War hero Houk managed Tigers through transitional era in 1970s

In five seasons as manager of the Detroit Tigers, Ralph Houk helped oversee a rebuilding project.

In 1972 an aging Tigers team won the American League East by a sliver. It was the last hurrah of the heroes from the ’68 Championship team and they were dispatched by the Oakland A’s in the playoffs. In 1979, Sparky Anderson was hired to take over the club and he helped shape them into a championship team in five years, culminating in the ’84 title.

Between those two events, the Detroit Tigers got old, got bad, got interesting, got young, and then got ready to win. The Bengals manager during that mid-1970s era was Ralph Houk, an imposing man with a booming voice who had been a war hero in World War II.

Houk arrived in 1974 to replace Joe Schultz, a cartoon character who spent most of his career as a coach or a manager in the minor leagues. Schultz had replaced the deposed Alfred Manuel Martin – better known as “Billy.” Martin was run out of town, as he almost always was, due to his drinking, loud mouth, and inappropriate hijinks. Martin’s act always wore thin, and it did so quicker in Detroit than anywhere else Martin managed. Tigs General Manager Jim Campbell was a no-nonsense guy who never seemed comfortable with Billy The Kid at the helm.

You’d have to look far and wide to find a baseball man who was more different than Martin, but that was Houk. “The Major”, as he was known, was a strict disciplinarian, but he also believed in treating his players with professionalism (for the veterans) and careful guidance (for the youngsters). Houk didn’t get drunk and punch sportswriters, his players, or marshmallow salesmen.

Houk inherited an old team, one where six of his nine everyday players were over the age of 30. His shortstop was 32 years old and hardly hit over .200 (Eddie Brinkman), his three outfielders averaged 33 years of age and were hurt most of that first season (Willie Horton, Mickey Stanley, and Jim Northrup). And his DH was 39-year old legend Al Kaline, playing in his final season. 39-year old Norm Cash was on the club, as was 35-year old pinch-hitter Gates Brown. The team was well past their prime, and they played like it – losing 90 games. The following season, in 1975, the wheels really fell off. Houk watched his club lose 19 consecutive games in late July and early August. It was official – the Tigers had to rebuild. Fortunately, Houk proved to be just the man for the task.

Houk knew something about adversity. In 1942, the 22-year old enlisted in the U.S. Army in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. A year later he was riding a tank in Europe, soldiering under General George S. Patton. The next winter he was one of those freezing in the Ardennes forest during the Battle of the Bulge, the last gasp of the German war machine. During one skirmish, Houk took a bullet through his helmet but somehow was not seriously harmed. He proved to be unflappable, a natural leader of men, and he rose to the rank of major. He earned the Purple Heart and a Silver Star. When he returned from the war, it took Houk less than two years to reach the major leagues. He served as a catcher for the New York Yankees for eight season, mostly as a caddie for Yogi Berra. Before he was even done playing he was already making plans to be a manager. He soaked up everything he could from Yank managers Bucky Harris and Casey Stengel. He managed in the Yankee minor league system and coached for New York, and in 1961 he replaced Stengel at the helm of the Yankees – the greatest dynasty in sports history. He was just 41 years old and found himself managing Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Berra. He won pennants in his first three seasons and drew praise for his ability to handle young pitchers. Houk won two World Series rings at the helm of the Bombers, and moved upstairs into the front office in 1964 before returning to lead the team on the field for eight years. His second stint as New York’s manager came during an era when the Yankees were in transition. That experience helped him in Detroit.

“Ralph Houk helped teach me how to be a big leaguer,” said Jason Thompson, who played for Houk in his first three season in the majors. “He treated us like men, he expected a lot, he was tough… [but] he was fair.”

In 1976, Houk had a lot of new faces on his team, including Thompson, center fielder Ron LeFlore, and a rookie pitcher with curly blonde locks named Mark Fidrych. Houk let his young players loose, but he didn’t do it carelessly, he helped ease them into the big leagues. It was under Houk that “The Bird” won 19 games and AL Rookie of the Year. It was with Houk that LeFlore, after overcoming years in prison, became an All-Star. It was Houk who made regulars out of Thompson and Steve Kemp, two strong-hitting outfielders from California.

Late in 1977, Houk played Detroit’s fresh-faced double play tandem of Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker for the first time. He was their manager in their rookie season the following year, helping them adjust to the major leagues.

Gradually, the Tigers got younger and better. Gone were the long-in-the-tooth stars of the ’68 team and on the scene came the players who would form the core of the ’84 team – Tram, Sweet Lou, Jack Morris, Lance Parrish, Dave Rozema. In ’78 the Tigers won 86 games, their first winning season in six years. After the campaign however, Houk’s contract was not renewed. Houk did not want to return, proclaiming that five years was long enough for him in Detroit.

Houk later managed the Boston Red Sox for four seasons from 1981 to 1984, watching from afar as his former team matured into the American League juggernaut. He retired after the ’84 season and never again managed. He had won eight World Series rings: four as a player, two as a coach, and two as a manager. He died in 2010 at the age of 90 and was buried with full military honors.