Ralph Houk: 1919-2010

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Longtime Yankees manager and executive Ralph Houk died yesterday at his Florida home. He was 90.

Before we mention his contributions to baseball, let us mention this: Houk’s nickname — “The Major” — was no cutsey moniker. Ralph Houk was a war hero. In four years of service during World War II, he rose from private to major. He stormed the beach at Normandy and fought the Battle of the Bulge. He was awarded the Bronze Star, Silver Star and Purple Heart.  If he died in 1946, we’d still all have cause to remember the man, even if, sadly, we wouldn’t have.

But obviously we all know him from baseball.  A backup catcher of limited success, Houk was later groomed by the Yankees to become a manager. And that he did, succeeding Casey Stengel following the 1960 season when Casey was controversially let go.  Houk proved he deserved the job, however, leading the Yankees to 109 wins and a World Series title in 1961 and repeating in 1962.  Following a third straight pennant in 1963 Houk moved upstairs to become Yankees’ general manager while the man who he once backed up — Yogi Berra — took the Yankees’ managerial job.

After Berra in 1964 and a season and a half of Johnny Keane, Houk returned to the dugout in 1966. And there he stayed through what we all now recognize as some of darker days of Yankees history. At least competitively speaking. Despite the aging and crumbling of the Yankees’ dynasty during Houk’s second stint as manager between 1966 and 1973, Houk always maintained the respect of his players and his dignity in the dugout. Houk resigned in 1973 as the George Steinbrenner era took over.

Houk moved on to Detroit the following year and, as bad luck would have it, was tasked with once again presiding over the decline years of an aging team.  The Tigers hit bottom in 1975, but under his watch a radical rebuild took place, and by the time he left in 1978 the Al Kaline/Bill Freehan/Willie Horton Tigers had begun the transition into the Alan Trammell/Jack Morris/Lou Whitaker Tigers and even had a winning season that year.

Houk finished his managerial career with four seasons in Boston, again, as something of a transitional figure, but a successful one as well. Indeed, despite the fact that, those first three years aside, Houk generally managed teams either on the way down or early in the process of coming back up, he ended his career with 1,619-1,531 record.

Houk was not a Hall of Fame player or manager. But Houk was a hero and a highly respected pro who bridged the gap between baseball’s alleged “Golden Age” and its modern age.  And — unlike most of his contemporaries — fit in nicely in both eras.

The Yankees attendance and revenue is down, but it makes sense

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There’s a long article in the New York Times today noting that the Yankees attendance is down and that, based on financial figures released as part of their stadium bond disclosures, ticket and suite revenues through last season have fallen by $166 million since the end of 2009.

There is a lot of talk in the article about the exciting young team the Yankees have put together and how much they’ve won so far in the early going. And there is a lot of talk about marketing and demographics — Hal Steinbrenner talks about baseball’s “millennial problem” — but the story of the Yankees’ box office issues, such as they are, is pretty straightforward.

All teams suffer attendance and revenue decline when they play poorly. While the Yankees have not been bad for a long, long time, that’s a somewhat relative thing. They Yankees have sold themselves and sold their fans on the idea that nothing short of a championship is acceptable, so missing the playoffs for three of the past four years is bad for them. Fans don’t want to go see a bad team, be it Yankees fans, Rays fans, Royals fans or whoever.

Despite the recent lack of success, the Yankees have still, perversely, continued to price their tickets, concessions, parking and everything else as though they’re the only game in town. When demand falls and prices remain super high, fewer people are buying your product. Even if you’re the New York Yankees.

The Yankees are good this year. What’s more, they’re good in that exciting way that only young promising players bursting out onto the scene can deliver. It’s a wonderful thing for marketing and stuff, but even under the best of circumstances, ticket sales tend to lag on field success, often by as much as a year. Go back and look at World Series winning teams — especially the surprise winners — and you’ll see that it’s the year after on-field success when the real attendance bumps happen. I expect, if the Yankees continue to play well, their gate will get really nice by the end of the summer, but I suspect we’ll also see a more dramatic bump next year.

Taken all together, this is a dog-bites-man story. The Yankees are not some transcendent institution, immune from market forces. They’re just one of 30 Major League Baseball teams competing against other entertainments for a finite amount of the public’s money and attention. Nothin’ to see here.

David Price had a rocky rehab start last night

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Red Sox starter David Price has been rehabbing a left elbow injury since early March. Last night he made his latest rehab outing for Triple-A Pawtucket. It didn’t go well.

Price allowed six runs — three earned — on seven hits in three and two-thirds innings, requiring 89 pitches to do it. His velocity was good, but otherwise it was a night to forget. This was supposed to be Price’s last rehab start before returning to the Sox’ big league rotation, but one wonders if he’s ready for it.

Price didn’t talk to the media after the game, but Pawtucket’s manager said he was “upbeat” and “felt good.” For his part, John Farrell, upon hearing about the outing, said this:

“There’s no announcement at this point. We’ve got to sit with him and talk about what’s best for him, best for us as we move forward.”

The Sox could really use Price back in the rotation given their injury problems, but rushing him back if he’s not ready is certainly not ideal.

Stay tuned.