No one can remember exactly when the first of the banners appeared in the right-field bleachers at Fenway Park in Boston reading HAWK-IT TO 'EM SOX!, and even The Hawk himself, Ken Harrelson, the boulevardier of the American League (see cover), is not quite sure whether it was early or late in May that the encouraging cheers began pouring out of those same bleachers: "Hawk Baby, we love you!" On the breast pocket of his tailored shirts and the flaps of his spiked shoes the word is spelled out, HAWK, and pasted to the front of the equipment box above his locker is a picture of a menacing hawk staring down, seemingly getting a bird's-eye view of the one man in the major leagues to have driven home more than 100 runs in this Year of the Zero. Suddenly, because he dresses, performs and speaks in a fashion that makes large and sometimes disturbing circles on baseball's normally placid waters, Ken Harrelson has become as fine and improbable a hero as the major leagues have produced in several seasons.
Until this year Harrelson had drifted and scuffled through five unimpressive seasons, averaging fewer than 50 runs batted in each year while developing a reputation as the game's best arm wrestler, pool shooter and golfer as well as being a man who played defense with all the finesse and surety of Venus de Milo. In those endless past seasons with such stirring teams as the Washington Senators and the Kansas City Athletics, Harrelson, some people maintained, was in such a hurry to leave the ball park that along about the sixth inning they could see his fingers begin to creep toward the top button of his uniform blouse. Others, however, saw within him the potential to produce runs should he ever find himself, by some quirk of fate, playing for a team that could put men on base in front of him.
This year there probably will be fewer than five men in the majors who bat in 100 runs or more. Back in 1950, when hitting was a vital part of baseball, there were 22 men with over 100 RBIs. Harrelson also stands second in the American League to Frank Howard in homers with 32 and is seventh in hitting at .280. In Boston, 1968 has become Hawk's Year. Harrelson treasures every moment of it, because he is one of the few men in history ever to beat the establishment and beat it good. Within the tiny, often blind little world of baseball he not only managed to become his own agent—and sign with a pennant-bound team on his own terms—but he also caused heads to spin because he insisted on dressing in a way that was not even vaguely suggestive of Connie Mack.
While franchises shift, expansion plans get muddled up and an infield fly in some cities is enough to touch off a major celebration, baseball is frantically trying to figure out what its young men should be allowed to wear in order to keep the image of the game within the framework of the 1800s. Gil Hodges, the manager of the New York Mets, has come out openly against love beads, perhaps on the theory that his players would be better off with rosary beads. Eddie Stanky, the deposed manager of the Chicago White Sox, used to get a red neck whenever he saw one of his heroes in a turtleneck. By contrast, Red Schoendienst, the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, is refreshingly modern on the subject of dress. He merely sits back, laughs and admires some of the splendiferous concoctions worn by Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton and Catcher Tim McCarver. He is with it enough to say, "Times sure have changed, they sure have." Boston Manager Dick Williams, a man who many believe likes nothing better than to win and have his players eat Red Heart, has taken a firm position on Harrelson's dress: "I don't care what The Hawk wears as long as he keeps hitting." Since both managers won pennants last year, that should—but, of course, will not—be the end of it with dudes like Harrelson.
Harrelson is indeed a swinging dresser, as well as a good theatrical performer, who, unlike most players today, does not sit around discussing the overwhelming advantages of the pension plan. During afternoon games he dabs crescents of shoe polish under his eyes to help cut the glare of the sun, and he tapes his wrists severely so that when he gets to the plate he presents a menacing appearance to the opposing pitcher. More and more throughout the American League he is being confronted with the Harrelson Shift, a defense that puts the second baseman to the left side of the bag, leaving only the first baseman on the right side of the infield. Sometimes he hits over or through the shift or drives an outside pitch to the opposite field and then wheels around the bases as the rightfielder tries to chase the ball down. When stationed in right field himself he makes all catches with one hand, bringing gasps and oohs from the crowds and heart palpitations to Manager Williams. To some people Ken Harrelson, age 27 and the father of three, is a put-on, a baseball player drawn from the minds of Ring Lardner and Tom Wolfe. And, like any player different from all the stereotypes of bland performers, he is referred to as a "hot dog." All he says is, "I play the way I play, and the guy I myself would pay to see play is Pete Rose of Cincinnati—little ' Charlie Hustle.' A lot of dumb people still say that Pete puts it on a bit himself."
Without Harrelson, Boston's "impossible dream" of 1967 would have turned into the "unbearable sorrow" of 1968. At the end of last week, despite a series of setbacks that struck the team long before the start of the season and has continued right through it, the Red Sox were in fourth place. They have done this without Tony Conigliaro, until he was injured last season one of the best young hitters in baseball; Jim Lonborg, the 22-game winner of 1967 who has been slow to recover from torn knee ligaments; and Jose Santiago, the team's second-best pitcher, who went on the disabled list with tendonitis. The pitching staff that is left has shown marked ability at turning close games into batting-practice sessions. Almost as distressing has been the performance of George (Great) Scott. The fine young first baseman, who last year hit .303 with 263 total bases, has virtually become George (Dread) Scott, with a batting average that has hovered around .180. Scott moans that Manager Williams has given up on him.
There are few franchises in professional sport that are as sound as Boston's and not many fans anywhere who feel as deeply toward their club as those of New England. At Fenway Park, where capacity is 33,524, the second smallest in baseball, the Red Sox will draw 1,800,000 spectators this season. Last year attendance was 1,727,832. Only in 1965, when the club lost 100 games, including 17 of 18 meetings with the champion Minnesota Twins, did the good people of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine and as far south as Hartford, Conn. become disenchanted. The Sox' wealthy owner of 35 years, Tom Yawkey, was not so much financially embarrassed by his team as he was ashamed of its record. The country-club atmosphere quickly changed in 1967 with the arrival of Manager Williams, and suddenly the New England summer became alive again. Busloads of children came from summer camps, and the stands filled with fathers who had not seen the Sox win in 21 years and sons who had found a set of players for not just one season but for many to come. In 1967 Carl Yastrzemski had a year that not even Walter Mitty would dare dream of. A fine rookie center-fielder named Reggie Smith was also developing as was a gritty young second baseman named Mike Andrews.
Realistically, nobody could believe that Yaz would be able to repeat his daily miracles in 1968, and he has not. The American League opposition decided to either walk Yastrzemski or to pitch to him in such a way that he would be unable to pull the ball. When he arrived at spring training this year Yastrzemski seemed drawn and tired from a winter of banquets and personal appearances, and his frustration began during the exhibition schedules as pitchers began to work around him. He got off to a fine start, however, and although the Sox at one point slipped to ninth place in the standings and Yaz was worked over constantly with pitches close to his head, he reached the first week of June with a batting average of .351. From that point on, though, he showed the effects of being tired, and his average dropped to a low of .272.
When Harrelson went to spring training last March it was doubted that he would get to Fenway Park in a Boston uniform for the 1968 season. He had been awful in the World Series, fighting off balls that were hit to him in right field as though they were going to eat him. At bat, only Orlando Cepeda of the Cards was a bigger disappointment. "I knew the Red Sox were trying to trade me," he says candidly, "and I thought for certain that I would end up with either Detroit or the Yankees, because each of them looked like they needed a right-handed power hitter to pinch-hit or play in spots."
The Red Sox had hoped that Conigliaro, who had collected 104 homers and 294 runs batted in by the age of 22, would be fully recovered, and they kept playing him while ignoring Harrelson. In the regular games against A squads in Florida he got to bat only 20 times, and only once was he allowed to bat as many as three times in one game. Manager Williams stuck Harrelson on "the dawn patrols," the teams that play those B games that draw little attention. Harrelson, however, hit well and says, "I worked harder than I ever had, threw batting practice and ran in the outfield. I knew that I was good enough to play somewhere and when the time came The Hawk was going to be ready."