Hawk Harrelson's most important flight helped set up modern baseball free agency

As a broadcaster, Ken Harrelson was a man White Sox fans loved and any other fans despised for his flagrant homerism. (Cubs fans despised him for his infamous diss of Wrigley Field.) But with his retirement from the White Sox broadcast booth, it may wise to remember Harrelson's most significant contribution to baseball history, in 1967, when he was a promising outfielder and slugger and caught in the crossfire of then-Athletics owner Charlie Finley's caprices.

A year after Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale showed what was possible if players bargained together in a spring training-long contract holdout, Harrelson gave the first showing of what was out there, potentially, for top players to earn on an open market.

Harrelson showed promise with the Kansas City A's and Finley showed him enough contradictory views of ownership. When Harrelson fell into some financial difficulties, Finley agreed to help him by deducting certain amounts from his paychecks — only they sometimes proved more than those agreed. During 1966 Harrelson was dealt to the Senators, but Finley's people dealt in the offseason to get him back. Loving Kansas City but ambivalent (at best) about his new old boss, Harrelson settled back in — and hit .305 for the A's while he was at it, while showing flashes of power — until a team flight on August 3, 1967 turned out to change Harrelson's destiny ... and, in part, baseball's altogether.

The inadvertent catalyst was pitcher Lew Krausse, a righthander with a shutdown curve ball, an impressive change up, and an equal amount of inconsistency despite coming into 1967 off his best season. The team flight got excessively rowdy but Finley singled Krausse out and fined him $500. One of the problems with that was that, aboard an August 18 flight to Washington, Finley ordered no drinks be served to the players, and only when they disembarked that flight did they learn Krausse was fined over the August 3 flight. Injustice delayed and all that.

Because Krausse fumed over the fine, Finley suspended him five days. A public joint statement in response to a published Finley letter denouncing "deplorable" behaviors led Finley to demand a public retraction. Manager Alvin Dark denied knowing of the players' statement in advance but was fired when evidence appeared otherwise. And reporters sought out Harrelson, who was known to be close to Dark. They weren't disappointed: the Hawk publicly called Finley a detriment to baseball, provoking Finley to release him unconditionally; and, pitcher Jack Aker, the team's player representative, who'd actually released the players' statement, was hit with a $250 fine ostensibly for breaking a team curfew.

Hark back again to the aforementioned August 3 flight. Harrelson and Aker sat in the back of the plane having drinks and commiserating when Aker expressed he wasn't happy with his pitching up to that point, and Harrelson comforted him and offered a few suggestions. Somewhere in there, complaints about the team drinking must have been lodged, though it's never been specified just what Krausse did to get himself in Finley's doghouse. "Conduct unbecoming a ballplayer" was a common reference to the incident, almost as though having a few belts and partying on a team flight was simply unheard of in the Golden Age of Baseball.

But when Finley first released Harrelson, the Hawk wasn't celebrating. He was scared to death. Players in the reserve era having no rights as it was, getting released after a public spat with his owner, however little sympathy Finley might actually have had, had Harrelson worried genuinely that his career might be over. Not quite.

According to several writings covering that period, Harrelson got an almost immediate phone call from White Sox general manager Eddie Short, noting that he'd been on the irrevocable waiver list and would be a free agent in four days. And, by the way, Short went on, how much would it take him to sign with the White Sox? Some say Harrelson suggested $100,000 and Short said only that he'd get back to him.

Some blacklist. The Tigers called and asked Harrelson not to sign before talking to them. The Red Sox offered him $88,000; Harrelson said he needed to talk to the other clubs ringing his phone almost off the hook. The Braves, whose then GM Paul Richards was an occasional golf partner of Harrelson's, called to offer six figures, too, about $112,000 of them. The Tigers and the Orioles offered the Hawk more than the Braves. A Georgia boy since his family moved there during his childhood, Harrelson was about to decide that it might be fun playing with the Braves even if the money was less than the Tigers or the Orioles.

Then the Red Sox rolled out the proverbial heavy artillery. GM Dick O'Connell didn't care that Harrelson had already turned down O'Connell's underling Heywood Sullivan and had all but committed to the Braves. The Red Sox needed him. O'Connell wasn't even close to kidding around. The suddenly pennant-contending Red Sox were struck what could have been a lethal blow when star right fielder Tony Conigliaro suffered a frightful beaning from Angels pitcher Jack Hamilton's errant fastball.

At any other time that kind of blow wouldn't be easy for a team to recover from, but this was the next best thing to answering Don Vito Corleone's maxim (in The Godfather, the novel) that great misfortune sometimes led to unforeseen reward. For both parties. With Harrelson very well aware of his unexpected market value, and O'Connell very well aware that this might be his only shot at filling the blank left by the fallen Conigliaro, the Hawk had one answer when O'Connell asked how much it would take for him to join the Red Sox.

"A hundred and fifty," Harrelson replied. Thousand, that is. "You've got it," O'Connell said. When Richards told Harrelson the Braves couldn't match the Red Sox offer, the Hawk flapped his wings to Boston. 

Harrelson produced at the plate and in the field, though not consistently but in several heated moments, and turned out to be invaluable in the Red Sox clubhouse, the team in its first pennant race in over a decade and Harrelson only too willing to deflect the pressure away from his wound-up teammates. (He was also something of a virtuoso at lining himself up to endorsement deals with his fun-loving Hawk image; he was deadly serious when he once reminisced that having fun with what you did was more important than making money at it.) "Ken Harrelson was a great guy," remembered Ken Brett, a pitcher on the '67 Red Sox and the older brother of Hall of Famer George Brett. "He was worldly, he was mannered, cultured."

Fearing he'd be traded after the World Series loss, Harrelson remained with the Red Sox and had a career year in 1968 (in the Year of the Pitcher, he led the American League with 108 RBIs) followed by another solid year with the Indians to whom he was traded in 1969 —igniting protests in Boston, where fans came to love the freewheeling, clothes-horse outfielder. Injuries ground him down and then out until he left the game as a player in 1972.

But the Hawk's unexpected open-market arrival in August 1967 detonated a slowly erupting time bomb that would change baseball forever. Imploding into Curt Flood's explicit reserve clause challenge, despite its death at the Supreme Court. Into Finley's eventual reneging on contracted insurance payments to Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter, resulting in his being declared a free agent and launching the bidding war that made him a Yankee at five years and $3.5 million — rejecting two higher dollar offers because the Yankees answered his requests for insurance and for annuities to educate his children. Into Andy Messersmith's unsigned 1975 season and the ruling that ended reserve clause abuse and ushered in the free agency era.

That was more significant than any base hit, any home run, any outfield play, anything he hit on the links (as a pro golfer for a spell), any game he broadcast. And it's what Harrelson should rightfully be remembered for, even if his "You can put it on the board ... yes!" home run call may prove his most eternal legacy for Sox fans, be they of the White or Red variety.