Ralph Houk managed the Tigers when the team was in suspended animation.
The Tigers were between eras when GM Jim Campbell tabbed Houk to replace the fiery but out-of-control Billy Martin.
It was just after the 1973 season.
Martin had been fired in August, the last straw being his brazen order to pitchers Fred Scherman and Joe Coleman to throw spitballs in retaliation for the ones he felt Gaylord Perry was squishing to the Tigers hitters.
Martin had been brought in to resuscitate a moribund Tigers team that had laid down shamelessly for Mayo Smith in 1970.
But after a tad less than three seasons of Martin’s bizarre behavior and insubordinate comments to the media, Detroit News sportswriter Jerry Green was sitting in the press box at Tiger Stadium one night, shortly before Billy was given the ziggy.
Green asked Campbell what Tigers owner John Fetzer thought of Martin.
“Mr. Fetzer is disgusted with Bill Martin,” Campbell told Green, the story related to me by Green not three weeks ago.
Hiring and firing coaches and managers is like experiencing a between-seasons day in Michigan. You get cold and put on a jacket, and keep the jacket on as long as you can stand it. Then you inevitably get too hot and shed the jacket, until you inevitably get cold again.
The Tigers needed some heat when they hired Martin. Then things got too hot and Martin had to go.
Campbell went searching for someone to cool things down.
Houk was a World Series-winning manager with the Yankees whose time in the Bronx was winding down. Familiarity with Houk was breeding contempt in New York. The Yankees hadn’t been to the World Series in nine years.
Houk was made available, and Campbell thought Houk’s experience and reputation for patience with younger players would be perfect for the Tigers, who were about to enter a long and painful rebuilding process.
The Tigers of 1974 were really nothing more than an older version of their 1968 and 1972 teams that won the World Series and the AL East, respectively.
A much older version.
The core was still Kaline and Horton and Cash and Freehan and Northrup and Lolich. But they were well into their 30s, and some were approaching 40.
Houk was brought in and he had the old guys and peach-fuzzed kids. No in between. For the next four seasons, losing came in bunches as the Tigers hit bottom.
Houk, 90, has died. He passed away today in Florida, dying peacefully after a brief illness.
Channel 4 sportscaster Al Ackerman used to call Houk “fifth place Ralph” for his usual finishes in the East Division. It was a terribly unfair moniker, not unusual for Acid Al.
If Houk was “fifth place Ralph,” it was simply because of the proving of a corollary: a manager cannot win if he doesn’t have any talent.
Houk managed the Tigers from 1974-78
The Houk years in Detroit were a bridge—something that had to be suffered and endured in order to reach the rainbow at the end. If it wasn’t for Mark Fidrych in 1976, the process would have been even worse.
Houk was in Detroit, doing his damnedest to beat the Red Sox and A’s and Royals with the likes of Leon Roberts, Danny Meyer and Tom Veryzer, while kids named Trammell, Whitaker, Parrish and Morris were being cultivated on the farm.
By the time the new core of Tigers reached Detroit in 1978, Houk announced it would be his last year as a big league manager.
1978 would be Houk’s only winning season of the five he spent in Detroit. The Tigers didn’t have another losing campaign until 1989.
Houk retired, but that didn’t last long. The Red Sox coaxed him out two years later, making Houk one of the few men who managed both the Yankees and the Red Sox.
Houk was a rookie manager in 1961 with the Yankees when he presided over the amazing, record-breaking years of sluggers Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle.
In his first three seasons of managing, Houk won 309 games.
Again, the corollary was proven, in reverse. A manager with talent has a much better chance of winning.
Houk moved upstairs to be the Yankees GM in 1964 and ’65, then returned to the dugout from 1966-73.
Campbell had the utmost respect for Houk, even more so coming on the heels of the destructive Martin. The GM knew Houk didn’t have much to work with, but Houk gave Campbell five years in a situation where most managers would have been found dangling from the ceiling, a towel tied around their neck.
The Tigers didn’t win much when Ralph Houk managed them. They couldn’t, not with the rosters he was provided. OK, so he was “fifth place Ralph,” as Ackerman had sneered about him.
But there’s no telling how much worse they would have been without Houk’s calming guidance and patience. They would have finished south of the equator.