When Boston Red Sox slugger Ken “The Hawk” Harrelson, who led the American League in RBIs in 1968, was traded to the lowly Cleveland Indians during the second week of the 1969 season, he immediately announced his retirement from major-league baseball.
The flashy-dressed Harrelson, often seen sporting a Nehru jacket, multi-colored bell-bottom slacks and white cowboy boots, was one of the most colorful players in the majors at the time.
Harrelson and his lawyer, Bob Woolf, argued that the long-haired “Hawk” would be giving up way too much in terms of financial opportunities in Boston to play for the struggling Indians. Harrelson’s attorney said that his client would lose between $500,000 to $750,000 in business opportunities if he went to Cleveland, a figure considerably more than his contract estimated at $50,000-$75,000 a year.
“It’s very, very possible I have played my last game of baseball at 27 years old,” said a visibly shaken and admittedly “brokenhearted” Harrelson when he received news of the six-player deal that sent him to the last-place Tribe.
The Hawk made it clear that he didn’t want to leave Boston. “This is my town. I fell in love with this town and I think the town felt the same about me,” said Harrelson, who is widely credited with reintroducing batting gloves to major league baseball, the result of a blister sustained after a day on the golf course in 1963.
Harrelson explained that he didn’t have anything against Cleveland.
“I love Cleveland, too, and I think I could have helped the Indians win the pennant,” continued the anguished outfielder, “but it was just not economically feasible to leave Boston.” Harrelson said his decision would have been the same for any other city. “It’s simply a business thing. I have four children I have to take care of.”
The immensely popular and colorful Harrelson, who was as big a draw off the field as on, had a change of heart a few days later after meeting with Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, American League President Joe Cronin, Cleveland GM Gabe Paul, and Dick O’Connell, the general manager of the Boston Red Sox. The Indians reportedly offered him a contract adjustment.
“They made me realize what I was doing was bad for myself and I should be back in baseball,” he said shortly after the meeting. “I’m glad to have settled this thing. I feel great. I’m a ballplayer. I want to get back and do my thing.”
Donning a russet-checked Edwardian suit with bell-bottom trousers, white turtleneck, silk scarf and white boots — hey, it was the late sixties — the colorful slugger was greeted by some 400 young fans who had braved a driving rain and 40 degree temperatures when “The Hawk” emerged from his plane at the Cleveland airport while flashing the “V” sign to the cheering crowd.
Alvin Dark, manager of the Indians, was “like a second father” to him, he told newsmen as he embarked from the plane, adding that he had “always hit well” in Cleveland.
Harrelson had been released from the Kansas City Athletics in 1967 after publicly denouncing owner Charlie Finley for firing Dark, who later became only the third manager in major league history to win pennants in both the National and American leagues — a feat he accomplished, ironically enough, with the Oakland A’s when Finley rehired him in 1974.
In the meantime, Harrelson signed a lucrative contract with the Red Sox, who were making their first pennant drive in more than twenty years. The Hawk had been signed to replace star outfielder Tony Conigliaro, who suffered a severe eye injury after being hit in the face by a pitch.
The Hawk’s arrival was about the only thing long-suffering Indians fans had to cheer about that dreary spring. “Isn’t he beautiful!” shrieked a young woman as Harrelson sped away from the airport in a car driven by Indians catcher Duke Sims.
Harrelson, whose arrival in Cleveland drew more people to the airport than the woeful Indians had lured to Municipal Stadium for an afternoon game against the Detroit Tigers the previous week, predicted that the Indians would win the pennant.
“When we win the pennant, I’ll probably be staying here,” he said when asked if he would remain in Cleveland over the winter.
The Indians, who hadn’t won a pennant in fifteen years, were 1-11 at the time, 8 1/2 games behind the division-leading Baltimore Orioles.
Despite the media frenzy surrounding his arrival, the Tribe didn’t get any better with Harrelson on the roster. A few weeks after joining the team, the Indians were buried at 4-21 and clearly destined for the cellar.
Though the Hawk blasted 30 home runs while driving in 92 runs, the Tribe pathetically languished in last place all season long, finishing with a dismal 62-99 record — some 46 ½ games behind the Baltimore Orioles, who won a mind-boggling 109 games that season.
Harrelson, who broke his leg during a spring training game against the Oakland A’s, played in only 17 games during the 1970 season and retired at mid-season during the following year to pursue a career in professional golf.
Harrelson, who briefly served as general manager of the Chicago White Sox during the 1986 season, is currently the television voice of the White Sox, a role in which he is no less colorful than he was as a player.