Homer Happy: Ken Harrelson
“Free spirit” would be an understatement when describing Ken Harrelson. An All-Star talent combined with steel-like independence, Harrelson put up outstanding power hitting numbers at his best, and walked away from his playing career while still near its peak … because he felt like it.
Ken Harrelson led the league with 109 RBIs in 1968. His 35 home runs were third most in the American League, and he finished third in the race for MVP.
Harrelson was signed by the Kansas City Athletics in 1959 and made his debut in an A’s uniform four years later. In between, he tore up minor league pitching, hitting .301 at Visalia with 25 home runs and 114 RBIs in 1961, and then hitting 38 home runs with 138 RBIs at Binghampton in 1962. Against AAA pitching in 1964, Harrelson batted only .232 but also hit 18 home runs with 52 RBIs in 77 games before being called up to Kansas City.
His first full major league season came in 1965, when he led the Athletics with 23 home runs and 66 RBIs. He was traded to the Washington Senators in June of 1966, and was purchased back by the A’s a year later.
His second tour in Kansas City lasted only two months. When A’s owner Charles Finley fired manager Alvin Dark, Harrelson went public to protest Dark’s dismissal, calling Finley “a menace to baseball.” Finley released Harrelson outright, which turned out to be a career break for the outfielder. As a free agent, he signed a lucrative contract with the Boston Red Sox and was a key addition to Boston’s successful 1967 pennant drive, hitting three home runs with 14 RBIs down the stretch for the Red Sox.
After leading the American League with 109 RBIs in 1968, Ken Harrelson was traded by the Red Sox to the Indians in 1969. He retired two years later.
In 1968, Harrelson had his best season, hitting 35 home runs and leading the majors with 109 RBIs. He started well in 1969, but after ten games was traded surprisingly with pitchers Dick Ellsworth and Juan Pizarro to the Cleveland Indians for Joe Azcue, Vicente Romo and Sonny Siebert. He finished the 1969 season hitting 30 home runs with 92 RBIs playing for the team with the worst record in the American League.
During the following spring training, Harrelson suffered a broken leg while sliding into second base. He sat out most of the season with the injury, returning only for the final 17 games and hitting only one home run. When he returned for the 1971 campaign, he found Chris Chambliss firmly entrenched as the Indians’ first baseman with an outfielder’s glove awaiting him. He played in 52 games for the Tribe that season, hitting five home runs and driving in 14 runs, and then abruptly retired to pursue a career as a professional golfer.
In nine major league seasons, Harrelson hit 131 home runs while batting .239. He was an All-Star in 1968.