Tolerating the Hawk Harrelsons of baseball

April 1987 marked the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier. On April 6 of that year, the ABC program “Nightline” had on baseball author Roger Kahn and the Dodgers executive who signed Robinson, Al Campanis as guests. At first, it went smoothly, with Kahn noting that his late friend Robinson might be dismayed that the majors at that time had no black managers, general managers or owners. Koppel asked Campanis, by now vice president and general manager of the Dodgers, why there was still so much prejudice in the game.

“No, I don’t believe it’s prejudice,” Campanis said, via a video feed from the Astrodome where his Dodgers had just lost. “I truly believe that they may not have some of the necessities to be a– let’s say, a field manager, or perhaps a general manager.”

“Do you really believe that?” Koppel said.

“Well, I don’t say all of them, but they certainly are short,” Campanis said. “How many quarterbacks do you have? How many pitchers do you have that are black?”

Kahn wrote years later that Campanis’s voice was thick as he spoke, suggesting he may have been drinking.

“I’ve got to tell you that that sounds like the same kind of garbage we were hearing forty years ago about players, when they were saying, ‘Ah, not really, not really cut out,'” Koppel said.  “Remember the days when you hit a black football player in the knees.  And you know, that really sounds like garbage, if you forgive me saying so.”

Campanis countered that he’d played with blacks in college, saying he didn’t know the difference in their skin color. He added that he hadn’t known many black swimmers, due to what he termed a lack of “buoyancy.” Koppel gave Campanis “another chance to dig yourself out, because I think you need it.”

“I have never said that blacks are not intelligent,” Campanis said. “I think that many of them are highly intelligent.  But they may not have the desire to be in the front office.  I know that they have wanted to manage, and many of them have managed.  But they’re outstanding athletes, very God-gifted, and they’re wonderful people, and that’s all that I can tell you about them.

The fallout for Campanis, the Dodgers and baseball was immediate and severe, with Campanis being forced to resign within 24 hours of the appearance, his career effectively over. Commissioner Peter Ueberroth hired Dr. Harry Edwards, a sociologist and founder of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, as his assistant for minority affairs; in time, it helped spur an increase in minority hiring for front office and managerial positions. Campanis, who publicly apologized after the incident, calling it “the lowest day of my career,” reached out to Edwards early in his tenure, asking if there was anything he could do to help.

“We’re going to have to deal with the Campanises in baseball,” Edwards said, “And it’s good that I have a person in-house who knows how they think.”

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I was reminded of all this after an appearance Thursday by former player and current Chicago White Sox broadcaster Ken “Hawk” Harrelson on MLB Network. To the uninitiated, Harrelson is known on-air for unabashed support of the White Sox and the occasional display of emotional pyrotechnics when a call goes against Chicago. He has little use for sabermetrics. A few weeks ago during a game, he called sabermetrics the most overrated addition to baseball in the past 10-15 years. Harrelson’s remarks naturally stirred some response, first an outcry via social media and then an on-air rebuke by MLB Network broadcaster Brian Kenny, a proponent of sabermetrics. This led to Thursday’s segment, hyped as a debate between Harrelson and Kenny. (Anyone who’d like to watch the full 10-minute clip can find it here.)

To call the segment a debate is admittedly a stretch. It mostly consisted of Harrelson rattling off talking points with a flustered Kenny attempting to reason with him to no avail. I feel for Kenny. One of my biggest frustrations in debate is dealing with someone who cannot or will not listen to me and won’t acknowledge any validity in my points. It’s disrespectful, counterproductive and, of course, all too common. Hawk Harrelson talks baseball the way some of my older family members talk politics. There’s little hope in changing their views, but I’ve learned I can be respectful, listen and voice my beliefs. Occasionally, I even hear a thing or two that causes me to question my views. I think that’s healthy.

Throughout the debate, Harrelson demonstrated only a passing acquaintance with sabermetrics. He slammed the film “Moneyball” before conceding, upon prodding from Kenny, that he hadn’t read the book. He trotted out stats like ‘OBPS’ (a misspeak of OPS, I think) and VORP, which hasn’t been in regular use in baseball analysis in several years. Harrelson reaffirmed his claim about sabermetrics being overrated, saying that numbers had a place in the game but were 50-60 years from being ready, an interesting statement given that sabermetrics has been in baseball going as far back at least as the 1950s. Then Harrelson introduced a stat he called tWtW– The Will To Win– saying that when it could be incorporated into other advanced metrics “then you might have something.” When I first heard reference on Twitter to tWtW, I assumed Harrelson spoke tongue-in-cheek. He offered it without flinching.

Much of Harrelson’s screed came off half-cocked and self-righteously ignorant, though he said a few things I agreed with. At one point, he referred to Kenny’s broadcast partner, former Seattle Mariners second baseman Harold Reynolds who, in sabermetric terms, had -1.8 Wins Above Average in his 12-season career.

Harrelson told Reynolds and Kenny:

People 40 or 50 years from now look at Harold Reynolds’ numbers and say, ‘Okay, he was a pretty good player.’  Well, Harold was not a pretty good player. He was an outstanding player. Because he did things that you can’t put numbers on. Harold was the kind of the guy he would turn a double play when he knew he was gonna take a hit from guys like myself or Kirk Gibson, whoever, gonna knock him into left field. He’d get it over, turn it over and then take the hit. He’d also steal a base in the late innings of a ball game when everyone in the park knew he was gonna steal. He’d also make that diving stop of a ground ball going to his left to keep a man going from first to third.

I agree with Harrelson: Numbers don’t tell the whole story of what goes on in baseball. For me, the best use of sabermetrics is not as some omnipotent tool. It’s to confirm what’s seemingly apparent through visual observation or traditional statistics and to show where more cursory analysis might deceive. For me, sabermetrics is vital to my understanding of baseball, though I’d never use it solely in the absence of other tools.

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In sabermetric circles on the Internet, Harrelson has been largely and predictably panned since his appearance. Colin Wyers wrote for Baseball Prospectus:

Hawk is at least two kinds of extra special wrong. One is what Isaac Asimov described as “wronger than wrong,” where you’re clinging to outmoded beliefs and defending yourself by claiming that better ideas than yours are also incorrect and refusing to address your own deficiencies. Sabermetrics’ failure to be perfect is not a blanket justification to ignore all of it.

The other kind of extra special wrong Hawk stumbles into… is what Wolfgang Pauli called “not even wrong.” It’s when you make claims that can’t be refuted, and in doing so make claims that aren’t worth refuting. Hawk talks about “the will to win” (and believe me, he keeps repeating this) being the most important thing in baseball, and apparently it’s judged by how many wins you have. If you’ve won a lot, you had the will; if you didn’t, well, you didn’t.

People like Hawk will always roll out this line of thinking because it can’t be disproven, so they never reach a moment where they’re refuted and forced to actually quit. So what they never notice is that it’s also totally meaningless; you can only ever figure out who had the will to win after the fact, at which point it’s too late to do anything about it.

I get where the criticism of Harrelson comes from. He’s generally an easy target, given his on-air demeanor. For the most part in his MLB Network appearance, Harrelson was clearly and loudly wrong. But he’s also a sympathetic figure, given his age, status as an ex-player and the fact that, at least to me, there generally doesn’t seem to be malice behind his words, misguided as they sometimes are. Harrelson just comes across as someone who loves baseball and the White Sox and, flowery though this may sound, has his own way of expressing it. I worry that verbally eviscerating Harrelson is the wrong approach, over the top. I think it makes the sabermetric community look worse for wear, about as intolerant as Harrelson came off with Brian Kenny on Thursday. We can do better.

To me, the most telling moment of the MLB Network segment came when Harrelson remarked to Kenny that his main gripe with sabermetrics was that it had gotten people fired. He spoke of a scout he knew– “God rest his soul”– remarking about managers having to call up to press boxes late in the game to get permission to bunt. Kenny and Reynolds didn’t make much of this before moving onto other topics, understandable to a degree since it was a live television segment. If I had been interviewing Harrelson, though, I’d have zeroed in on this and asked more questions. There’s clearly more there. If I had to guess, I’d say Harrelson’s main gripe with sabermetrics is personal. I’d love the chance to listen to whatever Harrelson had to say and then offering as calmly and persuasively as I could what sabermetrics really is: nothing to be feared; something that already is making baseball better.

This is easier said than done, of course, but I believe it’s important to engage with the Hawk Harrelsons of baseball. Even as baseball has changed rapidly in recent years, as sabermetrics has gained rapid acceptance in front offices, there are still many men like Harrelson in the game. If and when they make poorly-conceived comments, I’d rather do my best to win them over to my side than publicly slam them. And who knows, maybe I’d learn a thing or two from them as well. I look at a man like Harrelson, who’s been in professional baseball in one form or another since 1959 and I marvel at all the stories he must have. While most of those stories have probably been told in-booth (and a few are collected in his SABR bio), the journalist and historian in me likes to think there’s always more, that I’m missing out if I dismiss someone out of hand. I prefer to build bridges, to be inclusive, to forgive.

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Al Campanis never got another job in baseball after his resignation from the Dodgers. He lived 11 more years, occasionally showing up at baseball functions, watching as his grandson Jim attempted, without fruition, to make the majors. Campanis died in 1998 at 81. ”His was a life full of love for the game and his family,” succeeding Dodgers general manager Fred Claire said after Campanis’s death. ”No one loved baseball more than Al loved the game. He was a great student of the game and a great teacher of the game.”

In April 2012, ESPN.com did a 25-year retrospective on Campanis’s remarks, talking to Dr. Harry Edwards among others.

“It wasn’t a simple case of Al being a bigot — to say he was just a bigot is simply wrong — people are more complex than that,” Edwards said. “To a certain extent, it was the culture Al was involved with. To a certain extent, it was a comfort with that culture. And at another level, it was a form of discourse he was embedded in.”

Baseball’s culture continues to change, to evolve for the better. For every Campanis or Harrelson still around, I like to think change is possible as well.

4 thoughts on “Tolerating the Hawk Harrelsons of baseball

  1. This essay is nicely analyzed and written with deep insight into the human condition. Change is part of life and needed if we are to continue moving forward to improve the lot of man. Yet how to change the negative prejudices of a culture into which we are trapped challenges each generation.

    Graham’s essay points out the embedded baseball culture which held blacks back for more than half a century and then, after letting Jackie Robinson enter the front door, continued to deny them full acceptance into the baseball community.

    Graham has pointed out again how much baseball really is a mirror of our life. The fascination the game holds on us may be due, at least in part, to our unconscious awareness that it is a metaphor for real life struggles that we endure every day of our life.

    I admire Graham’s work and applaud his style which allows us to journey back with him
    to learn from the past and make a better future.

    Gregg Volz

  2. Great post, Graham. I straddle the line between the saber world and the old school world. I try to understand as best I can. I appreciate stats that take ballpark factors into account, I get BABIP and FIP but I don’t particularly agree with WAR. That said, in following certain people who take a saber approach, I find many who use sabermetrics to justify their own personal biases for or against players. Thus, one pitcher is a victim of BABIP demons while another is just “eminently hittable”. I think sabermetrics is a great approach for players and coaches to discover ways to improve, as long as it isn’t the be-all and end-all of in-game strategy and that may be one of the points Harrelson is trying to make, albeit not too eloquently.

  3. Expressing skepticism about sabermetrics is not comparable to racism. Ken Harrelson may be old school, but what he’s old school about is nothing like systematically demeaning people because of their skin color.

    Ultimately, sabermetrics is not that important. It’s not worth getting upset about, one way or the other.

  4. @Robert — This isn’t to suggest that being racist and against sabermetrics are on the same level. The comparison I’m suggesting here is broader. As I see it, two members of baseball’s old guard made, in my opinion, poorly-conceived remarks on national television. I think it’s better to be tolerant than dismissive of these men.

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