Ralph Houk, a third-string catcher for the Yankees who went on to win three straight American League pennants and two World Series championships in his first seasons as their manager, died Wednesday at his home in Winter Haven, Fla. He was 90.Enlarge This Image Diamond Images/Getty Images
Ralph Houk, awaiting a game in 1966, won a Silver Star in World War II and was known in baseball as the Major.More Photos »Multimedia Slide Show Remembering ‘the Major’
When he became the Yankee manager in October 1960, Houk stepped into a pressure-filled situation: he was replacing a man who had won 10 pennants and 7 World Series.
“There’s only one Casey Stengel,” the Yankees’ new manager said. “I’m Ralph Houk.”
Houk had displayed courage as an armored corps officer in World War II, and on returning to baseball he became known as “the Major,” a tribute to his commanding presence, whatever the uniform.
As he got ready to manage in a World Series game for the first time, against the Cincinnati Reds in 1961, Houk was asked whether he was nervous. “Why, is somebody going to be shooting at me?” he replied, according to “The Man in the Dugout,” a book about managers by Leonard Koppett.
Houk managed for 20 seasons, with the Yankees, theDetroit Tigers and the Boston Red Sox. He was known for building the morale and confidence of his players with an optimistic outlook and a refusal to criticize them publicly.
“I don’t think you can humiliate a player and expect him to perform.” he said.
Ralph George Houk was born in Kansas on Aug. 9, 1919, the son of a farmer. A star athlete in high school, he was signed by the Yankees as a catcher in 1939.
After playing in the minors for three seasons, Houk enlisted in the Army as a private but received a lieutenant’s commission after officer candidate school.
He took part in the invasion of Normandy in June 1944 and the Battle of the Bulge that December, when he received the Silver Star for exposing himself to enemy fire as he drove off German tanks near a village in Luxembourg. When he was discharged as a major at war’s end, Houk took home a souvenir: a helmet he had worn at Omaha Beach with holes in the front and back, a bullet having narrowly missed his skull.
In his first game with the Yankees, on April 26, 1947, Houk got three hits against the Washington Senators, and he went on to hit .272 in 41 games. But that was his best season. With Yogi Berra en route to the Hall of Fame as the Yankee catcher, Houk appeared in only 91 games and had 158 at-bats over seven seasons, never hitting a home run.
He spent most of his time in the bullpen.
“I used to sit out there with pitchers who weren’t in the starting rotation, and I learned exactly what went through their minds,” Houk told the sportswriter Lee Allen.
In 1955, Houk was named manager of the Yankees’ top minor league team, the Denver Bears, of the American Association. In three years at Denver he managed future Yankees like Tony Kubek, Bobby Richardson, Don Larsen and Johnny Blanchard.
After the Yankees lost the 1960 World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates, Stengel was forced out, at age 70, in favor of Houk, and General Manager George Weiss was replaced by his aide, Roy Hamey.
Houk made his debut as manager in an epic season: Roger Maris hit 61 home runs to break Babe Ruth’s record. The Yankees defeated the Reds in a five-game World Series, then captured the Series again in 1962, beating the San Francisco Giants in seven games. They repeated as pennant winners in 1963 but were swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Series.
Houk joined Hughie Jennings, who managed the Tigers to American League pennants from 1907 to 1909, as the only managers to finish in first place in each of their first three seasons.
After the 1963 season Hamey retired because of health problems, Houk was elevated to general manager, and Berra was named manager. The Yankees won the pennant again in 1964, but lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games in the World Series.
Berra, having never won the players’ respect the way Houk had, was fired after the 1964 season and replaced with Johnny Keane, who had managed the Cardinals to the Series championship and then quit.
The Yankees’ stars were getting old, and the team finished sixth in 1965. When the Yankees got off to a 4-16 start in 1966, Houk fired Keane and returned to the dugout. The Yankees fell to 10th and last place, and during the season CBS took over complete ownership.
In January 1973, a syndicate headed by Steinbrenner bought the team. Under CBS, Houk had a free hand on the field while Lee MacPhail handled the front-office duties. But Steinbrenner let Houk know how he felt things should be done and was overheard making derogatory comments about some of the players.
Houk quit on the final day of the 1973 season as the Yanks finished fourth in the Eastern Division. He said he had not accomplished what he hoped for. “I blame no one but myself,” he said.
Houk managed for five years in Detroit, never finishing higher than fourth place, then retired to his Florida home. But he returned to baseball in 1981 as manager of the Red Sox and had modest success in Boston over four seasons. He had a career record of 1,619 victories and 1,531 defeats. On retiring as a manager for a second and final time, he stood 10th on the career list in games managed, won and lost.
In November 1986 he became a vice president of the Minnesota Twins and helped build their World Series championship team of the following season.
In addition to his daughter, of Westerville, Ohio, Houk is survived by his son, Robert, of Bainbridge Island, Wash.; 4 grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren. His wife, Bette, died in 2006.
When Houk was named manager of the Yankees, he affected no false bravado. As Clete Boyer remembered: “At his first meeting, Ralph said we knew how to play the game better than he did. So if we wanted to bunt, bunt. If we wanted to hit and run, then hit and run.”
But his players never forgot that Houk was in command. As Kubek put it in “Sixty-One,” a remembrance of the 1961 season, written with Terry Pluto: “None of us questioned Ralph. He was the Major.”