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.

Jake Arrieta was not a fan of Bryce Harper’s behavior last night

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As we noted, Bryce Harper was ejected in the Phillies-Mets game for arguing balls and strikes, punctuating the ejection with a fairly aggressive argument in which he sorta shoved his manager into the ump, had to be held back by teammates and may very well have earned himself a suspension.

We’ll see about the suspension part, but even if he didn’t anger Rob Manfred over all of that, he did annoy his teammate, Jake Arrieta, who was on the mound last night. Here were Arrieta’s comments after the game:

“Look, I mean, [Harper’s] got to understand we need him in right field,” Arrieta said. “I don’t care how bad the umpire is. He wasn’t great for either side. I’m out there trying to make pitches, and he misses some calls. So what? We need him out there. I need him in right field, I need him at the plate, and he wasn’t there. So that hurts.

“We were flat from start to finish. Two-hour delay, it doesn’t matter. We have to be ready to play. We weren’t, and it showed. The dugout was flat. The defense wasn’t good. Didn’t throw the ball well as a staff overall. We got beat. We started at 8:45. I don’t think our guys were ready to play. We’ve got to come out tomorrow ready to play.”

For Harper’s part he was contrite after the game, echoing Arrieta’s words about needing to keep a level head and about him being more useful in the game than in the clubhouse. Still, he got told by his teammate. And seems to know he got told.