First the Voice, then the Boss and now the Major has passed.
The Yankee family lost another prominent figure when Ralph Houk passed away yesterday at the age of 90. Houk played only sparingly as a backup catcher for the Yankees over his eight year major league career, but etched is place in team history by managing for 11 seasons, including World Series championships in 1961 and 1962.
When Ralph Houk joined the Yankees in 1947 at the relatively advanced age of 27, he had already attained the rank of Major in the U.S. Army and been awarded a Bronze Star, Silver Star and Purple Heart. So, it was probably a given that he would also rise within the organizational ranks. In fact, Houk’s playing career was really more of an apprenticeship as his time on the bench allowed him to pick the brains of manager Casey Stengel, coach Bill Dickey and starting catcher Yogi Berra.
In Houk’s first season in the majors, however, he wasn’t simply looked at as a bench player. Oscar Fraley of UPI reported that the “Yankees believe the baseball career of catcher Ralph Houk may parallel an army career in which he enlisted as a private and rose to the rank of major in the armed forces.” Unfortunately for Houk, in 1947, the Yankees also had another rookie catcher named Yogi Berra, who would prove to be an even more insurmountable obstacle than his campaigns in Belgium, France and Germany.
After Houk retired from playing in 1954, it seemed obvious that the Yankees were grooming him to be Casey Stengel’s successor. The Yankees immediately assigned him to manage their triple-A American Association affiliate in Denver before promoting him to serve as a coach under Casey late in 1957. Predictably, the presence of the aging Stengel and the energetic Houk side-by-side led to grumblings about the immediacy of the transition.
In a Newsweek column penned in the summer of 1959, Dick Schaap wrote: “’If Casey Stengel were to quit tomorrow,’” one Yankee executive insisted last week, “’and Houk were named manager our team would win the pennant. But he’s [Casey] not going to quit and we’re not going to win’”.
Casey didn’t quit in 1959 and the Yankees didn’t win the pennant. Then, in 1960, the Yankees lost the World Series to the Pirates despite being an overwhelming favorite. Soon thereafter, Stengel was out and Houk was in.
In many ways, current manager Joe Girardi’s promotion to the manager’s seat mirrored Houk’s ascension. Like Houk, Girardi was a backup catcher (although he was a much more significant contributor) who went on to serve as a coach under the manager he would succeed. Both men also replaced legendary figures (Stengel and Torre) of whom the organization had grown somewhat weary. In Stengel’s case, co-owner Daniel Topping seemed eager to push him out, while Torre’s prodding came from Hal and Hank Steinbrenner. In the past, each man could count on the support of Del Webb and George Steinbrenner, respectively, but the gradual transition in the ownership structure eroded that foundation.
Finally, both men won a championship early in their tenure. The current Yankees can only hope the comparison ends there, however, because after his early success, Houk, who served as GM in 1964 and 1965, never managed another Yankee team to a first place finish. Most of the blame for that can probably be attributed to an aging team and diminished commitment from the new CBS ownership, but again, one can only hope the parallels do not continue.
According to his recent biography on George Steinbrenner, Bill Madden reported that one of Ralph Houk’s biggest professional regrets was resigning as Yankee manager in 1973 after only one season under the Boss. Had Houk stuck around and survived the Boss’ trigger finger, which was not as itchy as it would later become, the Major may have won enough games and championships to catapult himself into consideration for the Hall of Fame.
Despite finishing his career with five unremarkable seasons in both Detroit and Boston, Houk really had no need for regrets. From the battlefields of Europe to the ball park in the Bronx, Houk served with honor and deserves his legacy as a leader.
Five Most Tenured Managers in Yankees History
*Houk’s tenure was interrupted when he served as General Manager from 1964 to 1965.