Retirement is treating Ken Harrelson just fine, it sounds like.
Take Friday, for instance. Dateline: Orlando, Florida.
“Every Friday I go to Orange Tree [Golf Club] to get the clam chowder,” Harrelson said Friday morning. “They have the best clam chowder in Florida. And I love clam chowder. I’ll go over later on to have some lunch, sit around and tell some lies with my buddies and maybe watch a couple of holes and come home. Watch the Masters this afternoon.”
Harrelson’s calendar is much lighter removed from his distinguished broadcasting career highlighted by 34 years with the White Sox, but there is one significant date marked — July 25. That’s when he’ll be inducted into the Hall of Fame as the recipient of the Ford C. Frick Award for excellence in broadcasting.
“Just the word ‘Cooperstown,’ ’’ Harrelson said, summarizing what the honor will mean to him. “You live with it as a baseball player or as an announcer.”
Harrelson, 79, was voted into the Hall in December 2019 but because of safety concerns associated with the coronavirus pandemic, induction ceremonies last July were postponed. He’ll go in this summer instead, but the ceremonies won’t be at the usual outdoor location. Instead, the festivities will be a television-only event broadcast on MLB Network.
The Class of 2020 featuring Derek Jeter, Marvin Miller, Ted Simmons and Larry Walker will be inducted with 2020 and 2021 Frick Award winners Harrelson and Al Michaels, respectively; 2020 and 2021 BBWAA Career Excellence Award winners Nick Cafardo and Dick Kaegel, respectively; and 2020 Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award winner David Montgomery.
“Forty-three years of announcing, I never thought about it,” Harrelson said of the Hall of Fame. “People would say, ‘You’re going to the Hall of Fame.’ I didn’t think about that in that regard. Was up for it a couple of times, but there are so many great announcers.”
After a playing career that included stops with the Kansas City Athletics, Indians, Red Sox and Senators — he played on the 1967 “Impossible Dream” Red Sox and hit 35 homers and drove in an American League-best 109 runs in 1968 — Harrelson parlayed his big personality into a broadcasting career, starting with the Red Sox from 1975 to 1981. He switched to the White Sox, under its new ownership group led by Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn, in 1982.
Harrelson was named Sox general manager after the 1985 season, fired manager Tony La Russa and assistant general manager Dave Dombrowski during the 1986 season, left after that season and became a Yankees broadcaster in 1987.
La Russa went on to a Hall of Fame managerial career and returned to the Sox to manage again this season at 76.
Harrelson returned to the Sox as a broadcaster in 1989 and called games till 2018. He was a five-time Emmy Award winner whose signature calls such as “You can put it on the board, yes!” and “Mercy” and nicknames such as “The Big Hurt” for Frank Thomas became standard entries in the Sox’ lexicon. And there was never any doubt which team he rooted for.
“I want to be remembered as an entertaining broadcaster and that I announced the way I played. I played my [butt] off,” he said. “And the greatest compliment you can give me is calling me a homer.”
Now Harrelson is watching every Sox game he can, with La Russa at the helm, and he can’t help but think about the move he made in ’86, a decision approved by chairman Jerry Reinsdorf who called it his biggest regret. Harrelson has admitted the decision to fire La Russa was a mistake, but he says he didn’t fire him because he was a bad manager.
“He’s only been fired one time,” Harrelson said. “I didn’t fire him because he was a bad manager. I fired him for some other reason that I’ll take to my grave, and Tony will take to his grave.
“I’m not going to say [why].”
The Athletics hired La Russa immediately after he was fired, and he added three World Series championships and 11 more division titles to go with the division title he won with the Sox in 1983. About seven years after the firing, La Russa and Harrelson shook hands, ending a freeze in their relationship.
Upon hearing that manager Rick Renteria was fired by the Sox, Harrelson turned to his wife, Aris, and said that Reinsdorf would go after La Russa.
“Jerry is one of the smartest guys I’ve been around, and I’ve played golf with presidents, vice presidents, chairmen of the board all my life. I knew he was going after Tony.”
Harrelson said he spoke with La Russa while La Russa was contemplating taking the job.
“I said, ‘Tony, you have to come back with Jerry,’ ’’ Harrelson said.
La Russa told Harrelson that Jim Leyland, a coach under La Russa with the Sox who went on to a successful managerial career, encouraged him to jump in, and La Russa said, “I’m going to do it.”
“I said, ‘Jerry wants you to manage this ballclub. I want you to,’ ’’ Harrelson said.
Harrelson believes La Russa and his team are an excellent match and that the Sox are serious World Series contenders.
“No question about it, no doubt about it,” he said.
“We have all the ingredients on the field to go to the World Series. If we had Lance Lynn last year, we may have gone a lot further in the playoffs. We were one starter short. You can’t go to a gunfight with a knife, and that’s what we did last year with our starters.”
Even without injured Eloy Jimenez, the Sox are an entertaining and fun watch, Harrelson said. The Sox’ deep bullpen with high-powered arms lets Harrelson, still the biggest Sox fan around, sleep well at night.
“I don’t care how good your offense and starting pitchers are,’’ he said, ‘‘if you don’t have a good bullpen, you’re going to lose. It’s that simple. This year we’re set, and we have a good bullpen.”
Check back with Hawk around the All-Star break for an updated assessment. But not during that last weekend of July.
He’s going to be busy.