My grandfather hated Ralph Houk.
That seems like such a strange thing to say because Ralph Houk was in so many ways a benign and unoffensive figure in baseball history. But my grandpa, the late Dr. R. Edward Vioni of Bridgeport, Connecticut, hated Ralph Houk.
The reason why he hated him is actually quite simple to understand. My grandpa’s favorite figure in baseball was Yogi Berra. My grandpa, or Pa as we called him and how I will refer to him the rest of this blog post, was of Italian ancestry.
Yogi Berra, a paisan, was a star for the many Yankee teams he watched and raised my mother on. The Yankees were the team of Joe DiMaggio and Phil Rizzuto and to be sure, Pa loved them too. But Yogi was his guy.
All the years the Yankees won, year in and year out, Yogi was their most valuable player despite never leading the league in any offensive category. Yogi had the goofy persona but clearly had a baseball IQ off the charts.
When Casey Stengel was winding down his managerial career, Pa wanted Yogi to take over as manager.
Instead, when Stengel was let go after the 1960 World Series, the baton was passed to Ralph Houk.
He was a career backup catcher, only playing 31 games total between 1950 and 1954. Yogi Berra did the bulk of the catching and it was hard to argue with the results.
Along the way, he appeared in two World Series games, one in 1947 and one in 1952, and picked up additional World Series rings along the way.
He was also a war hero. Houk rose to the rank of Major and earned the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart and Silver Star as a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge.
A hard working war hero journeyman catcher… and Pa hated him.
Houk played a single game in 1954 and retired as a player. He began to manage in the Yankees farm system. He was successful managing three years in Denver before he rejoined the Yankees as a coach for Stengel.
In 1960, health issues forced the 70 year old Stengel to take some time off. Houk filled in for Stengel and did quite well. Realizing that they had a top managerial prospect in their midst, the Yankees acted proactively.
After the dramatic World Series loss in 1960 to Pittsburgh, Stengel was let go. They did not want another club to swallow up Houk so they named him manager.
THAT is when Dr. R. Edward Vioni, aka Pa, hated Ralph Houk. That job should have been Yogi’s. All they did was win year in and year out with Yogi behind the plate… or was it because of Houk’s 8 games coming off the bench a year?
Houk’s first year as manager was an unqualified success. The Yankees won an eye popping 109 games and Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle spent the season chasing down Babe Ruth. Maris found an ally in Houk as the pressure of the season built up. While other fans saw his handling of the pitching staff, especially Whitey Ford, was a lot less rigid and frustrating as it was during Stengel’s last few seasons.
He was named the American League Manager of the Year for 1961 and the Yankees beat the Reds in the World Series.
Did he win over Pa? OF COURSE NOT! He claimed the Yankees won IN SPITE of Ralph Houk.
Yogi played 119 games that year, mainly in the outfield as Elston Howard was now taking most of the days at catcher.
1962 saw another championship season for Houk and the Yankees. They won 96 games and topped San Francisco in a heartstopping World Series. Mickey Mantle won the MVP and Bobby Richardson was the runner up.
Back to back World Series did not win over Pa.
1963 meant he was 3 for 3 with American League pennants as skipper of the team. They won 104 games and Elston Howard was named MVP. They faced a buzzsaw named Sandy Koufax in the 4 game World Series sweep against Los Angeles, but Houk had established himself as a worthy big league skipper.
Pa was still not a fan.
General manaer Roy Hamey retired after the World Series and Houk took his place. Who took Houk’s place as manager of the Yankees.
FINALLY it was Yogi Berra. Pa could be happy now. The Yankees were under Yogi’s guidance. It was HIS team now.
They won the 1964 pennant in a razor thin chase, finishing 1 game ahead of the White Sox and 2 games ahead of the hard charging Baltimore Orioles.
Yogi’s Yankees lost a hard fought World Series to the Cardinals, but he kept the Yankee streak of pennants alive and it was on to 1965.
But the Yankee management made a decision that seemed shocking at the time and short sighted with hindsight. They fired Yogi Berra and brought in Johnny Keane, the manager of the Cardinals. Perhaps the logic was “Yogi couldn’t win Game 7, so let’s bring in the manager that did.”
Was it General Manager Ralph Houk who made that call or one of his bosses? Does it matter? It didn’t matter to Pa. Ralph Houk, the man who took Yogi’s job in 1961 fired him in 1964.
When Yogi moved to the Mets as a coach and eventually a manager, he took Pa’s loyalty with him.
The Yankees faltered in 1965 under Keane, finishing under .500. 20 games into 1966, it was clear that Keane was the wrong fit and Houk stepped back in as manager. Oh, that must have thrilled Pa.
The Yankees began their biggest post season drought since the arrival of Babe Ruth under Houk’s watch. When he had Hall of Famers in their prime, he won pennants. When they were aging veterans, he couldn’t bring the team over .500.
The team stumbled through the end of the 1960’s and into the 1970’s with no more post season appearances. His final year was 1973, which was George Steinbrenner’s first with the team.
That year all of New York’s baseball attention was on the Mets who won the National League pennant. Their manager? Yogi Berra.
After being let go by the Yankees, he took over the Tigers who were also in full rebuilding mode. The team lost 102 games in 1975 but became one of the biggest draws in baseball in 1976. He was the manager of Mark Fidrych during his magical rookie season. But he managed only one winning season in Detroit, his final one in 1978.
Sparky Anderson took over the club not long after his dismissal and lay down the foundation of the 1984 title team.
I remember Houk managing the Red Sox starting in 1981. Sadly Pa passed away in 1979 and I never got to hear about him complain about Houk there.
He took over a Red Sox team in transition. In his first year, Yaz and Rice were still there. But it was the first year after Fred Lynn, Rick Burleson and Carlton Fisk left.
The teams he managed consistently won more than they lost but were never really contenders save for the second half squad in 1981.
Under his watch players like Wade Boggs, Marty Barrett, Rich Gedman, Bruce Hurst and Oil Can Boyd matured. Roger Clemens was recalled during his final season, 1984. So, like in Detroit, he was planting the seeds of a pennant winner. But unlike his first stint in New York, he was not there to benefit from those seeds blossoming.
Houk was let go after 1984 and save for a few years in the Twins front office was out of baseball for good. He retired to Florida and died in 2010.
For the record, the Yankee manager during Ralph Houk’s final season was Yogi Berra.
He kept the Yankee flame alive for a few more years. Not many managers go to the World Series in each of their first three seasons.
But that wasn’t enough for Pa. He never liked him. He took Yogi’s job.