Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Ralph Houk,1919-2010. R.I.P.

Former major league manager Ralph Houk has died of natural causes. He was 90.

After serving with distinction in WWII earning both a Bronze Star and a Silver Star, Houk began his MLB career with the New York Yankees in 1947 as a catcher. Although Houk remained with the team through 1954 he seldom saw playing time with Yogi Berra enconsed behind the plate.

In 1955, the Yankees hired Houk to be their manager for their Triple AAA affiliate in Denver. After three years in Denver, Houk returned to the Yankees to serve as the team's first base coach under Casey Stengel.

When the Yankees failed to win the AL pennant in 1959 and were upset by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1960 World Series, the Yankees put Houk at the helm of the Bronx Bombers. The Yankees responded by winning back to back World Series in 1961 and 1962. Another AL pennant would follow in 1963 but the Yankees would be swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Fall Classic.

Houk became the Yankees general manager in 1964. The Yankees would win an AL pennant under new manager Yogi Berra but would fall to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games in that year's Fall Classic. Houk abruptly fired Berra and replaced him with Cardinals manager Johnny Keane. The Yankees would collapse in 1965 and by May 1966 Houk was back in the dugout as Yankees skipper.

Houk would remain Yankees manager until the 1973 season. He would resign at the end of that season which happend to be the same year George Steinbrenner bought the club. I recall reading Graig Nettles' book in which he described Houk being overwhelmed by Steinbrenner's constant phone calls. It was probably just as well. The Yankees would not regain their former glory until after Houk's departure.

However, it would not be long before Houk was back on his feet. In 1974, Houk was named manager of the Detroit Tigers. Houk was on hand in 1976 when Mark "The Bird" Fidrych dazzled America with his unique pitching style. Unfortunately, Tigers fans had little else to cheer about. Houk would manage the Tigers for five seasons but only enjoyed one winning season in his final year as Tigers skipper in 1978. The Tigers would enjoy greater success with his successor Sparky Anderson.

After a two year hiatus, Houk returned to managing in 1981 when he replaced Don Zimmer at the helm of the Boston Red Sox. Although the Sox posted winning records in three of his four seasons at Fenway they would not reach the post-season. Houk was replaced by John McNamara in 1985 and he would guide the Sox to an AL championship the following year.

Houk's last job in baseball was as a special assistant to Andy MacPhail, who was then the general manager of the Minnesota Twins. When the Twins won the 1987 World Series, Houk would earn one last ring.

Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox, who came up through the Yankees organization as a player, considered Houk a mentor. If not for Houk there's a good chance Cox would not have become the fourth winningest manager in MLB history.

So in the space of ten days three Yankees legends have left us - Bob Sheppard, George Steinbrenner and now Ralph Houk. These things do tend to come in threes.

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