Ralph Houk died yesterday, just short of his 91st birthday. Born on August 9, 1919 in Lawrence, the seat of the University of Kansas, he fought at the Battle of the Bulge, winning the Purple Heart, Silver Star and Bronze Star, rising to the rank of Major in the U.S. Army. Then he reached the major leagues, as a backup catcher to Yogi Berra. Sad to say, the Yankees' integration, adding Elston Howard, meant the end of his playing career.
But it was the start of an amazing managerial career. He became a Yankee coach, and in 1957 managed the Denver Bears to the championship of Triple-A baseball. By 1960, he was back with the Yankees as a coach, and filled in for Casey Stengel while the Ol' Perfesser was sick for 2 weeks.
After the 1960 season, with expansion coming to the major leagues and with other managerial positions opening, Yankee management, led by co-owners Dan Topping and Del Webb, knew the chance of losing Houk to another team was pretty good. And they were determined to fire the 70-year-old Casey anyway, regardless of having just won his 10th Pennant in 12 years.
This was one of many examples of Yankee management really messing up how they ended a relationship with personnel... and George Steinbrenner was still 12 years away from buying the team. Eventually, with a change in management, Casey was able to reconcile with the team.
Houk became manager in 1961, and made the kind of changes that were a relief to some players. In the absence of an official captain (the elimination of the post following the retirement of Lou Gehrig was still in effect), he told Mickey Mantle he would be the team's leader -- ahead of Houk's former career-blocker, Yogi Berra. Yogi didn't seem to mind, and Mickey took to the role.
Houk also started batting Mickey 4th a lot more, as opposed to his bouncing up and down in the order from 3rd to 4th to 5th -- something that would drive Reggie Jackson crazy under Billy Martin, although I don't think Casey ever dropped Mickey to 6th like Billy did to Reggie.
And finally, Houk told Whitey Ford no more of this being moved up or held back a day to face a tougher opponent: You're pitching every 4th day, no matter who we play. Whitey loved it, and responded with the best season of his career. In fact, the only 2 times Whitey ever won 20 games in a season, it was 25 in 1961 and 24 in '63 -- both under Houk.
The Chairman and the Major
The Yankees won 109 games in 1961, and Roger Maris hit 61 home runs to set a new record that, truthfully, still stands. The New York media drove Roger crazy, and Houk did his best to protect him. Succeeding Casey and protecting Roger both took a different kind of courage than liberating Western Europe from the Nazis. At least some of the Maris-haters admitted they were wrong, though it too some of them 25 years. (New York Post writer Maury Allen was one of the first to admit that they went too far, and later wrote an admiring biography titled Roger Maris: A Man For All Seasons; but some, like earlier Post legend Jimmy Cannon, went to their graves considering Maris unworthy of the record.)
The Yankees won the World Series over the Cincinnati Reds in 1961, beat the San Francisco Giants in the 1962 Series, and won a 3rd straight Pennant in 1963, but were swept in the Series by the Los Angeles Dodgers.
After the 1963 season, Houk was kicked upstairs and made general manager, and Yogi was made field manager. But Houk was forced to change: Where he had been a "players' manager," he was now management's man, whose job in those days of the reserve clause was to hold salaries down, no matter how good a year a player might have had. This caused a rift between him and some of the players.
Yogi was fired after the 1964 World Series, and replacement Johnny Keane turned out to be a disaster. Age and injury caught up with the Yankees, and there were hardly any prospects left in the Yankee farm system -- essentially, it was Bobby Murcer, Mel Stottlemyre, Roy White, and 25 guys named Steve Whitaker. Houk was handed back the managerial reins in 1966, but no jockey can win a race without a good horse, and he had hardly any success.
He did get the Yankees to 2nd place in 1970, but 93 wins -- more than the Yankees had in their Pennant-winning seasons of 1926, 1958, 1996 and 2000 (and also the strike-shortened Pennant season of 1981) -- were not nearly enough in a season when the Baltimore Orioles won 108. He got the Yankees into Pennant races in 1972 and 1973, the last year of the feckless CBS regime and the 1st year of the Steinbrenner ownership, but both times the Yankees fell apart late in the summer and finished nowhere near first place. After just one season of dealing with Steinbrenner, Houk resigned.
He became manager of the Detroit Tigers, and as his former stand-in-the-way, Yogi, would have said, it must have been deja vu all over again. The Tigers had won the World Series under Mayo Smith in 1968 and the American League East under Billy Martin in 1972, but were now old. Al Kaline was in his final season, Bill Freehan and Mickey Lolich were getting old too, and in 1975 the Tigers had the worst season in their history until the 1990s.
Because I came up in the late Seventies, I only knew Houk as an opposing manager, in Detroit and Boston. But I knew what he'd done for the team, and what he'd tried to do. And I did once see him in a Yankee uniform arguing with an umpire... in an Old-Timers' Day game!
Ralph, Yogi and Whitey
It was all for laughs, as this was not exactly in line with his personality. He was tough, but usually calm, and this kept his "troops" calm. He was an ideal military officer, and a very good manager when management got him the right players.
At ease, Major. And thank you, for what you did, in both khaki and Pinstripes.