Ralph Houk died Wednesday, one of nine managers to win a World Series with the Yankees, along with Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy, Bucky Harris, Casey Stengel, Billy Martin, Bob Lemon, Joe Torre, and Joe Girardi. He was the first manager ever to manage the Yankees to a World Championship after winning a ring with the team as a player, later joined by Martin and Girardi. (Yogi Berra’s backup catcher before the emergence of Elston Howard, Houk won six rings with the Yankees from 1947-1954. His three World Series appearances in the Yankee manager’s chair are more than all but Torre, Stengel, McCarthy, and Huggins.) In all, he spent nearly three decades in the team’s clubhouse from the 1940s to the 1970s, first as a bench player, and then as field marshal.
He is 15th all-time in managerial wins, and one of only 22 managers with more than one World Championship. He maintained a reputation as a tough but fair players’ manager, going by the nickname of “Major” because of the rank he earned in World War II. According to the New York Times obituary, one former third baseman of his, Clete Boyer, recounted his clubhouse attitude: “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 he made an even bigger impression on another young third baseman, Bobby Cox, who followed Houk’s example as a Yankee bench player who rose to become a manager. “I loved Ralph… Ralph Houk was a big influence on me with how he treated people,” Cox told MLB.com. “Our personalities are both pretty tough.”
Houk’s reputation as a manager declined the longer he managed. After he won his World Championships in his first two years as a manager, he never won another championship in 18 years as a skipper. His influence on Cox seems to have been one of style rather than strategy: Houk was not a particularly influential tactician. Chris Jaffe, author of “Evaluating Baseball’s Managers,” points out what may be the two most noteworthy features of Houk’s managerial career: “He arguably had the greatest start to his career of any manager in history,” and “his relievers lasted longer per outing than anyone in baseball history.” By contrast, Cox, his protege, is up there with Tony La Russa as the manager whose relievers have the shortest, most specialized appearances.
In the last few years, when the great Yankees of the past were mentioned, Houk’s name was rarely mentioned. Yogi Berra has long held the title of “Greatest Living Yankee,” and Houk’s managerial successes — when they are remembered at all — have often been chalked up to Mantle and Maris, rather than the man at the helm. That may be unfair to the man. As Jaffe remarks, “He was well respected enough to manage 20 seasons without ever getting fired, an impressive achievement.” That is a remarkably bland compliment for a man who won eight World Series with a team, six as a player and two as a manager, but in the end, Houk left a bland affect on all but his teammates and players. As for them, they loved him fiercely, and they won a lot. Of course they did. They were Yankees.