Friday, August 3, 2012

The Hawk Flies to Freedom

He stands under the oak-bush and waits
The lame feet of salvation; at night he remembers freedom
and flies in a dream; the dawns ruin it.
Robinson Jeffers, "Hurt Hawks"

It was 45 years ago today that the Hawk was set free.

Charlie Finley, a meddlesome owner if ever that was, took a break from firing and rehiring manager Alvin Dark over a Kansas City Athletics player revolt to give Ken Harrelson his unconditional release on August 3, 1967.

The Hawk, at the time, with an .832 OPS and 147 OPS+ in 61 games, was K.C.'s best hitter.

The quick and dirty summary of the circumstances:

Hawk had been a member of the Athletics organization since signing with the club in 1959 (convinced he could make the majors more quickly through lowly K.C. than in the system of his other suitor, the Los Angeles Dodgers). He was traded to the Washington Senators in 1966 and sold right back to K.C. a year later. For two months, it looked as if he had finally found a home in Kansas City, and in the majors.

Then, a trumped-up episode on a commercial flight, involving supposed drunkenness from three players (Hawk not included) resulted in a report filed to Finley from broadcaster/team spy Monte Moore. Finley, no debonair practitioner of the finer things himself, was nonetheless outraged by this half-story and announced that no A's would be served alcohol on any future flights. The clubhouse was up in arms over such fire-breathing restrictions, and a team statement was released in response to Finley, which got Dark in hot water (Finley believed Dark was behind the team statement, when in truth he was unaware of its release).

After Dark's firing, Hawk--a little bristled up, as you might imagine--told a reporter that he felt Finley's actions were detrimental to baseball (pretty inarguable, that). Harrelson was also misquoted as calling Finley a "menace to baseball" (probably not far off, but something employers don't usually want to hear).

Finley, in typical rash fashion, chose not to trade or waive Harrelson, moves that would have netted his club players or cash in return. No, the hotheaded owner gave Hawk a taste of free agency, in a sense, with an outright release.

Harrelson got to choose from several contending teams pursuing his services (including the Yomiuri Giants), and as anyone who watches Chicago White Sox broadcasts knows, he chose the Boston Red Sox. Hawk would play somewhat sparingly as the Red Sox fought their way to the 1967 AL pennant but had a key RBI in the pennant-clincher on October 1. Later that month, he would get his only World Series experience (four games) in Boston's crushing loss in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals.

In 1968, Hawk had a monster year for the Red Sox, finishing third in MVP voting, earning his only All-Star selection, and leading the AL with 109 RBI. His OPS of .874 and OPS+ of 155 were career-best marks, and his 4.6 WAR that single season essentially represents the sum value of his entire career.

Between the senseless release from Kansas City and confirmed success as a major leaguer in Boston, it seems something clicked in the Hawk. He'd finally learned how to be a pro, and he wasn't going to let anything hold him back from there. He took the unheard-of freedom (a so-called "sneak peak" at free agency that would arrive in baseball eight years later) allocated by Finley and made it work phenomenally for him. After badly breaking his leg sliding into second in 1970, Hawk would lose his passion for the game and play in just 69 more contests, quitting the game three years into his Cleveland Indians tenure to pursue a career as a golfer.

He did come back to the game some four years later, broadcasting for the Red Sox, and is now a mainstay of the White Sox organization as booster and critic alike--colorful either way. And to think, if not for Finley rashly cutting him loose 45 years ago, the Hawk might just be hustling pool or scratch golfing instead of entertaining hundreds of thousands every night.

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