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Ralph George Houk (born August 9, 1919 in Lawrence, Kansas), nicknamed "The Major," is a former 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 1961–63, when he won three consecutive American League pennants and the 1961-62 World Series championships.
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. 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 (1947–54), finishing with a batting average of .272. Although the Yankees participated in seven World Series during that period, Houk had only two Series at-bats (one in 1947, the other in 1952), batting .500.
Houk's last two years as an active player, 1953–54, were actually spent as the Yankees' full-time bullpen coach, thus beginning his managerial apprenticeship. In 1955, he was named manager of the Yanks' AAA affiliate, the Denver Bears of the American Association. Following three highly successful seasons at Denver, Houk returned to the Bronx as Stengel's first-base coach from 1958-60. After the Yanks lost the 1960 World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates, and with Houk one of the hottest potential managers in baseball, the Yankees "discharged" Stengel (in Stengel's own words) and promoted Houk.
Houk was known as a "player's manager" - albeit one with a fearsome temper - and the early 1960s Yankees responded to his leadership. 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.
That winter, Houk moved into the Yankees' front office as general manager, replacing Roy Hamey, and Berra, at the end of his brilliant playing career, became the Yanks' new skipper. Yogi would win the 1964 pennant, but Houk and the Yankee brass quickly became disenchanted with Berra's work and in mid-season they made up their mind to fire him. After Berra's seven-game loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1964 World Series, Houk sacked the Yankee legend and surprisingly hired the Cardinal manager, Johnny Keane, as his successor. But the great postwar Yankee dynasty was finally crumbling, and the hiring of Keane was a failure. His team fell to sixth in 1965 and had won only four of the first 20 games of 1966 when Keane was released.
Houk came down from the front office (he was eventually succeeded as general manager by Lee MacPhail) to begin a second, and far less successful, term as Yankee skipper, finishing the 1966 season. Their talent depleted, the Yankees finished dead last—the first time they had done so since 1912. At season's end, the Yankees would start a long rebuilding process, which included Bobby Richardson's retirement (longtime roommate Tony Kubek had retired after the 1965 season) and the trading of both Maris and Clete Boyer.
Houk would continue to manage the Yankees from 1967-73. His best season was 1970, when the Yanks won 93 games, but finished 15 games behind the eventual world champion Baltimore Orioles. After one season working for George Steinbrenner, in 1973, Houk left his beloved Yankees to become the manager of the rebuilding Detroit Tigers. His 1975 team lost 102 games, but by 1978 Houk had restored Detroit to respectability and brought to the majors future stars of the Sparky Anderson Tigers such as Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell and Jack Morris. After an 86-76 season in 1978, Houk retired.
Since the late 1950s, Houk and the Boston Red Sox, the Yankees' arch-rivals, had flirted over their manager's job. After two years of retirement, in the autumn of 1980, Houk (at 61) was ready to get back into baseball and when the Red Sox called about their open managerial post (they had fired Don Zimmer), he jumped at the chance. It was another rebuilding job: the powerful Boston team of the 1970s was about to lose marquee players such as Carlton Fisk and Fred Lynn. But Houk rose to the challenge, and in four seasons produced three over-.500 teams. On his watch, Boston broke in young players such as 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, in 1986) to his successor, John McNamara. His final record, over 20 years with the Yankees (1961–63, 1966–73), Tigers (1974–78) and Red Sox (1981–84) 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.
Colorful opinions about Houk can be found in Jim Bouton's classic 1970 memoir, Ball Four. Houk was Bouton's first major league manager and sparred with him over contracts when Houk was the Yankees' GM. Bouton also tells of how Houk pressured his star player Mickey Mantle to play when he was injured.
- Signed as an amateur free agent by New York Yankees (1939).
- Released by New York Yankees (August 4, 1953).
- Signed by New York Yankees (April 12, 1954).
- Released by New York Yankees (@May, 1954).