Thursday, July 22, 2010

Another Yankee Legend Dies

The old folks say that things happen in threes. That certainly seems the case for the Yankees as the third Yankee legend has died, making it three in two weeks after Bob Sheppard and George Steinbrenner. This time it was Ralph Houk. Anybody under 35 years of age who is reading this post just said, "Who??" Yeah, Houk's time was a long time ago but he does live on as a minor character in Jim Bouton's famous "Ball Four."

Ralph Houk was born way back in 1919 in Kansas. He was a catcher in the Yankees' farm system when World War II intervened. To pick up from there, this is what Wikipedia has to say:

"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."

After the war, Houk returned to the Yankees and made his major league debut at the age of 29. He played in parts of eight seasons but only compiled 171 plate appearances. He finished his playing career with a .272 batting average. He also threw out 43% of potential base stealers.

After the Yankees dumped Casey Stengel after the 1960 season, Ralph Houk took over as manager and won two straight World Series titles in 1961 and 1962. His team also won the AL pennant in 1963 but they lost the World Series. It wasn't bad enough that Houk took over for a legend, but he also didn't get any credit for those two titles. Much like Joe Torre's run with the Yankees, everyone assumes that any manager could have turned those teams into titlists. The Fan doesn't happen to think that's true.

After the 1963 season, the "Major" was kicked upstairs where he served as general manager for two years. The 1964 season was the last hurrah for that era's Yankee teams and the sorry years followed. One of Houk's players was a young phenom named Jim Bouton. Bouton's description of Houk is hysterical and included the swear word combination that fascinated this young reader all those years ago.

The Yankees came in last place in 1966 but Houk was asked to take over the team early in the season and actually rallied the abominable team to a .475 winning percentage. The year after that, with Houk at the helm, the Yankees came in ninth. The team gradually got better and Houk's team won 93 games in 1970, good for second place. But the team was only a .500 team for the next three seasons. When George Steinbrenner purchased the Yankees in 1973, Houk was swept out with everyone else and he was hired by the Tigers.

Houk managed the Tigers for five seasons and the team never rose above fourth place (division play had started by then). They lost 90 games his first year and 102 his second. His best year with the Tigers was his last when the team finished 86-76, but the team still finished in fifth place.

The Boston Red Sox hired Houk in 1981. Unfortunately, that was the strike year with that forced first half/second half business. The Red Sox finished in fifth place in the first half and in second place the second half. The team won 89 games in 1982 but finished in third. They regressed in 1983 but Houk rallied them back to an 86-76 record in 1983, his last year with that team and his last season ever as a manager.

Ralph Houk was another of those treasured icons from the Fan's early life. His antics when arguing with the umpires are still remembered with a chuckle. He was a dirt kicker. Houk finished his managerial career with a .514 winning percentage. Not great, but not bad. He won two titles, or one more that Lou Piniella.

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