THE MAJOR --Ralph Houk
July 22, 2010
 

Ralph George Houk (August 9, 1919 July 21, 2010), nicknamed The Major, was an American League catcher, coach, manager, and front office executive in Major League Baseball.
He is best known as the successor of Casey Stengel as the manager of the New York Yankees from 196163, when he won three consecutive American League pennants and the 1961-62 World Series championships.

Ralph G Houk was born in Lawrence, Kansas on August 9, 1919. The fourth of four children he played high school football at Lawrence High as a blocking quarterback and linebacker, and also ran the 220-yard dash and threw the discus for the track team. He received several scholarship offers but signed with the New York Yankees in 1939.

Houk was a catcher working his way through the Yankees' farm system when the U.S. entered World War II. 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.

Houk went overseas with Company I, 89th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron (Mechanized) of the 9th Armored Division in July 1944. Houk got his first taste of action during the Battle of the Bulge. He was wounded in the calf at Willbillig, Germany during the battle, had the injury bandaged and returned immediately to combat.

"One day in the middle of the battle I sent Ralph out in a jeep to do some scouting of enemy troops," said Caesar Fiore, his commanding officer. "After being out two nights we listed him as 'missing in action.'
"When he turned up he had a three-day growth of beard and hand grenades hanging all over him. He was back of the enemy lines the entire time. I know he must have enjoyed himself. He had a hole in one side of his helmet, and a hole in the other where the bullet left. When I told him about his helmet he said 'I could have swore I heard a ricochet.' We marked him 'absent without leave' but were glad to have him back alive."

The 9th Armored later advanced towards Germany. To reach German soil, Allied troops would need to cross the Rhine River and it was fully expected that all the river crossings had been destroyed by the retreating enemy forces. But on March 7, 1945, the 9th Armored discovered that the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen - which led into the German heartland - was still standing. Demolitions were in place but had failed to detonate. By midnight the same day, the bridge had been cleared of mines and explosives, hasty repairs had been completed and traffic began to cross. Houk was among the first invaders since the Napoleonic era to set foot on German soil east of the Rhine. Helping to ensure the maintenance of the bridge and the continued flow of traffic was a young staff sergeant with the 276th Engineer Combat Battalion - Warren Spahn.

Returning to baseball after the war, Houk eventually reached the major leagues, serving as the Yankees' second- and third-string catcher behind Yogi Berra. A right-handed hitter, Houk appeared in only 91 games over eight seasons (194754), finishing with a batting average of .272.

Houk was known as a "player's manager" albeit one with a fearsome temper. Tommy Lasorda, a Baseball Hall of Fame manager, briefly played for Houk at Denver (one of Lasorda's rare stints outside the Dodger organization) and called Houk the best handler of men he ever played for, and modeled his managerial style on him.

On the other hand, the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame, of which Houk is a member, describes Houk as "rough, blunt and decisive" and his famous cap-throwing and -kicking tantrums in arguments with umpires earned him 45 ejections as a manager in the majors. Houk is tied with another former Yankee pilot, Billy Martin, for fourteenth place on baseball's "most ejected" list.

His 1961 team led by Roger Maris (61 home runs), Mickey Mantle (54 homers) and Whitey Ford (25 victories) won 109 games and thrashed the Cincinnati Reds in five games in the World Series.
His 1962 club won 96 games and the pennant and outlasted the San Francisco Giants in a thrilling Fall Classic. In 1963, the Yanks won 104 games and rolled to the pennant, but were ignominiously swept in four games by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Series.

Since the late 1950s, Houk and the Boston Red Sox had flirted over their manager's job. After two years of retirement, in the autumn of 1980, Houk, now 61, was ready to get back into baseball. When the Red Sox called about their open managerial post (they had fired Don Zimmer), he jumped at the chance.

Houk faced another rebuilding job: the powerful Boston team of the 1970s was about to lose marquee players such as Carlton Fisk and Fred Lynn and needed to retool its roster. But Houk rose to the challenge, and in four seasons produced three over-.500 teams. On his watch, Boston broke in young players Wade Boggs, Roger Clemens, Bruce Hurst and Marty Barrett.
When Houk retired from managing permanently in October 1984, just after his 65th birthday, he bequeathed the core of another pennant winning ballclub (in this case, the 1986 Red Sox) to his successor, John McNamara.

His final record, over 20 years with the Yankees (196163, 196673), Tigers (197478) and Red Sox (198184) was 1,619 wins and 1,531 losses (.514), plus eight wins and eight losses in the World Series.
After his first three championship seasons, he never appeared in the postseason.

"Ralph was a great baseball man who handled his players well and they played hard for him," Tigers Hall of Famer Al Kaline said in a statement released by the team.
"He was well respected and a fun guy to be around. I enjoyed playing for him during my last year."

Longtime Braves manager Bobby Cox played for Houk with the Yankees in 1968-69.
"Great guy. Great guy," Cox said Wednesday night after Atlanta lost to San Diego in 12 innings.
"Sorry to hear that. I love Ralph. He was just outstanding."

"He was a great players' manager, a real good guy and a tough son of a gun," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "I got to know him after his managing days, and he's a great credit to the Yankees, Red Sox and Tigers organizations."

But he'll most be remembered as a Yankee.

"He was just a wonderful guy, loyal to his players," Kubek said. "The Major was just a great person."

Up to the time of his death, yesterday, Houk was the oldest living manager of a World Series-winning, pennant-winning or post-season team.

Ralph Houk - The Major