qualify for the pro tour,” Toski said. “Ken has the power of Nicklaus. He can hit the ball 280 yards off the tee with no strain. He’s got the finesse and he’s an expert reader of the greens.”
What he didn’t have was a sponsor – or a lot of money. Although he was able to sign one free agent contract after Finley released him, he didn’t make the money that players even a decade later were able to, and that proved to be his undoing on the PGA Tour.
Harrelson said he had the physical skill to play golf, but he was unable to conquer the game mentally. “The secret to golf is not hitting the ball good and shooting a 75; the secret is hitting the ball bad and shooting a 72, and I never learned to do that.”
By his own estimation, he spent $270,000 trying to qualify, and only won $50,000 in his pro golf career – which he ended in favor of the broadcast booth. “This game makes baseball look like child’s play,” he said. “In baseball, they pay you to learn. In golf, you have to pay.”
Photo: 1969 Topps