By Marty Appel
With the passing of Ralph Houk, age 90, on July 21, the Yankees lost a former manager who won pennants in his first three seasons at the helm, and world championship in the first two. No one has ever accomplished that feat, before or since, and with those world championships, Houk is linked to Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy, Casey Stengel, and Joe Torre as Yankee managers to win more than one.
Only one other manager, Hall of Famer Hughey Jennings, ever won three pennants in his first three years.
Houk was also renowned as the skipper of the fabled 1961 Yankees, one of the great teams of all time – the team that clubbed a then-record 240 home runs, headed by Roger Maris’s 61 and Mickey Mantle’s 54. That season, taking over from Casey Stengel, Houk made Mantle the team’s de facto captain (without the actual title) and batted him cleanup behind Maris, and put Whitey Ford in a four-day rotation, allowing him to win a Cy Young Award with his first 20-victory season. The Yankees went on to beat Cincinnati in five games. The following year, the Yanks repeated their pennant, and won their 20th world championship with a thrilling seven-game victory over the San Francisco Giants.
He was considered a “player’s manager,” never criticizing a player in the press. “We’d run through a wall for him,” was the oft-repeated mantra of his players.
Houk spent 35 seasons in the Yankees’ employ, including four years in the Army for World War II, when he participated in the invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. He earned a Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart, and a baseball nickname – The Major – from his top rank in the service.
Returning to pro ball, he reached the major leagues in 1947, and batted .272 in 41 games for the Yankees. The remainder of his career was spent principally as a bullpen catcher who saw little action, but who earned six world championship rings – 1947, and the five straight under Stengel, 1949-54.
He then retired as a player to begin the next phase of his career, managing the Denver Bears for three seasons where he helped to develop Bobby Richardson, Tony Kubek, John Blanchard, Don Larsen, Norm Siebern, Ralph Terry and Ryne Duren. He won the “Junior (or Little) World Series” in 1957, the overall minor league championship.
Houk became first base coach for the Yankees in ’58 as many of his players began to arrive in the big leagues. So respected were his managerial skills, that part of the impetus for replacing Stengel after 1960 was a fear of losing Houk to another organization. The confidence was thusly rewarded with a quick return on investment.
In 1964 Houk moved up to the front office as general manager, and then returned for a second stint as manager in 1966, a less successful tenure, to be sure. He kept the post until 1973, and then resigned to manage first Detroit and then Boston, closing out a 20-year run as manager in 1984.
Houk retired to Florida, where his boat was named “Thanks Yanks”.