Street Smarts: Who knew? Tucson’s Hawk Drive honors a MLB hitter, not a bird of prey

Arizona News

Ken "Hawk" Harrelson

Ken “Hawk” Harrelson of the Cleveland Indians at Hi Corbett Field in Tucson. Gene E. Anderson, who came up with street names in Tucson, named Hawk Drive after Harrelson.

Ken. S. “Hawk” Harrelson was a Major League Baseball player credited with creating the custom of wearing batting gloves.

He’s also known for being the prize in an early bidding war; getting a high-profile haircut in Tucson; and going on to a renowned career as an announcer, among other events.

Harrelson, born in 1941 in South Carolina, showed a remarkable ability in athletics from an early age. High schools recruited him as he grew up in Savannah, Georgia. He chose the Benedictine Military School and thrived in sports including football, basketball, golf and baseball.

After initially accepting a football scholarship to the University of Georgia, he was persuaded by his single mother that baseball would provide more income. He chose the Kansas City Athletics (Oakland Athletics) over the Los Angeles Dodgers, believing he would rise to the majors quicker in the Athletics organization.

It was in the Athletics minor league system that he gained his nickname, “Hawk,” or later, “The Hawk.”

Harrelson’s nose, which had been broken a few times, had begun to take on a beak-like profile and was quite amusing to his teammates, one of whom was Dick Howser.

Howser thought his teammate looked like a character in a comic strip, and nicknamed Harrelson “Henrietta Hawk” in a ridiculing way.

Harrelson didn’t like the nickname, which caused friction between the teammates and eventually led to Howser dropping the “Henrietta” part and just calling him “Hawk.”

In 1963, Harrelson was called up from the minor leagues to the Athletics.

He spent three seasons there and his alter-ego “The Hawk” surfaced more often and became a fan favorite.

During his time with the Athletics, he created a change in baseball as a result of his other passion, golf. He was out golfing one day for two long rounds, and got stinging blisters on his hands. That night at the stadium, he realized it was easier to grip a bat if he wore the golf gloves he had used earlier in the day.

When he went up to bat in the first inning against the New York Yankees, his dugout scoffed, but after his incredible night at the plate, both teams showed up the next day at the ballpark donning golf gloves. The batting glove was born.

Harrelson and Charles O. Finley, the owner of the Athletics, often times didn’t see eye to eye and after several heated public arguments Harrelson was traded to the Washington Senators for a while before having his contract bought back by Finley and returning to Kansas City.

After Finley fired the Athletics’ manager Alvin Dark, Harrelson openly criticized Finley, and Finley put Harrelson on waivers.

Because The Hawk was in the middle of a great season when he was waived, he became involved in one of the first free agent bidding wars in modern baseball history.

One of the teams vying for Harrelson was the Boston Red Sox, who were in the hunt for the American League championship and needed a right fielder. The Red Sox finally beat out other teams, signing him for $150,000, a huge salary increase.

Harrelson and the Red Sox fit like a hand in a (batting) glove and his character “The Hawk” did even better in Beantown. Harrelson once said, “The Hawk was really a product of the fans of Boston, the Red Sox were a great team, but they didn’t have any real personalities up there … After some success, The Hawk evolved and that is really how it all happened.”

In 1967, the Red Sox had a magical year with Harrelson contributing his part.

They made it to the World Series but would lose to the St. Louis Cardinals. In the clubhouse, he sobbed uncontrollably, having been so close, yet so far away from a World Series ring. He was also concerned about his future with the Red Sox since his play in the series wasn’t up to par.

Despite his concerns about being traded, he spent the 1968 season in fine form, swatting 35 home runs and a league leading 109 RBIs and was named the “Sporting News” American League Player of the Year in 1968.

His fears of being traded, however, did come true the following year, when he was involved in a six-player trade, including pitcher Sonny Siebert, with the Cleveland Indians.

The Hawk desperately wanted to stay in Boston, where he was adored by fans, loved by his teammates and desired by sponsors.

Fans took to putting up huge signs in the outfield of Fenway Park that read “To Hell With Siebert We Want Hawk” and “We Luv Ya Hawk.”

Harrelson gave in and was grateful to be welcomed with open arms by his old manager Alvin Dark, then manager of the Indians, and to find many businessmen in his new city offering endorsements.

He backed up his endorsements with solid play for the Indians, finishing the season with 30 homers and 92 runs batted in.

In February 1970, Harrelson reported to Spring Training for the Indians, then held at Hi Corbett Field in Tucson.

At the time, the team also had on its roster Eddie Leon, a shortstop born in Tucson who had played at the University of Arizona, and Mike Paul, a pitcher who played at the UA.

Harrelson showed up wearing fashionable clothes and long hair, and while his attire didn’t bother Dark, the hair had to go. Dark informed him if he didn’t get a haircut he would be fined $1,000.

When interviewed by the Arizona Daily Star about his haircut, The Hawk shared: “Altogether it cost me $15, but I figure I saved about $985, it’s the best deal I’ve made in a long time.” He continued, “Listen I’d do anything for that man. I’ll give my heart … my life. He said he wanted my hair.”

Three weeks after the first haircut, Harrelson showed up to practice with a bumper sticker on his back that read “Keep America Beautiful, Get A Haircut,” as a reminder to keep his hair trimmed.

On March 19, 1970, Harrelson was facing his old team, at this point called the Oakland Athletics, in a Cactus League game when he broke a bone just above his right ankle while sliding into second base.

He had surgery but missed the season.

The next spring in Tucson, a recovered Harrelson suited up for another season with the Indians. But he revealed: “When I broke my leg last spring I had just about decided to retire. I love the game, but I don’t have to play … I would much rather be out playing golf.”

He retired from baseball in June that year and began a short-lived professional golf career, but soon realized it wasn’t going to work out.

About that time, Gene E. Anderson, owner of Anderson Engineering, was consulting engineer for the Escalante Heights subdivision in Tucson in 1971 and came up with its street names.

He chose Hawk Drive for Harrelson because he was one of his favorite Cleveland Indians, and he also named a small street nearby Austin Place for Cleveland Indian Rick Austin.

In 1975, Harrelson returned to Boston but as an announcer. He later became the play-by-play announcer for the Chicago White Sox, spent time in the broadcast booth for the New York Yankees, then returned to the White Sox organization until 2018, when he retired.

He was known for such catch phrases as “He gone!”, “Mercy!” and “You can put it on the board, yes!”

In July 2020, The Hawk will fly to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum at Cooperstown, New York, to be honored with the 2020 Ford C. Frick Award for his outstanding work behind a microphone.

David Leighton is a historian and author of “The History of the Hughes Missile Plant in Tucson, 1947-1960.” He has been featured on PBS, ABC, Travel Channel, various radio shows, and his work has appeared in Arizona Highways. He named two local streets in honor of pioneers Federico and Lupe Ronstadt. If you have a street to suggest or a story to share, email him at azjournalist21@gmail.com

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