Thursday, July 22, 2010

Houk Is Next

BY SCOTT MORGANROTH

I was hoping I'd be wrong and there wouldn't be another major death for awhile, but another legend is headed to his new eternal life.

This time, former New York Yankees, Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox Manager Ralph Houk died Wednesday night peacefully because of natural causes at the age of 90 at his home in Winter Haven, Florida. He would have turned 91 on August 9 but was born in Lawrence, Kansas, the home of the Jayhawks.

Here is a trivia question.

Who was the first manager that worked for the late George Steinbrenner?

You guessed it, it was Ralph Houk.

He managed for Steinbrenner for one season in 1973, then resigned to accept a position for the Detroit Tigers where he piloted the club from 1974-1978.

Houk has nine World Series Championship titles. He earned six as a player with the Yankees a pair as manager of the Bronx Bombers and another as a Vice President in 1987 with the Minnesota Twins.

During his managerial career, he had a winning percentage of .514, and won 1,619 of 3,157 games. He is 15th all-time in wins in MLB history.

In Detroit, he compiled a 363-442 mark with a .450 percentage.

Of his three stops, this was undoubtedly his most challenging position. During his tenure, the team sunk to 102 losses in 1975 and had only one winning season. In three other seasons, the team lost 87, 88 and 90 games.

But in his final campaign of 1978, the Tigers finished with his lone winning year compiling an 86-76 mark.

I'll never forget the only time that I interviewed Houk in 1983 during Spring Training when he was managing the Boston Red Sox. I asked him about his experience in Detroit and I found "The Major" to be one of the nicest people I've ever met.

He took the job as Tigers Hall of Famer Al Kaline was retiring.

I asked Houk if the Tigers job was a bigger challenge than he expected. He laughed with a big grin and said it was but never regretted taking the position.

In fact, he told me because of the support from the Tigers front office, he worked harder to rebuild the franchise and bring it back to respectability.

Despite all of the losses, in 1976, the Tigers were the most exciting 74-87 team in baseball history and Houk had the best seat in the house on the perch of the dugout.

While fans paid good money to see a young pitcher by the name of Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, the skipper watched the AL Rookie of the Year compile a 19-9 record, with a 2.34 ERA and 24 complete games.

Fidrych finished second in the AL Cy Young Award voting and along with Rusty Staub, Ron LeFlore, played in the 1976 All-Star Game and was the starting pitcher.

As I heard the announcement of Houk's death during the Washington Nationals VS Cincinnati Reds game featuring baseball's newest upcoming star Stephen Strasburg, be limited to 97 pitches and 5.2 innings, it made me think of Fidrych.

It's already been said that the Nationals will shut Strasburg down when he's reached the clubs innings limit for the season.

How many pitchers, especially Strasburg, would ever do what Fidrych did in 1976 when he had two complete game 11 innings wins? One of Fidrych's victories was over future Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven. Would Strasburg have amassed 24 complete games? Absolutely Not!

In Houk's old Yankee Stadium stomping grounds, 52, 707 fans watched the skippers prize rookie win a 3-0 decision over Dock Ellis as "The Bird" talked to the ball, along with the rest of his mound antics, thus leaving more New Yorkers talking about what they saw on that September 12 evening.

To go along with Fidrych's memorable season, Houk piloted the Tigers against the Milwaukee Brewers as Hall of Famer Hank Aaron had his last at bat which was an RBI single to short stop off Dave Roberts in the bottom of the sixth inning on Oct 3 in Wisconsin.

In the end, Houk is the man that build the nucleus of the Tigers 1984 World Championship team which Sparky Anderson managed. Then, in 1987, with the Twins, it was Houk who saw his Twins defeat the Tigers and Minnesota won the World Series.

While Houk has nine championships, he's really responsible for 10 titles!

Houk's work in Boston from 1981-84 enabled him to build the core of this franchise that reached the 1986 World Series.

With all that he accomplished with four cities and even the lessons todays baseball people have learned how to handle young pitchers despite Fidrych's short and sweet career, it's unfortunate that I'm writing another tribute and feel like an obituary story.

Now the total is five legends since May 4 and it gets strange wondering when the next icon will pass. But stay tuned, we're on a roll for all of the wrong reasons. I hope another one doesn't bite the dust anytime soon!

Scott Morganroth can be reached at scottsports33@aol.com and his blog can be seen at www.scottsports33.com.

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