Unfortunately, it sometimes takes death to resurrect the memories of retired managers and players. Such is the case with Ralph Houk, who won two world championships with the Yankees, but became a forgotten man during the George Steinbrenner Era and faded further into the distance with the success of Joe Torre. The underrated Houk, who died on Wednesday at the age of 90, deserves credit for being a patient, players-first manager who worked well in developing younger players.
Houk’s first three seasons as a manager seemingly had him ticketed for a place in the Hall of Fame. Right off the bat, he led the Yankees to world championships in 1961 and ‘62, before falling short of a third consecutive title in the 1963 World Series against the Dodgers. If Houk had guided just one other team to a world championship, whether with the Yankees, Tigers, or Red Sox, I believe we’d be celebrating him today as a resident of Cooperstown. But that third title never came. In fact, Houk never again finished first in the regular season, either a pennant or a division title, and never made it back to the World Series. His Yankee teams from his second tenure in New York simply weren’t good enough, his Tigers teams were mired in rebuilding mode after the glory years of Kaline and Cash, and his Red Sox lacked the requisite pitching to win in the early 1980s. There simply is no guarantee, no birthright, when it comes to winning it all.
As it was, two world championships put Houk in elite territory. He is one of a handful of managers with two titles who remain on the outside looking in when it comes to Cooperstown; the others are Bill Carrigan, Tom Kelly, Danny Murtaugh, and three current managers, Terry Francona, Cito Gaston, and Tony LaRussa, who are not yet eligible for the Hall of Fame. That’s pretty good company. Murtaugh deserves to be in the Hall, LaRussa will be one day, and strong arguments can be made for Francona and Gaston. One can be made for Houk, too.
Aside from wins and losses, Houk left behind a distinct legacy. A veteran of World War II, Houk was a true war hero, having led his Ranger battalion during the Battle of the Bulge, an effort that earned him a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. Hence, he was called “The Major,” a nickname that matched his title during the war. Not surprisingly, he brought a level of toughness and respect from the battlefield to the ballfield. On three different occasions, he engaged in physical confrontations with sportswriters (including Maury Allen of the New York Post) whom he felt had treated him or his team unfairly.
At the same time, Houk was a players’ manager who exhibited patience to the extreme. He sometimes showed too much patience, allowing players like Bobby Richardson and Horace Clarke to bat in the leadoff spot well after they had proven they could not. On the other hand, he nurtured veteran players ranging in personality from Mickey Mantle to Tony Kubek, allowed Whitey Ford to pitch every fourth day, and developed young talents like Thurman Munson, Bobby Murcer, and Roy White.
Underrated to this day, Ralph Houk was, to say the least, an accomplished manager…
As next week’s July 31st trading deadline draws closer, we’re hearing more and more rumors about what the Yankees might do. The bullpen still appears to be priority No. 1, with relievers in Oakland (lefty Craig Breslow and righty Michael Wuertz) and Toronto (lefty Scott Downs and righty Kevin Gregg) stirring interest in the Bronx.
The Yankees also have a desire to beef up the bench, which has resulted in talks with the Marlins, who can offer either Cody Ross or Jorge Cantu, or perhaps both.
Of all the players I’ve heard rumored, a member of the Indians makes the most sense. The Yankees like Jhonny Peralta, the converted shortstop who is now playing third base and batting cleanup for Cleveland. Peralta’s power numbers are down (seven home runs and a .400 slugging percentage), to the point that the Indians may not pick up his option for 2011. As such, the Indians probably won’t ask as much for Peralta as the Marlins would for Cantu or Ross.
I like Peralta for the Yankees. He’s not the star that the Indians once envisioned, but he’s a solid player who would fit in well as a super-utility man on a good team. He’s still only 28, can play both third and short, and would give the Yankees depth and flexibility. Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez need more frequent days off than they once did; Peralta could spell either one, while also serving as a right-handed hitting DH. If nothing else, he’d be a major offensive improvement over both Ramiro Pena and Kevin Russo (now back in Triple-A), who simply don’t have enough power to fill in effectively as third basemen or designated hitters.
As usual, former Yankees will make their presence felt in Cooperstown for Hall of Fame Weekend, which officially kicks off on Friday and culminates in Sunday’s induction ceremony. Yogi Berra won’t be able to make it after the fall he suffered last weekend, but plenty of other pinstriped alumni will be in town. In addition to the usual suspects (Wade Boggs, Paul Blair, Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield, Whitey Ford, Phil Niekro, Ron Guidry, and Goose Gossage), two ex-Yankees will be making a rare visit to the area. They are Ron Blomberg and Fritz Peterson, both of whom played extensively for Ralph Houk.
Peterson, who is battling prostate cancer, isn’t allowing the disease to slow him down. He’s involved in the film project centered on the wife swap that he and Mike Kekich engineered in 1973. Peterson will serve as an advisor on The Trade, a film starring Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, which is currently in development.
Peterson is also continuing to promote his 2009 book, Mickey Mantle Is Going To Heaven, which has received positive reviews for its forthright revelations about the Yankees of the late sixties and early seventies, and its candid opinions on legends like Joe DiMaggio.
Fritz sounds like a man worth meeting.
Bruce Markusen, a resident of Cooperstown, writes Cooperstown Confidential for The Hardball Times.