Classic Yankees: Ralph Houk

ralph-houk

He was known as the “Major,” and for good reason. He kept a helmet on his mantelpiece, a helmet with a bullet hole in it that if that bullet hole were say, ¼” lower, he would have been KIA in WWII.

An Army Ranger, Ralph Houk became a Major while serving at Bastogne and fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. He was awarded the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Silver Star with oak leaf clusters.

He was a leader of men, both in battle and on the baseball field. He was a player’s manager.

Unfortunately for Houk, his managerial career had two acts, a brilliant and brief first act, and a longer, more mediocre second act.

Ralph Houk was a third-string catcher for the Yankees, and when the first-string catcher was 3x MVP and Hall-of-Famer Yogi Berra, who just happened to be one of the best catchers ever, third-string meant THIRD-STRING. Heck, backup catcher Charlie Silvera didn’t get that much playing time.

As a result, Houk got into just 91 games in his MLB career, all of which lasted with the Yankees, from 1947 to 1954. Eight years, 91 games. You can do the math. It’s an average of just over eleven games a year. In 158 MLB AB, Houk hit .272, with no HR and 20 RBI. His OPS+ was a 79. He was part (albeit a small part) of six WC teams as a player.

He did get into two WS games, going 1 for 2.

He then coached the Yanks AAA affiliate in Denver from 1955-1957.

He returned to the Yanks as a coach in 1958, and got into a scuffle with pitcher Ryne Duren when a drunk Duren either (reports vary) smashed a lit cigar into Houk’s face or knocked it out of his hand in the pennant-winning celebration. Houk clocked Duren, opening a cut over Duren’s eye.

The “Major” was no one to mess with. As manager, Houk would often put on a show when ejected. It was a show worthy of a Billy Martin, Earl Weaver, Tommy LaSorda, Lou Piniella, etc. Had SportsCenter been around in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Houk’s tirades would have been frequently shown.

By the end of the 1950’s, Stengel was getting old. The Yankees slipped into third place in 1959, and only a long-winning streak at the end of the 1960 season guaranteed the Yanks the 1960 pennant. But then questionable decision-making (Ditmar for Ford in Game 1, Ford pitching only two games [both CG shutouts] instead of three) soured the brass on Stengel. Casey was 70. Meanwhile, Houk was in demand.

The front office decided to “retire” Casey and make Houk the manager for the 1961 season. As Casey put it, “No, I was not fired. I was paid up in full. Write anything you want. Quit, fired, whatever you please, I don’t care.” Also in that press conference, Casey said “I’ll never make the mistake of turning 70 again.”

Houk led the Yanks to a 109-53 record in his rookie managerial year, capping it off with the World Championship. 1961 was, of course, the year of Mantle & Maris. Houk did make a few very huge decisions, though.

He basically scrapped Stengel’s platoon system. Now that Gil McDougald had retired, he went with Richardson at 2B, Kubek at SS and Boyer at 3B, which turned out to be a fine defensive infield. He put Mantle behind Maris in the lineup. Casey did so, but Houk continued it, in order to “protect” Maris. Maris had no intentional walks in his 61 HR season as a result. Yogi continued his move to LF, and platooned with Hector Lopez. Elston Howard was now the full-time catcher, due to Yogi turning 36.

But most importantly, Whitey Ford now pitched every fourth day instead of being saved for certain teams. Prior to 1961, Ford pitched over 226 innings in a season just once. In 1961 he threw 283 innings and won the CYA. Ford was never a 20-game winner before. In 1961 he went 25-4, 3.21. Ford’s best two seasons, 1961 and 1963, were under Houk.
The Yankees repeated as WS Champs in 1962, and won a third consecutive pennant under Houk in 1963. Despite losing Mantle and Maris to the DL for a considerable amount of time in 1963, the Yanks still won 104 games. Houk couldn’t make it 3-for-3 however, since the Dodgers swept the Yanks in the 1963 WS.

After that series, Houk made, what in retrospect, could be considered a mistake. Roy Hamey retired as Yankees’ GM, and Houk was kicked upstairs. Houk preferred to remain a field guy, but took the GM job. Yogi Berra became manager.
But as 1964 progressed, Houk and the front office disagreed with Yogi’s managerial decisions. When the Phil Linz harmonica incident exploded, Houk, along with the owners, Topping and Webb, decided to dismiss Yogi after the season. It looked easy. After all, the Yanks were in third place, some six games back in mid-August.

But the Yanks rebounded to win the pennant. Meanwhile, in St. Louis, Johnny Keane was hearing rumors that he’d get bounced. His Cardinal team put on a late rally, helped by the famous “Philly Phold,” and like the Yankees, won their pennant by one game. The Cardinals beat the Yanks in the 1964 WS, four games to three. We know what happened next. Yogi was fired, Keane stuck it to his bosses by resigning, and the Yanks hired Keane. Shortly before this all happened, CBS bought the team from Topping and Webb … and the Yankees dynasty collapsed in 1965 when they finished sixth.

In 1966, Keane and the Yanks got off to a horrendous 4-16 start. Keane was fired, and Houk stepped down from the GM slot to once again become the Yanks’ manager.

Houk II was a longer term than Houk I, but far less successful. The farm system had dried up. Kubek was gone after 1965, Richardson and Maris after 1966, Ford retired in mid-1967, Howard was traded in 1967 and Mantle retired after 1968. There were some good players who came up, but there were not nearly as many superstars to keep the team any better than mediocre at best. Some young players the Yanks were counting on got injured and never regained the success they had in their early years (Tresh, Bouton). In 1966, the Yanks finished last. After winning 109 in 1961, 96 in 1962 and 104 in 1963 (2 WS and a pennant), Houk went 66-73 in 1966. In 1967 they finished 9th as Houk was forced to switch Mickey Mantle to 1B because of Mantle’s weak legs. From 1966 to 1973, only once (1970, when they won 93 games and Houk was Mgr. of the Year) did Houk’s clubs win more than 83 games or finish as high as second. Even when they did finish second, they were fifteen games back.

Houk may have been too much of a players’ manager, sticking with guys like Horace Clarke year after year. As a result, the CBS years are often ridiculed as the Horace Clarke years.

Houk had it easy, though. CBS wasn’t what was to come. They weren’t “The Boss.” Houk could ride on the success of Houk I for a while. No one, not CBS, Michael Burke, nor Lee MacPhail was going to can Houk, never mind the losing seasons of 1966, 1967 and 1969, or the barely over .500 seasons of 1968, 1971 or 1972.

But the natives were getting restless. George Steinbrenner, the “Boss”, took over in 1973. Houk wasn’t used to an owner criticizing his moves or telling him to order his players to get a haircut.

Even worse, the fans were getting on Houk.

In 1972, the Yanks were 74-64, in second place, ½ a game out of first, after the games of September 12th. They finished 5-12 to finish fourth at 79-76.

The next year was the final year of the Old Stadium. They were only 20-20 after 40 games, but went 40-30 in their next 70 games to sit 60-50 and tied for first place after the games of August 2nd. Then they collapsed, finishing 20-32 to finish fourth, 17 games out.

During that collapse, the fans booed Houk whenever he came out of the dugout. In the final game of the season, the last game at the original Yankee Stadium, the fans let him have it. Fritz Peterson, the pitcher Houk came out to relieve, said it was like having your own father being booed right in front of you.

After the game, while fans were beating the construction company to tearing apart the Old Stadium, Ralph Houk resigned.

Houk went to the Detroit Tigers, and managed them from 1974-1978. His only winning season there was his last one.
After a couple years out of baseball, he managed the Red Sox from 1981-1984.He almost led the Red Sox into the 1981 postseason when they finished second in the second-half of that strike-torn season. Other than that, he didn’t finish higher than 3rd. He had winning seasons in every year for Boston except for 1983, when he was managing Boston on that 4th of July while Dave Righetti was throwing his no-hitter.

As for full-time seasons, only once after coming back as manager (1970) did Houk finish as high as second from 1966-1978, 1981-1984.

Houk won 1619 games as a manager from 1961-1963, 1966-1978, and 1981-1984. His last team finished 4th, 86-76. He lost 1531 games for a pct. of .514, which equates to an 83-79 season, one reason Houk isn’t in the HOF, despite him being currently 16th all-time among wins as a manager. Nine of the fifteen managers who have more wins than Houk are in the HOF, and it’s safe to presume that Tony LaRussa, Bobby Cox, Joe Torre and perhaps Jim Leyland could make the Hall.

That would leave just Gene Mauch and Lou Piniella as non-Hall-of Fame managers with more wins than Houk.

You wonder, had Houk stayed and been able to put up with Steinbrenner, what he could have done in the late 1970s once the Yanks came back (with the help of free agency). Maybe the team needed Billy’s boldness and brashness over the relaxed managerial style of Houk. Martin made moves Houk never would have made. But Houk, being a players’ manager, probably wouldn’t have allowed the Bronx Zoo to happen (save for the Peterson/Kekich wife swap, which no doubt shocked Houk as well). Things may have been more calm and complacent. But you wonder if it would have been too calm and complacent.

It is worth noting that Billy Martin took the Yanks to two WS and won one. Billy II, III, IV and V yielded no playoff appearances. It’s also worth noting that Martin, although never a great player, was a clutch player in the WS, winning the WS MVP in 1953 while Houk almost never played.

But it’s also worth noting that Houk took the Yanks to more WS and won more titles than Martin did. Martin’s #1 is retired. Never has it been considered to retire Houk’s #35, nor should it.

But honoring Houk with a plaque on the wall to recognize his 1961-1963 achievements? I wouldn’t mind that. Give the man his due.

Houk returned a favor to the MacPhail family after leaving the managerial office. While Lee MacPhail was Houk’s GM in the late 1960’s/early 1970’s, Houk served as a special advisor to Lee’s son Andy when Andy was GM of the Twins. It was while Houk was in this role that the Twins won the 1987 WS. After 1989, Houk left baseball.

Less than two weeks after the deaths of PA announcer Bob Sheppard and owner George Steinbrenner, Houk died at age 90 in July of 2010. Just nineteen days before turning 91, he was, at the time, the oldest living manager of a World Series-winning, pennant-winning or post-season team.

(My thanks to Wikipedia and Marty Appel’s Pinstripe Empire book for some information, as well as BaseballReference.com)

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4 Responses to Classic Yankees: Ralph Houk

  1. Mike Sommer says:

    I should point out that Boyer was gone after 1966, too.

  2. ldubinsky says:

    he was a Major, but loolks a lot like a General in that picture.

    http://www.movieactors.com/photos-stars/sterling-

  3. ldubinsky says:

    he was a Major, but loolks a lot like a General in that picture.

    http://www.movieactors.com/photos-stars/sterling-

  4. Matt_DC says:

    At my church when I was a kid a lady from Boston gave me a Houk autographed baseball. I only knew him from baseball cards as a Red Sox manager (why would I want a Red Sox baseball?). She told me she thought of him as a Yankees manager and that's why she gave me the ball. I asked Grandpa and he spoke of Houk with respect. I still have it. Great work, Mike.