Remembering Ralph Houk

Ralph Houk was the first Tigers manager I ever knew.
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I paid more attention to the players then — Jason Thompson, Steve Kemp and Aurelio Rodriguez — but I now wish I would have had the attention span to listen to his post-game interviews on Channel 4 or on WJR

Alas, I was only nine when baseball appeared on my radar so I’ll have to remember Houk, who died on July 22 at the age of 90, through the pages of my Tigers Yearbooks and media guides.

Or so I thought.

Thanks to the magic of the Internet, we can piece together Ralph Houk’s arrival in Detroit, where he presided over one of the bleakest periods of baseball in the city’s history, and displayed the least managerial charisma this side of Luis Pujols.


October 1973: Replacing Billy Martin

How bad were the New York Yankees in the early 1970s? Bad enough that their manager left the Bronx for the same job with the Tigers. That might be a stretch, but not by much.

The 1973 Tigers finished 85-77, third in the six-team American League East, five games ahead of the 80-82 Yankees. So one could guess that Detroit was actually an upgrade. It was at least in the view of Ralph Houk, who won 970 games in New York over 10 seasons and was the successor to the legendary Casey Stengel.

He would have nowhere near that success with the Tigers. So, why would he leave New York? According to his obituary in The New York Times, not surprisingly, the reason was The Boss:

In January 1973, a syndicate headed by [George] 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 resigned on the final day of the 1973 season, despite having two years remaining on a contract that paid him in the neighborhood of $75,000 per year. It would be roughly the same amount Tigers GM Jim Campbell would pay him each of the three years on his contract — which at the time made Houk the highest-paid manager in Tigers history.

[callout title=A Bumpy Road to Detroit]Ralph Houk joined the Tigers shortly after resigning as manager of the Yankees. But it wasn’t that simple thanks to new Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and the owner of the Oakland A’s, Charlie Finley.

The Yankees wanted to hire A’s manager Dick Williams, even though he was still under contract with Finley.

No bother.

The Yankees hired him anyway. Of course, Finley raised hell and demanded the Yankees compensate his club with a player or two. Then, the Yankees asked American League President Joe Cronin to require the Tigers to compensate them for hiring Houk.

In the end, Williams didn’t manage the Yankees, the Tigers didn’t owe them anything, and they ended up hiring Bill Virdon — who held the job for a season and a half until Billy Martin, whose firing in Detroit started this whole mess, was hired by Steinbrenner. Finley wound up hiring Alvin Dark to manage the A’s in 1974.
[/callout]

So what was Houk’s vision when he came to Detroit? To erase “the thin line between losing and winning”, and to rebuild “but not make change for the sake of change.”

That’s what he told the AP during his introductory press conference at his Oct. 11, 1973 introductory press conference — at which he was two hours late due to a series of flight delays. (Couldn’t get a direct flight from New York?)

“I like the batting power. That’s what always worried me when we played Detroit,” Houk told the UPI. And he knew of what he spoke: the Tigers trailed only the Indians in 1973 in home runs (157); in ’72 they finished third behind Boston and Oakland with 122. Detroit led the league with 179 in 1971.

During his first press conference, Houk also told reporters that he wanted Al Kaline to be his designated hitter in 1974. And Kaline was the Tigers’ primary DH that season, hitting .262 with 28 doubles, 13 HR, 64 RBI and a .726 OPS in his final season.

The mid-1970s didn’t provide Tigers fans much in the way of relevance in the American League East standings. But they weren’t expected to contend. Houk’s job was to develop the Tigers’ young players and clear the runway for a contender in the 1980s — if not sooner.

Though he was at the helm for one of the most dreadful seasons — 1975, when the club finished 57-102, the fifth-worst season in team history — and one of the most captivating stories of the decade, if not franchise history: Ron LeFlore’s journey from Jackson State Prison to Tiger Stadium.

Houk’s Tigers had nowhere to go but up in 1976 — and they did, winning 17 more games and improving to 74-86.

The story in 1976, of course, was Mark Fidrych, a gangly right-handed pitcher, who emerged from fringe prospect to national sensation and became the star-attraction on a team filled with journeymen. Fidrych, of course, went 19-9, started the All-Star Game and won the American League Rookie of the Year Award.

Turning the Corner…Slowly

It was in 1977 that Houk and the Tigers began introducing fans to the young players that would become the core of the 1984 World Series champions. That season, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Lance Parrish, Jack Morris and Dan Petry arrived in Detroit to join Steve Kemp and Jason Thompson.

The club finished 74-88 in fourth place – an improvement over the fifth-place finish in ’76 … but not really. The expansion Blue Jays joined the American League East that season and, by comparison, every team got better.

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The Tigers seemed to turn the corner in 1978, finishing with their best record under Houk, 86-76, but dropped to fifth place.

“It’s time for me to go fishing.”

On Sept. 21, 1978, Houk surprised the Tigers when he announced his retirement at the end of the season. The 59-year-old Kansas native wanted to spend his summers at the fishing hole, but on the way out he wanted to stick it to the media, whom he saw as never giving him a fair shake in Detroit.

“The pressure of you people, the press … that’s been the toughest thing,” he told the AP when he announced his retirement. Then with a laugh he added, “You can’t slap writers any more. You can’t punch them. You can’t do anything. A lot has changed.”

“I’ve been treated so great here,” Houk was quoted by the UPI. “It’s been an interesting job but the only way I could have stayed here five years was my associations with Mr. Campbell and Mr. Fetzer.”

“Truthfully, I did not intend to stay here this long,” Houk said. “It’s been gratifying to me to see some of the young players we have stuck with develop.”

Check this out from the same UPI story:

Houk, 59, originally signed a three-year contract to manage the Tigers but it was replaced after 1976 with a unique self-renewing agreement that raised his pay above the average of his contemporaries and provided for additional attendance and club performance bonuses.

It also had a built-in year of severance pay should the contract be terminated by either side. Campbell had said repeatedly Houk could manage the Tigers for as long as he wanted.

Performance bonuses? Attendance clauses? And for all these years we thought the Tigers’ brass was living in the 1920s. Knowing Campbell’s reputation for employing skinflint tendencies, I’d guess those attendance bonuses were
unattainable given the quality of the ball club.

All told, Houk’s Tigers teams won 363 games and lost 443 from 1974-78. Hardly outstanding but probably right in line with what Campbell expected when he hired him.

The Tigers named Les Moss, then the manager of their Triple-A Evansville club, to replace Houk for the 1979 season.

As we know, that experiment lasted all of 53 games before the Tigers cut him loose in favor of Sparky Anderson.

Houk returned to the dugout in 1981 as manager of the Red Sox, a job he held until 1984. I remember thinking at the time that it had to be strange for Houk to be back at Tiger Stadium in ’84 watching many of his former players steamroll their way to the World Series. Or gratifying … or both.

By most accounts, Ralph Houk wasn’t a warm human being, particularly with the press, but he was probably the ideal man for the job. And that job was to bridge the gap between the 1968 champions and the next generation of Tigers, the guys who won the World Series in 1984.

He’ll never have the legacy of his successor, Sparky Anderson, but Ralph Houk’s place in Tigers history is an important one — if often forgotten.

4 Comments

  1. Mikey,

    Interesting piece, I enjoyed it! I remember the Houk years very well. I can remember how badly I wanted the Tigers to be a good team, yet knew we were years away. I had forgotten about his time with the Bosox.

    Tommy

  2. Nice piece, Mike. Oddly, those were some of my favorite teams because I was just getting into baseball too. I started collecting cards in ’74, and can remember looking longingly in the late ’70s at those AL West standings and putting the Tigers record at or near the top, when all it got them in the East was a fourth or fifth spot.

  3. Houk’s mid-’70s teams were part of my formative years as a Tigers fan, so I enjoyed this piece. But I think any reminiscence of Houk’s Detroit years should at least note his questionable handling of both Mark Fidrych and Dave Rozema.

    In 1976, Houk let the 21-year-old Bird throw an AL-high 24 CG (in just 29 starts), including 5 games of 10 IP or more. Six times that year, Fidrych finished a game with a lead of at least 4 runs; and the Tigers did have a very effective closer in John Hiller. The next year, when Fidrych returned from a preseason injury, he threw 7 CG in his first 8 starts; soon after, he suffered the arm injury that would ultimately end his career by age 25.

    Rozema came up in ’77, age 20, and threw 16 CG in 28 starts. Rozema had 2 good years, but from age 22 onward, he never reached even 9 wins nor 150 IP, and he was done by 29.

    Granted, complete games were much more common in those days, but the workloads on Fidrych and Rozema were still severe even by those standards. In ’76, when the Bird had 24 CG in 29 starts, the rest of the staff combined for 31 CG in 132 starts; in ’77, when Rozema and Fidrych combined for 23 CG in 39 starts, the rest of the staff had 21 CG in 123 starts. The AL average for 1976-77 combined shows CG in about 28% of all starts. And Detroit was far out of contention both years.

    The Tigers of 1978-83 were generally second-tier contenders with strong offenses, but thin at the back end of the rotation. If Fidrych and/or Rozema had been able to stay healthy, the club might have won a division title or two (and maybe even a championship) before 1984.

    In his 20 seasons managing the Yanks, Tigers and BoSox, only one other pitcher under Houk was allowed to finish half his starts in a season; that was Mel Stottlemyre, who did it 4 times between 1968 and ’73. I find it interesting that all these “heavy workload” seasons occurred in noncontending years. In 1968, ’69 and ’71, Stottlemyre completed 62 out 110 starts (56%); but in 1970, when the Yanks finished 2nd with 93 wins, Mel finished 14 of 37 starts (38%). I’m sure there were many factors in this “trend,” but I think it’s at least possible that Houk just wasn’t motivated to manage the team as carefully when they weren’t in the race.

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