Friday, December 18, 2009

Hawk Harrelson and the 1961 Visalia Athletics

Click image for larger version

Editor's Note: We've been going a bit chronologically with some of our initial posts, but I want to make sure we don't get locked into that as an obligation. So, after talking about the 1949 team, we're going to skip ahead today to 1961. Don't worry; we'll come back to the 40s and 50s later. But like the writers of Lost, we reserve the right to skip forward and backward in time as we see fit.

Ken "Hawk" Harrelson is arguably the most polarizing non-national sports broadcaster in the country. His ultra-homerish call of Chicago White Sox games have become famous around the baseball world, as he refers to the Sox as "the good guys," yells "Hell yes!" whenever something exciting goes their way, and punctuates their home runs with "You can put it on the booaarrrrrd...Yes!" He's spawned reams of internet analysis, both favorable and, well, not so much.

One thing that can't be debated, however, is that his path to fame went through Visalia.

By 1961, Visalia's team was no longer known as the Cubs; Chicago had skipped town after the '56 season, and Visalia went through a few different affiliations over the next six years. In '61, they were a Kansas City Athletics affiliate (remember, the A's hadn't moved west to Oakland yet). The above picture features Ken Harrelson (2nd from right) with Tom Videtich, John Wojcik, and Andy Rivera. The "Athletics" script across the front of the jerseys was red; the caps were black with a red "V".

The '61 team didn't fare well in the standings; they went 60-79 and finished 4th in the Cal League. Scoring runs wasn't a problem; the A's scored 773 of them, averaging over 5 and a half per game. The problem was, they allowed 844. You can view the team's full statistics here.

Harrelson, who was just 19 in this picture but already featured the formidable nose that earned him his nickname, had a stellar season. He hit .301, socked 25 homers, drove in 114 runs, and was named the team's Most Valuable Player. He would be called up to the big leagues two years later, and played nine seasons at the highest level. His best Major League season was in 1968, when he hit 35 homers for the Red Sox and finished 3rd in the American League MVP voting.

A broken leg effectively ended his career during Spring Training in 1970; he attempted a brief comeback, but retired for good after '71. But he had used his popularity as a player to host a local television show entitled "The Hawk's Nest," and after attempting to make it as a professional golfer, he returned to broadcasting in 1975, when he partnered with Dick Stockton to call Red Sox games.

Never afraid to speak his mind, Harrelson was fired by Boston after criticising management in the early 80s. He landed with the other Sox in Chicago the next year, and was their play-by-play man for four seasons before, surprisingly, becoming General Manager in 1986. His reign was short-lived and somewhat disastrous; he fired manager Tony LaRussa (who went to Oakland and promptly won 3 straight pennants and a World Series), and traded future 6-time all-star Bobby Bonilla. He returned to the broadcast booth the next year, and has been there ever since. He's won five Emmy Awards, been named Illinois Sportscaster of the Year twice, and been nominated for the prestigious Ford C. Frick Award.

The Hawk is clearly one of most famous alumni to play for Visalia; he continues to generate headlines and dissenting opinions, and still isn't afraid to stoke the fires of controversy. "I was blessed to know Howard Cosell and Curt Gowdy," he told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2008. "They both told me the same thing -- don't ever try to please everybody. And I don't. My detractors? I've been around too long to let it bother me."

Love him or hate him, he's a larger-than-life character, and in the Summer of '61, he called Recreation Park home.

1 comment:

  1. Oh that's fantastic. The great pic of the 60's A's, not the Hawk's commentary