Thursday, August 15, 2013

#578 - Ralph Houk

For this post we have a sort of one-off card for this set. Ralph Houk gets the only solo manager card as every other manager was joined by at least some of his support staff. So what was Ralph’s deal? The explanation is told by his wardrobe. Ralph is photographed near the batting cages at Yankee Stadium, home field for his employers at the time of the photo. After the ’73 season Ralph resigned with two years left on his contract. NY had been picked by many to win the division but though the team had some early hot hitters – especially Ron Blomberg and his .400 average – the starting pitching sort of combusted outside of Doc Medich and mid-year acquisition Pat Dobson. But ’73 was also the year the Yankees got acquired by a group of which a certain George Steinbrenner was a member. And my bet is that a year under the helm of that guy was enough to propel Ralph elsewhere. And while at his resignation media meeting he declaimed any interest in a new managerial post, within a couple months he was named the new Detroit manager, ironically following, for the most part, a guy who would later be following him, for the most part, as the leader of his old team, Billy Martin. And Ralph hadn’t filled out his coaching staff yet so hence the solo shot with an air-brushed cap. The artist left alone the pinstripes – maybe he’d hoped Detroit would just head in that direction – so it’s a pretty odd look. And the Tigers would give him a couple seasons that probably made him wistful for those NY years (talk about a lack of pitching!) before he helped steer the franchise to its own glory year a bit down the road. For now, though, he was just a new guy on a new team, with a head full of vagaries that normally were encountered. Which is exactly the way he looks.

Ralph Houk came out of Stull, Kansas, where he was a high school football and baseball player at Lawrence High School and was signed by the Yankees in ‘39 after a year of semi-pro ball. He put in a full season of D ball that year where he hit .286 but with little power. He moved up the chain, hitting .313 in C ball in ’40 and then .271 in B ball before a couple games in A ball and then enlisting late that summer as an Army Ranger. He would climb there as well, reaching the level of Major – his nickname when he returned to baseball - before he was through and earning a Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, and the Silver Star for combat that included the Battle of the Bulge. He returned stateside and to baseball in ’46, where he hit well in both Double A and Triple A, combining for a .298 average. In ’47 he made his debut for NY, hitting .272 in 92 at bats. It would be his busiest season as he would generally be the third-string catcher behind Yogi Berra and Charlie Silvera. But his timing was pretty excellent as he was around for six Series wins during his eight seasons in NY and he would hit a respectable .272 in just 158 at bats over that span and hit .500 in his couple Series at bats. He continued to do some Triple A time as well, hitting .302 in ’48 and .275 in ’49. After his final season up top in ’54 he became a manager in the NY system, going a combined 260-202 in three years at Triple A Denver. He then came up to be a Yankees coach under Casey Stengel from ’58 to ’60 before being named as Casey’s successor in ’61. Again, The Major’s timing was exquisite as he took NY to the Series each of his three seasons, winning it all in ’61 and ’62. In '63 he was named AL Manager of the Year. Prior to the ’64 season he moved up to the GM spot as the guy he was behind most of his playing career, Yogi Berra, took over as manager. Yogi got his aging guys back to the Series, but after a tough loss to the younger Cardinals was canned and replaced with the guy who beat him, Johnny Keane. But Keane had a miserable time overseeing a rapid demise and a few games into the ’66 season he was replaced by Ralph, who this time around would run things through ’73 and did a pretty good job with the staff he had. He would finish as high as second in ’70 - his second MOY season - and overall during that second run finished above .500 with an under .500 team.

In ’74 and ’75 Houk got to experience what Johnny Keane did in ’65 and ’66 with the Yankees as Detroit aged super fast, its success on the field suffered mightily, and by ’76 the team had only three starters left from the ’73 team. The infield went first, then the pitching, and then the outfield. After bottoming out at 102 losses in ’75 the team improved by 15 wins in ’76 due to a great trade (Rusty Staub for Mickey Lolich); the continued ascendancy of Ron LeFlore; and a rookie named Mark Fidrych. But the Bird really only lasted one season as his arm got hurt and Detroit pretty much preserved its record in ’77 before improving to 86-76 in ’78. Ralph retired following that season, leaving a pretty good nucleus for his successor, Sparky Anderson, to build into a Series winner. After a couple seasons off, Ralph returned to managing in ’81, this time for Boston. While the Sox weren’t as depleted as either the late-Sixties Yankees or the ’74 Tigers, the team had recently lost Carlton Fisk and Fred Lynn and were in a rebuilding mode. Ralph would again integrate young stars-to-be into the line-up over the next four seasons like Wade Boggs and Roger Clemens. He also would again top a .500 record and again retire in ’84, leaving a rebuilt franchise for the next guy to take to the Series. His last MLB gig was as special assistant to the GM at Minnesota from ’87 to ’89 when he then retired for real to Florida where he lived out his life until he passed away in 2010 at 90. Ralph’s MLB record was 1,619-1,531.

Since there are no coaches for which to provide info, Ralph gets an expanded bit of his own managerial achievements on the back of his card. It really was a big change between those early-Sixties Yankees and the ones that came after. In two of the books I’ve often cited for this blog, Ralph gets some pretty good play. In “Ball Four” Jim Bouton mentions some contentious stuff with Ralph while he pitched for the Yankees but he sums it up by saying Ralph was a good manager. In “The Bronx Zoo” Sparky Lyle was a much more overt fan of Ralph’s and indicated that the reason Houk resigned in ’73 was in fact that he couldn’t manage under Steinbrenner any more. He seconded the notion about Ralph’s skill as manager and his sensitivities to his players’ needs.

This will be the first double exercise in a long time. First for Ralph as a manager:

1. Houk managed Bobby Murcer on the ’66 and ’69 to ’73 Yankees.
2. Murcer and Mike Sadek ’75 to ’76 Giants.

We just need to add a couple steps to do the link for Ralph as a player:

1. Houk and Mickey Mantle ’51 to ’54 Yankees;
2. Matle and Roy White ’65 to ’68 Yankees;
3. White and Bobby Murcer ’66, ’69 to ’74, and ‘79 Yankees;
2. Murcer and Mike Sadek ’75 to ’76 Giants.

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