Ken Harrelson is many things: a former All-Star who belted 35 home runs and led the American League with 109 RBI during his All-Star season in 1968 and a Hall of Fame broadcaster for the White Sox.
He dabbled in professional golf and amateur boxing and was a flamboyant, bigger-than-life character with a lifetime of stories of brushes with great athletes and celebrities from many walks of life.
The Hawk is also a baseball fan.
And not a very happy one these days.
Baseball has come to a halt because of an owners lockout and their failure to reach a collective-bargaining agreement with the players’ union, canceling the first two series of the season.
He’s like a lot of us. He’s perplexed by it all. And he’s angry.
“I’ll tell you what, it’s hard for me to understand, it really is,” Harrelson told the Sun-Times, speaking from his winter home in Orlando, Florida, by telephone this week.
“When I broke in, the minimum salary was $6,000. What is it now, $700,000?”
Harrelson chuckles at the number.
“I guess it’s what the market will bear,” he said.
At 80, Harrelson has a passion and love for his Sox that’s as strong as ever. With the team primed for another season of contending for a World Series, his level of anticipation for the season is as high as it gets. Or was.
“I’m just going to sit back, strap it down and see what goes on,” he said. “I know one thing, it’s going to cost us some fans. There is no doubt about that. As long as I’ve been in the game — I love the game — but I’m [ticked off]. I really am.”
“You ask what side I’m on, I’m on the side of the fans,” he said. “It seems to me there certainly can be a compromise that can be reached. I’m not sitting in the room, but it just seems unnecessary.”
It seemed a good time to check in on Harrelson, who sat alongside Sox fans for 33 of his 42 seasons in the booth, cheering with them through many of the franchise’s greatest moments. Three seasons removed from his last one in 2018, Harrelson is well, thank you, but he navigates life at more moderate speeds.
“I’ve got a pacemaker that really helped, but I just don’t have a lot of energy yet,” he said. “I haven’t played golf in two years. My right wrist is bad — too many strikeouts, too many fat sand wedges. I’ve been to the best [doctors] in the country, and they all say exactly the same thing: You just wore them out.
“I swung the heaviest bat in the American League, a 40-ounce bat. You check that swing up and swing and miss over the years, it’s going to take its toll.”
A photo of Harrelson swinging a bat in a Cleveland uniform gives a hint of how he did that.
“I’ve had people tell me that’s the only photo they’ve seen with the bat bending,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s the only one I’ve ever seen with the bat bending. And I believe it’s of a home run they measured at 503 feet.”
These days, Harrelson spends more and more time reflecting on a life he says he’s extremely grateful for. Many of his afternoons are spent at home on the 17th hole at Bay Hill Golf Club, which is hosting the Arnold Palmer Invitational this weekend.
“So I’ll just sit here and have a couple of Smirnoff and tonics and watch a lot of the guys come through on the 17th hole,” he said. “I’ve lost enough money on that tough par-3 to build this house.”
Since he was inducted into the Hall of Fame last summer as the winner of the Ford C. Frick Award for Excellence in Broadcasting, Harrelson has noticed an uptick in his fan mail.
“It’s amazing; it keeps pouring in,” he said. “I’m enjoying it, mainly for my family.”
For whom he is especially grateful. As he talks, he says he is looking at a picture of -Jesus and counting his blessings.
“I count them every day,” he said. “Every day. First thing I do every morning.”
There is much to be thankful for.
“I had a great mom, and that saved my life,” he said. “My beautiful wife, Aris, married almost 50 years, that saved my life. I’ve had a lot of help along the way, and I really appreciate that. I thank the good Lord every day for what he’s given me. I can’t imagine anybody having a better life than I’ve had.”
Put this on the board: More White Sox baseball would only make it better.