Respect for the dead doesn’t demand a revision of the historical record. I liked Ralph Houk, too, and was sad to hear of his passing last Wednesday. Yes, Houk was respected by the players that he managed, particularly Mickey Mantle (whom he made the Yankees captain, or at least their unofficial team leader) and Whitey Ford (whom he put into the regular four-man rotation for the first time in his career and who responded by winning 66 games from 1961-1963).
Houk was not, however, respected by all Yankee players. Clete Boyer, for instance, was miffed about Houk’s role when he was Yankees GM in the firing of Yogi Berra.
While working on a biography of Yogi, I talked to Boyer, who told me “That stuff said about Yogi having communication problems with the players was bullshit, and everyone knew it. Who did Yogi have trouble communicating with? Not with me. Not with Ellie Howard, who hit over .300 that year. Not with Mickey or Whitey, who played their hearts out for him. Did Mantle and Ford stay out late a few nights when Yogi was manager? Hell, yes, and they did it when Casey was manager, and you know what? They even did it when Houk was manager …
“The truth was that Houk was jealous of Yogi. Houk had been nothing but a scrub, a backup, for years, and he resented the fact that Yogi was a much greater player and much more popular. And, in my opinion, just as good a manager.”
In his obit for Houk in the New York Times, Richard Goldstein
simply wrote that, “Berra, having never won the players’ respect the way Houk had, was fired after the 1964 season and replaced with Johnny Keane, who had managed the Cardinals to the Series championship and then quit.”
It wasn’t quite as simple as that. Berra, according to some players did have the Yankees’ respect, not just Boyer but also Jim Bouton, who tells us “Yogi was a fine manager, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying.” We’re not saying Boyer was right about Houk being jealous of Yogi, but Berra was treated shamefully by the Yankees front office, and no matter how you twist it, that must include Ralph Houk.
The Yankees schemed by contacting Johnny Keane (who had his own reason for being disenchanted with the Cardinals), well before the 1964 World Series between the Cardinals and Yankees, Yogi and the Yankees pulled themselves together after the infamous Phil Linz harmonica incident on August 20 of that season, won the pennant, and stretched the World Series to the seventh and final game before losing to the Cards — despite an injury to Whitey Ford. Yet the decision had apparently already been made to fire Yogi whether the Yankees won or lost. We call that a raw deal no matter how you cut it.
Yes, Ralph Houk was a brave man and risked his life for his country at Normandy. But that doesn’t excuse his complicity in a moment in Yankee history more shameful than anything perpetrated by George Steinbrenner.
By the way, Yogi risked his life at Normandy, too.