Veterans Day is a time to pause and take note of those who served the United States through military service. While uncommon now, in years past it was very common for professional athletes to join the ranks of the military before resuming their normal careers. Yogi Berra, Jerry Coleman, and Bobby Murcer are just a few of the notable names to pause their careers to serve their country. One Yankee whose military career stands out is Ralph Houk, who was a part of numerous World Series-winning teams as both a player and a manager.
After growing up in Lawrence, Kansas, Ralph Houk was signed by the Yankees in 1938 and began working his way up through the minor league system. Following the United States’ entry into World War II in late 1941, Houk was among the many young men who enlisted in the Army over the next few month.
Displaying the leadership potential that would later make him a longtime MLB manager, Houk was selected to the Armored Officers’ candidate school at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Houk’s commander became familiar with his baseball background, and he was pushed to play on his unit’s team while they were stateside and training through much of 1942-43.
Arriving in Europe in July 1944, his unit — the 89th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron (Mechanized), part of the 9th Armored Division — was stationed in England before heading to mainland Europe that September. Initially held in reserve, his unit was put on the front lines in a relatively quiet Luxembourg sector that October.
Their quiet sector heated up quickly, and as winter arrived, they found themselves in the path of the massive German attack that became known as the “Battle of the Bulge.” When the battle started, Houk was a 22-year-old platoon leader witnessing tremendous losses all around him. Houk earned a Silver Star for valor displayed on December 21st, as he directed his platoon and those around him in a repulse of a German attack. Part of the citation on his award read “Deliberately exposing himself to the withering fire... he calmly moved from one position to another, directing his men... Through his gallant leadership, he was directly responsible for repelling the enemy attack.”
Houk was later assigned the mission of getting into the city of Bastogne, which was still mostly encircled by German forces with written orders for the 101st Airborne. As he was ordered to destroy the written orders by any means if he was captured, his wildly successful future in baseball was never farther in the distance.
On another day, as his reconnaissance unit approached one of the only standing bridges over the Rhine River at Remagen, a sniper’s shot passed through his helmet, leaving a bullet hole in both the front and back of the helmet, but missing Houk’s head by the slimmest of margins. After capturing the sniper, Houk’s unit played a key role in securing the bridge, giving American forces a path into the German countryside.
A shrapnel wound earned Houk a Purple Heart, but there are even more stories about close brushes with injury and death from his service. He was once listed as Missing In Action after being cut off behind enemy lines for three days. The stress of battle wore on Houk, and he said later in life, “You almost hoped you did get hit in a minor way — lose a finger or something — to get out. But as scared as you are, you’ve been taught and you learn to say, ‘I got to do this.’”
His competence and leadership qualities saw him promoted to Captain as his unit drove into Germany and the war neared an end in Europe. After the end of the war, he continued to serve in Germany for a period of time, including a chance to play in the European Theater of Operations World Series alongside fellow minor leaguer Ed Musial (Stan’s brother). Upon his discharge from the Army, he was promoted to Major, a rank that would become his nickname from teammates and those he managed over the years.
Returning to the Yankees in 1947, Houk reached the big leagues by the end of the season, playing in 41 games. He never saw much action as a third-string catcher (especially behind the ever-durable Yogi Berra), but he was always there with the great Yankees teams from 1947-54. He received one at-bat in the 1947 and 1952 World Series-winning efforts for the Yankees.
By the time he retired from playing, Houk was serving as the Yankees’ bullpen coach. Moving to the managerial side, Houk worked his way up through the minors before becoming the Yankees’ first-base coach in 1958. When Casey Stengel was sidelined with poor health in 1960, Houk was selected as the interim manager.
Moving on from Stengel following the stunning loss in the 1960 World Series, Houk became the Yankees’ new man in charge heading into 1961. After a very slow start that saw the Yankees post the worst record in spring training and start just 17-15 on the season, there were questions about Houk’s ability to manage this powerhouse club. The talent on that team would not be denied from that point on, as Roger Maris hit 61 home runs and Whitey Ford won a Cy Young Award that he credited to Houk’s handling of the rotation as the reason for his incredible performance.
After winning the World Series in 1961 and 1962, and falling short in 1963, Houk moved to the front office for several years before returning to manage the Yankees in 1966. He finished his career managing the Tigers and Red Sox before retiring from an on-field role in 1984.
On this Veterans Day, there is a chance to step back and remember the service of a man who left organized baseball in 1941 and did not return for five years. Along the way, he displayed leadership qualities that were in demand on the battlefield long before he became a successful manager.