A flashy General Manager, an unorthodox game plan, an aggressive press corps, unpopular owners, and a crumbling ballpark. Heck, there was even a Joe Cowley. How the drama of 1986 leaves 2010 in the dust.
In the offseason of 2009-2010, Kenny Williams tried to recapture the formula that led them to a World Series title four years before. In a way, that was the challenge facing Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn at the end of 1985. They wanted to reproduce the formula that led them to win the AL West in 1983.
1986 is known throughout the Sox Universe as “the year Hawk ran the ball club into the ground.” In hindsight, it’s one of those classic blunders, like the uniforms with the shorts. At the time, it was a baseball curiosity.
The Super Bowl bound Bears were on the cover of the January 20, 1986 Sports Illustrated. But the big story was about Hawk.
Back in August, the Pale Hose were floundering. Their principal owners, Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn, felt a change was in order, so they consulted with their friend the Hawk. He thought about it, and prepared three sheets of paper for them. On the first sheet were the names of people he would hire and reassign if the White Sox wanted to make small changes. On the second sheet were the personnel he would recommend for a major overhaul. “He asked us if we wanted the conservative or the radical plan,” says Einhorn. “Jerry’s usually a little more conservative, but he and I agreed. We wanted the radical.”
He jettisoned most of the minor league coaches and managers and half the scouts. He brought in some of his favorite people. Alvin Dark, his former manager in both K.C. and Cleveland, is his minor league director. He lured scout Ellis Clary away from the Twins organization, for which Clary had worked for 40 years. Harrelson has just signed on the Big D (broadcasting partner Don Drysdale) as his pitching consultant.
In fact, Hawk had a coach for everyone:
The White Sox will have three pitching coaches on the major league level: Holdover Dave Duncan will handle the starters; the legendary Moe Drabowsky will tutor the relievers; and Drysdale will teach all of them chin-music appreciation. “Hell, we’re going to have to bring in tackling dummies in spring training to stand up to our pitchers once Drysdale gets through with them,” says Harrelson.
He wanted not only two full-time pitching coaches but also two full-time hitting coaches—one for the singles hitters and one for the power hitters. “Actually, we were planning one each for lefthanded singles hitters, lefthanded power hitters, righthanded singles hitters and righthanded power hitters,” says manager Tony La Russa, who’s been watching all these goings-on with a mixture of bemusement and admiration. For now, however, the White Sox will have only one hitting coach, Willie Horton.
Among the other people Harrelson has hired to coach are Dick Allen, Rico Petrocelli, Tom Haller, Bob Bailey, Dick Bosman, Chuck Hartenstein, Bob Bolin, Jose Cardenal, Buzz Capra, Doug Rader, Herman Franks and Jim Marshall. There are some dinosaurs (Herman Franks?) and certifiable loonies in there, but Harrelson swears by them.
SI portrayed Hawk as a flamboyant, freewheeling baseball character. The horror stories didn’t come out until September.
As Bob Verdi wrote in the Tribune:
Shortly after his appointment last October, Harrelson called a meeting of White Sox administrative staffers, presumably to welcome them, introduce himself and so on. Instead, the Hawk warned of leaks and other disloyal acts, threatening even secretaries with dismissal. The troops, many of whom had nothing to do with the game`s inner workings, were shaken.
The “radical plan” didn’t work. People liked former GM Roland Hemond. People also liked manager Tony LaRussa. Tony, obviously, was not happy about losing his authority over baseball decisions. Eventually, they reached a public “truce.” He was “fine” with putting Carlton Fisk in left field. He was also fine with replacing Fisk behind the dish with Joel Skinner.
The plan, as we know, didn’t work. By May 7th, the Sox were 7-18. The “coaches” were banished to the minors in May. But, the Hawk was already looking at Plan B. Billy Martin.
Writers had a field day. Even Mike Royko got in on the act:
“I say the Sox should hire Billy Martin. He`ll probably make the team play better. Even today`s millionaire ball players will be less likely to shirk their duties if they think that the manager might hit them on the head with a bourbon bottle. And there`s something else. It`s never made sense to me that when there`s a full house in Comiskey Park, the manager and the players should be the only ones who could pass a breath test.”
It was a public flirtation, that ended when Jerry Reinsdorf came to the conclusion that Billy’s agent was a slimeball. But Tony was hung out to dry. Jerome Holtzman wondered why Hawk went public with the plan in the first place:
In tandem with club chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, Harrelson tipped his mitt and revealed they were in pursuit of Martin as a possible replacement for manager Tony LaRussa. Five minutes with Martin`s agent was enough for Reinsdorf. Another headline read “SOX NIX BILLY,“ with LaRussa, poor fellow, being described as “twisting in the wind.“
Fortunately for Tony, the Sox went on a run, going 10-2 between May 7th and May 21st. On May 11th, the college of coaches were reassigned. As the Tribune reported:
LaRussa got his way Thursday when two Harrelson-hired coaches, hitting instructor Willie Horton and reliever coach Moe Drabowsky, were reassigned to unspecified duties within the organization. Third-base coach Doug Rader will be the only hitting coach. Joe Nossek, who was working as an advance scout, will take over Rader`s duties at third. Art Kusyner will remain the bullpen coach, working with the relievers. Dave Duncan will be the sole pitching coach, although he will have some input from announcer Don Drysdale as a pitching consultant.
But the hot streak ended, and the team stumbled through the end of May and into June. One June 20, Hawk told Tony it was time to go.
Holtzman blamed Tony for being stubborn:
Once the Sox began cooling off, the internal struggle resumed. Harrelson fired Dave Dombrowski, his assistant, not because of “a difference in philosophy“ as reported, but because Dombrowski–who had been hired by Hemond –had refused to budge from LaRussa`s camp. Later, pitching coach Dave Duncan, another LaRussa man, criticized the front office for allowing a news leak that Tom Seaver might be traded to the Yankees. Duncan wasn`t aiming for Reinsdorf and Einhorn; Harrelson was his target. LaRussa had more than ample opportunity to close the breach. Why he refused is anybody`s guess. Perhaps he had the notion that he was more than a field manager, that he was Harrelson`s equal, a co-general manager. Or he was convinced, win or lose, the Hawk eventually would dump him. Whatever, LaRussa will have to face the facts of life. At his next stop and the stop after that, he will have a boss. Unless he buys the club.
The Sox pulled the pin, officially, on July 31st. Ron Kittle, Wayne Tolleson, and Joel Skinner went to New York for Carlos Martinez. Bobby Bonilla was traded to Pittsburgh for Jose DeLeon (when Pirates manager Jim Leyland told DeLeon that he needed to learn how to pitch inside, he said “I’ve been traded to Houston?”). Tom Seaver finally got his wish, and was traded to Boston for Steve Lyons.
Hawk resigned in late September. The obituaries weren’t kind. Jerome Holtzman delivered a backhanded compliment:
Ken Harrelson isn`t a hawk. He is–or was–a babe, a naive man-child with an uncontrollable urge to tell the truth. Unable to keep his plans secret, he was constantly telegraphing his next move. Eager for news, sportswriters made the next edition with Harrelson`s proposals and predictions of impending events. If the deal fizzled they had another story knocking Harrelson for failing to deliver.
Bob Verdi described a GM whose desk was covered in cartons of cigarettes:
As Harrelson talked Friday, a storm raged outside Comiskey Park, and the lights flickered in his office. What a fitting conclusion to his reign as executive vice president-baseball operations for the White Sox. It was as tumultuous as it was brief, and, what`s most galling to those searching for some order out of the disorder, an immediate report card is not forthcoming. Harrelson did take a swing at grading himself, moments after he announced his resignation. The Hawk gave the Hawk high marks in baseball, but a D-minus in diplomacy. There can be little doubt about the latter, and it`s only another curious twist in Chicago`s twilight zone of a summer that a man so championed as a people person failed in elementary communications.
The Hawk who inhabited the front office was the same as the Hawk who lives in the broadcast booth. That July, the Tribune reported he was not happy about next year’s schedule:
They had asked to be play their first-week games in a warmer city or in Seattle or Minneapolis, both of which have domed stadiums. “It`s not for sure yet,“ said operations chief Ken Harrelson. “We have some complaining left to do. The league knows how I feel about it. It stinks. We`re going to complain hard.“The Sox froze through April at home and on the East Coast this year. They didn`t get to play in the domes until mid-June, when a roof was not needed. The cold weather definitely had an effect on the hitters. “It makes it harder to get your timing down,“ Harrelson said. “You never get a chance to get started.“
The drama of ’86 didn’t end when Hawk resigned. Two months later, the people of Addison had to vote on whether they wanted a new Comiskey Park in their town. (I did a story about the referendum this week. Listenhere). Once that was rejected, the ballpark fight began.
So the next time you read about Kenny Williams making some boneheaded baseball move, it could always be worse.It could be Kenny Harrelson.