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My favorite Ralph Houk story

It has been a depressing month if you’re a Yankees fan. A lot of history has left us, with Ralph Houk being the latest. Rather than write a full-on obituary profile of the player, manager, and general manager, which you can find elsewhere, I would just relate a few vignettes that seem characteristic or revealing.

Houk was best known as a Yankees manager and general manager, and subsequently for managing the Tigers and Red Sox, but I tend to think of him for an event that took place late in the heated pennant race between the Yankees and the Red Sox in 1949. Houk was a permanent third catcher, and you can count the number of starts he received from September, 1949 (when he moved into the role) until 1954 on your fingers without getting too far onto the second hand. He was the "break glass in case of emergency" guy, and the glass almost never was broken—in this, he is a great argument against wasting a roster spot on a third catcher. The Yankees realized this to some extent and would sometimes give his spot to a more needed player. They liked having him around, though, for his leadership skills, and at those times Houk would not go down to the Minors like a Kevin Cash or Chad Moeller, but would stay on the roster as an unofficial coach.

Houk hadn’t yet established this bifurcated role in 1949. He had spent most of the season in the Minors when one of those rare third-catcher emergencies occurred. Yogi Berra was out with a thumb injury, and on September 25, in an absolutely crucial game against the Red Sox, his capable backup Charlie Silvera went out as well—a Dom DiMaggio foul tip had hit him in the groin and he had to be carried from the field. The Yankees lost that game, allowing the Sox to tie the race with just six games to play.

The next day, September 26, the Yankees played the Sox again. As the only ambulatory catcher on the roster, Houk got the start. If a meteor had struck behind home plate—or another Little Professor groin-ball—the Yankees were going to have to pick someone off the bench. Years later, in an extra-inning game in which Stengel had already lost Berra and had gambled by pinch-hitting for Silvera, he had turned to Hank Bauer. The move led directly to a loss as a passed ball allowed the winning run to move around the bases. The Yankees couldn’t afford that kind of loss; Houk had to stay alive.

Credit home plate umpire Bill Grieve with keeping him there. Playing at Yankee Stadium, the Yanks led 6-3 through seven. The Sox rallied in the top of the eighth. Relief ace Joe Page, in since the fifth (that’s how the top relievers were used in those days), gave up a hit and a walk to open the inning. Dom DiMaggio ripped a high line drive to short. Phil Rizzuto leaped, seemed to come up with the ball, but it tipped off his mitt and went on into the outfield for a run-scoring single. At that point, the Yankees’ defense let down. Johnny Pesky grounded to second, but Snuffy Stirnweiss couldn’t hold on, allowing Pesky to reach and another run to score. Ted Williams came up. The Yankees put on a shift. Williams managed to rifle the ball past first baseman Tommy Henrich, but that shouldn’t have been a problem because Stirnweiss was there in short right field to pick up the ball. Unfortunately, Page forgot to cover first; Snuffy had to eat the ball. The bases were loaded with no outs—Dom DiMaggio on third, Pesky on second, and Teddy Ballgame on first. Two runs were in.

Page succeeded in retiring the next batter, Red Sox cleanup hitter Vern Stephens. The problem was that it came on a fly to deep right field. DiMaggio scored to tie the game, and Pesky was able to advance from second to third. Another fly ball would give the Sox a one-run lead. Second baseman Bobby Doerr was at the plate. The squeeze was on. Doerr sent the ball rolling towards first base as Pesky broke for the plate. Henrich fielded, fired home to Houk, who put down the tag. Grieve made the call: safe.

Houk lost it, sure that he had blocked the plate and gotten the tag down in time. He leapt up, bumping the umpire, screaming. Grieve had every reason to thumb him out of the game, but to his immense credit he did not, knowing that the Yankees would have had to play someone out of position had he done so. Casey Stengel continued the protest, earning himself the same $150 fine that Houk would later receive, but to no avail. Grieve later said, “The runner slid under Houk’s arm and that’s all there is to it. Sure, I could have made the easy call, giving it to the home club, but in my heart I know I made the right call.” One Yankee would receive an even larger fine and the threat of suspension, outfielder Cliff Mapes. Seeing Grieve under the stands after the game, Mapes said, “How much did you bet on the game, you [expletive].” A near fistfight ensued, the two being separated at the last moment.

I find it amusing somehow that Houk, 29 years old, a decorated officer in World War II, a soldier brave enough to earn a Silver Star for courage under fire at the Battle of the Bulge, could get exercised enough about a baseball game to assault an umpire (or get near enough in baseball terms). You would think after war experiences like Houk’s—even aside from the Bulge, one of the most harrowing battles in American history, he did advance reconnoitering of enemy positions, essentially acting as a lure to bring the Germans out of hiding—that he might have been philosophical about anything else that might have happened. What’s a baseball game when you’ve faced down the Panzers?

MY SECOND-FAVORITE RALPH HOUK STORY
Houk managed fireballing reliever Ryne Duren at Denver and then was a coach for the Yankees when Duren was closing for Stengel. I’ve spoken to Duren; he is an intelligent, thoughtful man. Duren is a recovering alcoholic, but during his career he battled the bottle and frequently lost, and when he did, that intelligence was replaced by belligerence. Late in 1958, the Yankees clinched the pennant and were on a train en route to Chicago. The team was celebrating in a private car. Stengel had gathered the players and was warning them not to get too wild as they didn’t want another public incident—this was just a year after the “Copacabana incident” had cost Stengel the services of his favorite player, Billy Martin.

As Stengel was giving this warning, Duren stumbled into the car. Stengel didn’t see him, but Houk did and recognized the signs of inebriation. He moved to intercept the reliever before he could disrupt the party. Words were exchanged. Duren pushed Houk’s ever-present cigar into his face. The fight was over quickly; Houk hit Duren, catching him above the eye with his World Series ring, and the big reliever went down. Stengel probably didn’t know what had happened until after it was over.

AND A THIRD
This from Graig Nettles’ 1984 book Balls, relating the end of Houk’s long tenure with the Yankees, which but for wartime service lasted 33 years:

Ralph said to me, “This owner is giving me a lot of trouble so far with all these phone calls, but one thing about him, he isn’t afraid to spend some money and buy some players when we need them. Ralph loved that, and so did I, because I had just come from Cleveland where they would never have made a move like that. In Cleveland they were worried most about saving a dollar…

But Ralph kept complaining that George was calling him on the phone all the time. He’d call during the game, in the middle of the night… Ralph had never had to put up with that from an owner before. George was telling him who to play, what to do. Ralph would pick up the phone in the dugout during a game, and George would be on the other end. It still goes on.

[…]

As we sat around on the stools by our lockers [after the last game of the 1973 season], Ralph came out and said, “I got to tell you guys something. I’ve had enough. I’m quitting.” And he broke down into tears.

I spoke to him afterward and Ralph said, “I have to quit before I hit the guy.” Ralph said, “I don’t want to leave the game of baseball by punching an owner. But if he keeps on bothering me like he does, I’ll end up hitting him.”

Houk was the first manager to leave George Steinbrenner’s employ. He was, I think the only one to walk away rather than be pushed out, and he never came back.

AND A FINAL WORD
What was the best Ralph Houk team? Many would snap, “1961” and walk away. I don’t accept that, because that was a continuation of the teams designed by Stengel and George Weiss. Houk made some changes that were ultimately more cosmetic than structural, such as going with a set lineup and pitching rotation. The team subsequently collapsed under his watch, though that was in part due to the reluctance of the owners to invest in the farm system at a time when they were planning to sell the team, as well as Weiss’ prejudices towards African Americans.

The best team that could be reasonably called his was the 1970 club. His bullpen management was inconsistent, but in 1970 he had one of the best Yankees relief staff not to contain a Lyle, Gossage, or Rivera. He had two closers, Lindy McDaniel and Jack Aker, and used one-hit wonder Ron Klimkowski in middle relief. The rotation was solid but a bit short after Mel Stottlemyre and Fritz Peterson, and a lot of credit for the team’s second-place, 93-69 showing (four games above their projected record) has to go to the ’pen.

Like many of Houk’s later teams, the ’70 squad didn’t have much in the way of offense, just Roy White, Thurman Munson, and Bobby Murcer (in order of productivity that particular year). Houk, as was a career-long habit, exacerbated the team’s deficiencies. He tended to structure his batting orders with the worst hitters on top, so that in 1970, second baseman Horace Clarke (.251/.286/.309) led off and third baseman Jerry Kenney (.193/.284/.282) batted second. In the second half, he moved Munson up to the second spot, but he never did move Clarke.

Later in Houk’s career he had better, more obvious leadoff men such as Ron LeFlore and Wade Boggs. He used LeFlore appropriately, but second baseman Jerry Remy had to experience a career-ending injury before Boggs got to lead off. Houk’s idée fixe was that his second baseman was his leadoff hitter, and LeFlore was the only time that he got over it. In general, he underemphasized patience. One of the reasons the Yankees collapsed in the mid-1960s, in addition to general neglect, is that they became a team of hackers. Mickey Mantle was always patient. White and Murcer were above-average when it came to taking ball four. Most other members of the team swung away. In the Houk years (1961-1973, a period which includes his time as general manager while Yogi Berra and Johnny Keane ran the team on the field), seven of 13 teams were below average in on-base percentage, and of the ones that finished in the black, just three (1962, 1971, 1972) were significantly above average.

Still, I tend to forget about all of that when thinking of Houk. I think not of the manager but of the Major, of the decorated soldier. Baseball is a wonderful diversion, but it’s not an act of patriotism. Houk helped end the greatest evil in human history, and what he did in baseball doesn’t matter a great deal beside that. While we like to laud those who served in World War II as “the Greatest Generation,” the truth is that most soldiers in that war did not go eagerly into danger. Most of them were doing their best to get home in one piece. In every unit, there were only a handful of men who willingly, repeatedly exposed themselves to the risks necessary to win the war. Houk was one of those men. He was a credit to baseball and to his country.