Published October 6, 2017
Ralph Houk wasn’t Sparky Anderson. He wasn’t Jim Leyland. He wasn’t Mickey Cochrane and he wasn’t Mayo Smith.
What Ralph Houk was, on the surface, was the manager of some pretty bad Tigers teams in the 1970s. But Houk was so much more than that.
Ralph Houk flies under the radar in Tigers history, but try the years from 1974-78 without him. They wouldn’t be pretty.
Today’s younger Tigers fan would do well to learn the story of Ralph Houk in Detroit, because the next Tigers skipper is almost certain to be presiding over the same type of slapstick baseball played by a similar bunch of greenhorns as what Houk endured in Motown.
He doesn’t get the credit, but it says here that Ralph Houk is one of the most important figures in Tigers history. Among managers, he’s in the top five, easy.
To properly frame the context of the circumstances under which Houk worked for the Tigers, one must go back to the year before he was hired by GM Jim Campbell.
The double-edged sword that was Billy Martin
The 1973 Tigers were old. They were decrepit. Yet they were the defending AL East Division champions.
One man was responsible for both the division flag and for his own downfall 10 months later: Alfred Manuel Martin.
The ’72 Tigers had no business winning the division. Their core was the same as the 1968 world champs, but four years older. Even the players that Campbell picked up during the season to help the cause were aging: Tony Taylor, Frank Howard and Duke Sims, to name three.
But it was Billy Martin’s genius as a manager—his oft-proven knack for getting the most out of his roster—that lifted the Tigers over the Boston Red Sox by a half-game in October.
But in August of the following year, Martin proved to be too much for Campbell and owner John Fetzer to handle.
The list of Martin’s escapades that rubbed management the wrong way is an entire column in and of itself. The final straw came in mid-August.
Billy ordered two of his pitchers—Fred Scherman and Joe Coleman—to throw spitballs in a game against the Indians as retaliation for Cleveland’s Gaylord Perry’s legendary antics. The league suspended Billy, but Campbell fired him before the suspension was lifted.
“I can’t abide that man anymore,” Fetzer said to Campbell in disgust in the press box as news of Martin’s suspension was announced.
The ’73 Tigers finished with a winning record (85-77) but that was deceiving; the team was descending, fast.
When Campbell hired Martin in October 1970, it was Billy’s piss and vinegar that proved attractive. The Tigers under Mayo Smith were moribund in September, merely going through the motions. They needed a jolt. Billy Martin gave them that.
But in 1973, Campbell went looking for the anti-Billy. The team was about to go young, and a more easy-going skipper who had patience for the kids was in order.
Here’s the rub: the Tigers, after Billy Martin’s tenure, could have gone totally sideways. They were primed for one of those stretches that all baseball teams go through eventually, when three managers blow through town in five years. A period of chaos, filled with starts and stops in the pathway back to respectability.
That could have happened to the Tigers after Martin was fired. Easily.
The phasing out of the old and the baptism by fire of the new required a special, even hand. This was no job for the bombastic, for the impatient.
Getting in line under The Major
They called Ralph Houk “The Major.” It was a nickname he got while he was with the Yankees as a backup catcher in the 1940s, due to his rank in the Army. It stuck.
Houk’s first mark as a big league manager was being known as the skipper who replaced Casey Stengel with the Yankees (1961). Then he won the World Series in his first two years as field general and suddenly the fans didn’t miss old Casey that much.
By the time Houk left the Yankees in 1973, he had garnered a reputation for being well-respected, patient and very good with young players. No less than Tommy Lasorda, who played for Houk in the minor leagues, called Ralph the best handler of men he ever played for, and Lasorda modeled his own managerial style after The Major.
Houk did a turn as Yankees GM (1964-66) while the team started a painful transition from perennial pennant winners to also-rans. But then it was back into the dugout from 1966 to 1973. These were lean years in the Bronx. They’re derisively called The Horace Clarke Era by Yankees fans, after the ubiquitous middle infielder who wore the pinstripes throughout those seasons of mostly mediocre baseball.
Houk quit after the 1973 season, tired of the negative Yankees fans. His departure was maybe well-timed, because 1973 also saw the purchase of the Yankees by one George Steinbrenner.
So when Jim Campbell tabbed Houk as Tigers manager, there wasn’t exactly an outpouring of excitement in Tiger Town. You could strain your ears all you wanted, but you wouldn’t have heard any champagne corks popping.
The Tigers had hired a 54 year-old skipper whose last pennant was won 10 years prior–an eternity ago. All Tigers fans knew of Ralph Houk was that he was the guy who guided the Yankees through perhaps the most unremarkable era in franchise history. Yippee.
But the Tigers needed Houk, far more than Houk needed the Tigers. Campbell knew that Houk would settle the clubhouse down, which was badly needed after the tornado that was Billy Martin.
Houk got buy-ins from veterans like Al Kaline and Bill Freehan. He even got along with Willie Horton, which no Tigers manager was able to completely do since Willie joined the Tigers in 1963.
The youth movement was in full swing when Houk came on board. He was Ron LeFlore’s first Tigers manager, and even though Ronnie didn’t always obey the rules, he and Houk had a father/son type relationship.
Laying the groundwork for 1984
When Houk signed on, he knew the Tigers weren’t going to be any good for quite some time. A 19-game losing streak in 1975 confirmed that.
If it wasn’t for Mark Fidrych’s miracle year of 1976, Tigers baseball from 1974-77 would have been totally irrelevant. The team won an average of 69 games in those four years.
But Houk held it together. The clubhouse wasn’t fractured. The aging 1968 Tigers veterans retired or were dismissed, and the transition was painful on the field but not off it. Finally, in 1978, there was light at the end of the tunnel.
The ’78 Tigers featured a rookie double play combo of Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker. There was a robust young catcher named Lance Parrish. Other promising youngsters included Dave Rozema, Steve Kemp, Jason Thompson and Jack Morris. A kid named Kirk Gibson was on his way, ready or not.
Houk retired from the Tigers after 1978. The team won 86 games. The groundwork had been laid. Ralph’s job in Detroit had been completed.
The five years that Ralph Houk managed the Tigers were unimpressive in the won/lost column, but a lesser manager—or managers—may have proven disastrous at the time, given where the team was in its makeover. Who knows how long it would have taken for the franchise to recover otherwise. And that’s why Houk is such an important figure in Tigers history.
But Houk had one more distinction left in him.
He unretired to manage the Red Sox from 1981-84, making Houk one of only two men (Joe McCarthy is the other) to manage the Yankees and the Red Sox.
As for the Tigers, the core of the 1984 world champion team was molded by Houk in 1978. Even though Sparky Anderson got Campbell to trade several of Ralph’s young players, the key contributors to the 1984 team called Ralph Houk their first big league manager.
The 2018 Tigers manager will be stepping into a steaming pile of dung not unlike that stepped into by The Major in 1974. Tigers fans can only hope that the new man has the same deftness with youth as Houk did. The future direction of the franchise is counting on it.