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Ralph Houk
Catcher / Manager
Born: August 9, 1919 (1919-08-09) (age 90)
Lawrence, Kansas
Batted: Right Threw: Right 
MLB debut
April 26, 1947 for the New York Yankees
Last MLB appearance
May 1, 1954 for the New York Yankees
Career statistics
Batting average     .272
Hits     43
RBI     20
Teams

As Player

As Manager

Career highlights and awards

Ralph George Houk (born August 9, 1919 in Lawrence, Kansas), nicknamed "The Major," is a former catcher, coach, manager, and front office executive in Major League Baseball. He is best known as the successor of Casey Stengel as the manager of the New York Yankees from 1961-63, when he won three consecutive American League pennants and the 1961-62 World Series championships.

Contents

Playing career

Houk was a catcher working his way through the Yankees' farm system when the U.S. entered World War II. He enlisted in the armed forces, became an Army Ranger, and received a battlefield commission, rising from private to major. He was a combat veteran of Bastogne and the Battle of the Bulge, and was awarded the Silver Star, Purple Heart and Bronze Star. Returning to baseball after the war, Houk eventually reached the major leagues, serving as the Yankees' second- and third-string catcher behind Yogi Berra. A right-handed hitter, Houk appeared in only 91 games over eight seasons (1947-54), finishing with a batting average of .272. Although the Yankees participated in six World Series during that period, Houk had only two Series at-bats (one in 1947, the other in 1952), batting .500.

Coaching career

Houk's last years as an active player were actually spent as the Yankees' full-time bullpen coach, thus beginning his managerial apprenticeship. In 1955, he was named manager of the Yanks' AAA affiliate, the Denver Bears of the American Association. Following three highly successful seasons at Denver, Houk returned to the Bronx as Stengel's first-base coach from 1958-60. From late May through early June 1960, Houk served as acting manager of the Yanks for 13 games while Stengel, 70, was sidelined by illness. (The team won 7 and lost 6.) Then, after the Yanks lost the 1960 World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates — and with Houk one of the hottest managerial candidates in baseball — the Yankees "discharged" Stengel (to use Stengel's own words) and promoted Houk.

A player's manager

Houk was known as a "player's manager" — albeit one with a fearsome temper. Tommy Lasorda, a Baseball Hall of Fame manager, briefly played for Houk at Denver (one of Lasorda's rare stints outside the Dodger organization) and called Houk the best handler of men he ever played for, and modeled his managerial style on him.[1] On the other hand, the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame, of which Houk is a member, describes Houk as "rough, blunt and decisive" and his famous cap-throwing and -kicking tantrums in arguments with umpires earned him 45 ejections as a manager in the majors. In 2007, Houk was tied with another former Yankee pilot, Billy Martin, for fourteenth place on baseball's "most ejected" list.[2]

He was a breath of fresh air after the distant and sarcastic Stengel, and the early 1960s Yankees responded to his leadership. His 1961 team led by Roger Maris (61 home runs), Mickey Mantle (54 homers) and Whitey Ford (25 victories) won 109 games and thrashed the Cincinnati Reds in five games in the World Series. His 1962 club won 96 games and the pennant and outlasted the San Francisco Giants in a thrilling Fall Classic. In 1963, the Yanks won 104 games and rolled to the pennant, but were ignominiously swept in four games by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Series.

In the Yankees front office

That winter, Houk moved into the Yankees' front office as general manager, replacing Roy Hamey, and Berra, at the end of his brilliant playing career, became the Yanks' new manager. Yogi would win the 1964 pennant after a summer-long struggle with the Baltimore Orioles and Chicago White Sox, but Houk and the Yankee ownership quickly became disenchanted with Berra's work and in mid-season they made up their mind to fire him. After Berra's seven-game loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1964 World Series, Houk sacked the Yankee legend.

Ironically, to succeed Berra, he then hired Johnny Keane, who had just resigned as manager of the champion Cardinals. Houk had admired Keane as a competitor in the American Association from almost a decade before; according to author David Halberstam, the Yankees had made overtures to Keane during the 1964 regular season about becoming their manager for 1965.[3] But the great postwar Yankee dynasty was aged and crumbling, the farm system had seriously deteriorated, and the Kansas City Athletics were no longer a reliable source for Major League talent. Keane, a longtime minor league manager, was better suited by temperament for managing young players than established and aging superstars, and his hiring was a failure. The team fell to sixth in 1965 and had won only four of the first 20 games of 1966 when, on May 7, Houk fired Keane and named himself manager.

Back to the bench

Houk, eventually succeeded as general manager by Lee MacPhail, then began a second, and far less successful, term as Yankee manager, finishing the 1966 season. Its talent and farm system both depleted, the Yankees finished in last place for the first time since 1912. A long rebuilding process would follow, which included Bobby Richardson's retirement (longtime roommate Tony Kubek had retired with a bad back after the 1965 season) and the trading of both Maris and Clete Boyer.

Houk would continue to manage the Yankees from 1967-1973. His best season was 1970, when the Yanks won 93 games, but finished 15 games behind the eventual World Series Champion Baltimore Orioles. He worked for George Steinbrenner for one season, in 1973, and was the Bombers' manager during their final game in 1973 at the "original" Yankee Stadium prior to its closure for two seasons for needed renovations.

Right after the final game of 1973, he announced his resignation as manager. While Steinbrenner's commanding style has led some to think the new owner influenced his retirement, he told Bill Madden of the New York Daily News it was the constant booing of Yankee fans that pushed him. Houk even said that Steinbrenner insisted he'd get some new players to restore the team's greatness. "And he did, bringing in Catfish and Reggie, " Houk told Madden in the sportswriter's book Pride of October. "That'll make you good in a hurry!"

After Houk left the Yankee organization, he became the manager of the rebuilding Detroit Tigers. His 1975 team lost 102 games, but the 1976 Tigers improved their record by 14 games behind the heroics of rookie pitcher Mark Fidrych, who won 19 games and hurled 250⅓ innings while becoming a national sensation. By 1978, Houk had restored Detroit to respectability and its first winning record since 1973, bringing to the majors future stars of the Sparky Anderson Tigers such as Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell and Jack Morris. After an 86-76 season, Houk retired.

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Boston Red Sox

Since the late 1950s, Houk and the Boston Red Sox, the Yankees' arch-rivals, had flirted over their manager's job. After two years of retirement, in the autumn of 1980, Houk (at 61) was ready to get back into baseball and when the Red Sox called about their open managerial post (they had fired Don Zimmer), he jumped at the chance.

Although not as daunting as his Detroit assignment, Houk faced another rebuilding job: the powerful Boston team of the 1970s was about to lose marquee players such as Carlton Fisk and Fred Lynn and needed to retool its roster. But Houk rose to the challenge, and in four seasons produced three over-.500 teams. On his watch, Boston broke in young players such as Wade Boggs, Roger Clemens, Bruce Hurst and Marty Barrett. When Houk retired from managing permanently in October 1984, just after his 65th birthday, he bequeathed the core of another pennant winning ballclub (in this case, the 1986 Red Sox) to his successor, John McNamara.

His final record, over 20 years with the Yankees (1961-63, 1966-73), Tigers (1974-78) and Red Sox (1981-84) was 1,619 wins and 1,531 losses (.514), plus eight wins and eight losses in the World Series. After his first three championship seasons, he never appeared in the postseason.

Late career

Houk served in the front office of the Minnesota Twins under Andy MacPhail, Lee's son, from 1986-89 before quitting the game for good. He thus enjoyed one additional world championship season, when the Twins defeated the Cardinals in the 1987 World Series.

Colorful opinions about Houk can be found in Jim Bouton's classic 1970 memoir, Ball Four. Houk was Bouton's first major league manager and sparred with him over contracts when Houk was the Yankees' GM.

As of 2009, Houk is the oldest living manager of a World Series-winning, pennant-winning or post-season team.

External links

See also

References

  1. ^ Lasorda, Tom, and Plaschke, Bill, I Live for This: Baseball's Last True Believer. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2007. PP. 84-85.
  2. ^ ESPN - Cox's favorite tune: Take me out of the ballgame! - MLB
  3. ^ Halberstam, David, October 1964. New York: Random House, 1994
Preceded by
Casey Stengel
New York Yankees Manager
1961-1963
Succeeded by
Yogi Berra
Preceded by
Roy Hamey
New York Yankees General Manager
19631966
Succeeded by
Dan Topping, Jr.
Preceded by
Johnny Keane
New York Yankees Manager
1966-1973
Succeeded by
Bill Virdon
Preceded by
Joe Schultz
Detroit Tigers Manager
1974-1978
Succeeded by
Les Moss
Preceded by
Johnny Pesky
Boston Red Sox manager
1981–1984
Succeeded by
John McNamara

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