On August 21, 1967, Ken “Hawk” Harrelson of the Kansas City A’s becomes baseball’s first free agent when he is “fired” by team owner Charlie Finley. Harrelson had drawn the wrath of Finley by allegedly referring to him as a “menace” to baseball. Remaining unemployed for only a few days, Harrelson will sign on with the Boston Red Sox, becoming a part of their “Impossible Dream” pennant-winning team.
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.
Hawk’s unexpected open-market arrival in August 1967 detonated a slowly erupting time bomb that would change baseball forever.