Ralph Houk’s bumpy road to Detroit

Ralph Houk joined the Tigers shortly after resigning as manager of the Yankees. But it wasn’t that simple thanks to new Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and the owner of the Oakland A’s, Charlie Finley.

The Yankees wanted to hire A’s manager Dick Williams, even though he was still under contract with Finley.

No bother.

The Yankees hired him anyway. Of course, Finley raised hell and demanded the Yankees compensate his club with a player or two. Then, the Yankees asked American League President Joe Cronin to require the Tigers to compensate them for hiring Houk.

In the end, Williams didn’t manage the Yankees, the Tigers didn’t owe them anything, and they ended up hiring Bill Virdon – who held the job for a season and a half until Billy Martin, whose firing in Detroit started this whole mess, was hired by Steinbrenner. Finley wound up hiring Alvin Dark to manage the A’s in 1974.

Ralph Houk: Bridge between Martin and Anderson (and technically Les Moss)

RalphHoukRalph Houk was the first Tigers manager I ever knew. I paid more attention to the players then – Jason Thompson, Steve Kemp and Aurelio Rodriguez – but I now wish I would have had the attention span to listen to his post-game interviews on Channel 4 or on WJR. I was only nine when baseball appeared on my radar so I’ll have to remember Houk, who died on July 22, 2010, at the age of 90, through the pages of my Tigers Yearbooks and media guides.

Or so I thought.

Thanks to the magic of the Internet, we can piece together Ralph Houk’s arrival in Detroit, where he presided over one of the bleakest periods of baseball in the city’s history, and displayed the least managerial charisma this side of Luis Pujols.

October 1973: Replacing Billy Martin

How bad were the New York Yankees in the early 1970s? Bad enough that their manager left the Bronx for the same job with the Tigers. That might be a stretch, but not by much. The 1973 Tigers finished 85-77, third in the six-team American League East, five games ahead of the 80-82 Yankees. So one could guess that Detroit was actually a step up. It was at least in the view of Ralph Houk, who won 970 games in New York over 10 seasons and was the successor to the legendary Casey Stengel. He would have nowhere near that success with the Tigers.

So, why would he leave New York? According to his obituary in The New York Times, not surprisingly, the reason was The Boss:

In January 1973, a syndicate headed by [George] Steinbrenner bought the team. Under CBS, Houk had a free hand on the field while Lee MacPhail handled the front-office duties. But Steinbrenner let Houk know how he felt things should be done and was overheard making derogatory comments about some of the players.

Houk resigned on the final day of the 1973 season, despite having two years remaining on a contract that paid him in the neighborhood of $75,000 per year. It would be roughly the same amount Tigers GM Jim Campbell would pay him each of the three years on his contract – which at the time made Houk the highest-paid manager in Tigers history.

So what was Houk’s vision when he came to Detroit? To erase “the thin line between losing and winning”, and to rebuild “but not make change for the sake of change.” That’s what he told the AP during his introductory press conference at his Oct. 11, 1973 introductory press conference – at which he was two hours late due to a series of flight delays. (Couldn’t get a direct flight from New York?) “I like the batting power. That’s what always worried me when we played Detroit,” Houk told the UPI.

And he knew of what he spoke: the Tigers trailed only the Indians in 1973 in home runs (157); in 72 they finished third behind Boston and Oakland with 122. Detroit led the league with 179 in 1971.

During his first press conference, Houk also told reporters that he wanted Al Kaline to be his designated hitter in 1974. And Kaline was the Tigers primary DH that season, hitting .262 with 28 doubles, 13 HR, 64 RBI and a .726 OPS in his final season. The mid-1970s didn’t provide Tigers fans much in the way of relevance in the American League East standings. But they weren’t expected to contend. Houk’s job was to develop the Tigers young players and clear the runway for a contender in the 1980s – if not sooner.

Though he was at the helm for one of the most dreadful seasons – 1975, when the club finished 57-102, the fifth-worst season in team history – and one of the most captivating stories of the decade, if not franchise history: Ron LeFlore’s journey from Jackson State Prison to Tiger Stadium.

Houk’s Tigers had nowhere to go but up in 1976 – and they did, winning 17 more games and improving to 74-86. The story in 1976, of course, was Mark Fidrych, who emerged from fringe prospect to national sensation and became the star-attraction on a team filled with journeymen. Fidrych, of course, went 19-9, started the All-Star Game and won the American League Rookie of the Year Award.

Turning the Corner Slowly

It was in 1977 that Houk and the Tigers began introducing fans to the young players that would become the core of the 1984 World Series champions. That season, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Lance Parrish, Jack Morris and Dan Petry arrived in Detroit to join Kemp and Thompson. The club finished 74-88 in fourth place an improvement over the fifth-place finish in 76 but not really. The expansion Blue Jays joined the American League East that season serving as the rising tide to lift every team in the standings.The Tigers seemed to turn the corner in 1978, finishing with their best record under Houk, 86-76, but dropped to fifth place.Houk_Card

“It’s time for me to go fishing.”

On Sept. 21, 1978, Houk surprised the Tigers when he announced his retirement at the end of the season. The 59-year-old Kansas native wanted to spend his summers at the fishing hole, but on the way out he wanted to stick it to the media, whom he saw as never giving him a fair shake in Detroit.

“The pressure of you people, the press that’s been the toughest thing,” he told the AP when he announced his retirement. Then with a laugh he added, “You can’t slap writers any more. You can’t punch them. You can’t do anything. A lot has changed.”

“I’ve been treated so great here,” Houk was quoted by the UPI. “It’s been an interesting job but the only way I could have stayed here five years was my associations with Mr. Campbell and Mr. Fetzer.” “Truthfully, I did not intend to stay here this long,” Houk said. “It’s been gratifying to me to see some of the young players we have stuck with develop.” Check this out from the same UPI story:

Houk, 59, originally signed a three-year contract to manage the Tigers but it was replaced after 1976 with a unique self-renewing agreement that raised his pay above the average of his contemporaries and provided for additional attendance and club performance bonuses.

It also had a built-in year of severance pay should the contract be terminated by either side. Campbell had said repeatedly Houk could manage the Tigers for as long as he wanted.

Performance bonuses? Attendance clauses? And for all these years we thought the Tigers brass was living in the 1920s. Knowing Campbell’s cheapskate reputation, I’d guess those attendance bonuses were unattainable given the quality of the ball club.

All told, Houk’s Tigers teams won 363 games and lost 443 from 1974-78. Hardly outstanding but probably right in line with what Campbell expected when he hired him.

The Tigers named Les Moss, then the manager of their Triple-A Evansville club, to replace Houk for the 1979 season. As we know, that experiment lasted all of 53 games before the Tigers cut him loose in favor of Sparky Anderson.

Houk returned to the dugout in 1981 as manager of the Red Sox, a job he held until 1984. I remember thinking at the time that it had to be strange for Houk to be back at Tiger Stadium in ’84 watching many of his former players steamroll their way to the World Series. Or gratifying … or both.

By most accounts, Ralph Houk wasn’t a warm human being, particularly with the press, but he was probably the ideal man for the job. And that job was to bridge the gap between the 1968 champions and the next generation of Tigers, the guys who won the World Series in 1984. He’ll never have the legacy of his successor, Sparky Anderson, but Ralph Houk’s place in Tigers history is an important one – if often forgotten.

The Friday Fungoes: White Sox, Geno’s First Homer, and Jimmy Connors

It’s Friday. It’s Labor Day Weekend. It’s the White Sox and Tigers at Comerica Park. What’s not to like? Besides the White Sox, of course.

Leading Off: The Royals continued their irritating ways yesterday, out-slugging the Tigers 11-8, to earn a split of the four-game series. Let’s face it, Kansas City could’ve very easily swept this series and probably should have. Overshadowed by the Royals’ plucky play was a tremendous day for Magglio Ordonez: a homer, two doubles and stole a base — his first of the year. Rookie Jacob Turner was rocked for six earned runs but thanks to the Tigers’ comebacks he avoided taking the loss. Austin Jackson hit his eighth homer of the year and is at last hitting above .250.

[callout title=The Friday Rundown]

The Tigers are in first place, 5.5 games ahead of the White Sox and Indians.

Today’s Game: Tigers vs. White Sox – Justin Verlander (20-5, 2.38 ERA) vs. John Danks (6-9, 3.63 ERA) | 7:05 p.m. – FSD/1270 AM and 97.1 FM

Tigers Lineup

  1. Austin Jackson, CF
  2. Magglio Ordonez, RF
  3. Delmon Young, LF
  4. Miguel Cabrera, 1B
  5. Victor Martinez, DH
  6. Alex Avila, C
  7. Jhonny Peralta, SS
  8. Ramon Santiago, 2B
  9. Brandon Inge, 3B

White Sox Lineup

  1. Juan Pierre, LF
  2. Alexei Ramirez, SS
  3. Paul Konerko, 1B
  4. A.J. Pierzynski, DH
  5. Dayan Viciedo, RF
  6. Alejandro de Aza, CF
  7. Tyler Flowers, C
  8. Brent Morel, 3B
  9. Gordon Beckham, 2B

Notes on Verlander

  • He’s 11-1 with a 2.62 ERA in his previous 12 starts against division opponents this season.
  • In four starts against the White Sox this season he’s 3-1 with a 4.03 ERA. Lifetime, he’s 10-10, 4.45 ERA in 23 starts.

Notes on Danks

  • Danks is making his 14th career start vs. the Tigers and third in 2011. He’s 1-1 with a 3.00 ERA in 2011 and 4-5 with a 3.95 ERA lifetime.
  • In his last three starts in Detroit, Danks is 0-3 with a 4.76 ERA  and a .329 opponents average.

[/callout]

Around the Central: The A’s smoked and blanked the Indians, 7-0, to salvage a game in that series … the White Sox and Twins were off. Tonight the Indians travel to Kansas City for the first of three against the Royals, and the Twins face the Angels in Anaheim.

The Tigers enter tonight’s game having won 15 of the team’s last 21 games over the White Sox dating back to Aug. 14, 2010. They’re hitting .293 with 115 runs scored, 35 doubles, four triples and 23 home runs over the 21-game stretch versus Chicago. Tigers pitchers have compiled a 3.33 ERA during the stretch against the White Sox.

This is the first time Delmon Young will face the White Sox as a member of the Tigers. It could be good timing: he’s batting .344 with 14 doubles, nine home runs and 35 RBI in 57 games during his career against them. However, Magglio Ordonez has the best lifetime stats against tonight’s starter Danks: he’s hitting .517 (15-29) with two home runs and seven RBI lifetime.

In case you were wondering, here’s how the Tigers have fared day-by-day through the first five months and one day of the season: Monday 8-9, Tuesday 13-6, Wednesday 10-10, Thursday 9-8, Friday 11-10, Saturday 10-11, Sunday 14-8.

Happy 27th Birthday to Dusty Ryan and Happy 59th to Nate Snell.

On this date in 1970, Gene Lamont homered in his first major league at bat, but the Red Sox beat the Tigers, 10-1, in the second game of a doubleheader in Fenway Park.

On Sept. 2, 1973, the Tigers fired manager Billy Martin. In many ways, I still can’t believe the Tigers — Jim Campbell’s Tigers — ever hired him.

On this date in 1987, Tom Candiotti pitched his second one-hitter of the season, but also walks seven batters and makes an error as the Indians lose to Detroit, 2-1. Matt Nokes’ single with two out in the eighth is the Tigers’ only hit.

The American League Cy Young race isn’t over, says Tim Kurkjian, but Justin Verlander will win it.

Finally, just in time for the U.S. Open (one of my favorite sporting events of the year) we wish a Happy 59th Birthday to Tennis Hall of Famer Jimmy Connors. He won the U.S. Open singles title in 1974, 1976, 1978, 1982 and 1983.

Have a great weekend and be safe.

Opening the Tigers’ History Book

OldBookXSmall.jpgWhile we await the Tigers’ next move this offseason, let’s look back on the trades the club made on this day in …

And on Nov. 20, 1985, the Pirates hired White Sox third base coach Jim Leyland to be the club’s 33rd manager in history.

Tigers Today: September 25, 2010

BondermanHead.jpgTigers’ Record:

78-75, 3rd Place; 14 GB

Today’s Game

Tigers vs. Twins | 7:05 p.m. ET – Comerica Park | On the air: FSD/AM 1270 and 97.1 FM

Pitching Matchup

Jeremy Bonderman (8-9, 4.92 ERA) vs. Carl Pavano (17-11, 3.60 ERA)

Yesterday’s Results

Tigers 10 – Twins 1

Continue reading “Tigers Today: September 25, 2010”

Remembering Ralph Houk

Ralph Houk was the first Tigers manager I ever knew.
RalphHouk
I paid more attention to the players then — Jason Thompson, Steve Kemp and Aurelio Rodriguez — but I now wish I would have had the attention span to listen to his post-game interviews on Channel 4 or on WJR

Alas, I was only nine when baseball appeared on my radar so I’ll have to remember Houk, who died on July 22 at the age of 90, through the pages of my Tigers Yearbooks and media guides.

Or so I thought.

Thanks to the magic of the Internet, we can piece together Ralph Houk’s arrival in Detroit, where he presided over one of the bleakest periods of baseball in the city’s history, and displayed the least managerial charisma this side of Luis Pujols.

October 1973: Replacing Billy Martin

How bad were the New York Yankees in the early 1970s? Bad enough that their manager left the Bronx for the same job with the Tigers. That might be a stretch, but not by much.

The 1973 Tigers finished 85-77, third in the six-team American League East, five games ahead of the 80-82 Yankees. So one could guess that Detroit was actually an upgrade. It was at least in the view of Ralph Houk, who won 970 games in New York over 10 seasons and was the successor to the legendary Casey Stengel.

He would have nowhere near that success with the Tigers. So, why would he leave New York? According to his obituary in The New York Times, not surprisingly, the reason was The Boss:

In January 1973, a syndicate headed by [George] Steinbrenner bought the team. Under CBS, Houk had a free hand on the field while Lee MacPhail handled the front-office duties. But Steinbrenner let Houk know how he felt things should be done and was overheard making derogatory comments about some of the players.

Houk resigned on the final day of the 1973 season, despite having two years remaining on a contract that paid him in the neighborhood of $75,000 per year. It would be roughly the same amount Tigers GM Jim Campbell would pay him each of the three years on his contract — which at the time made Houk the highest-paid manager in Tigers history.

[callout title=A Bumpy Road to Detroit]Ralph Houk joined the Tigers shortly after resigning as manager of the Yankees. But it wasn’t that simple thanks to new Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and the owner of the Oakland A’s, Charlie Finley.

The Yankees wanted to hire A’s manager Dick Williams, even though he was still under contract with Finley.

No bother.

The Yankees hired him anyway. Of course, Finley raised hell and demanded the Yankees compensate his club with a player or two. Then, the Yankees asked American League President Joe Cronin to require the Tigers to compensate them for hiring Houk.

In the end, Williams didn’t manage the Yankees, the Tigers didn’t owe them anything, and they ended up hiring Bill Virdon — who held the job for a season and a half until Billy Martin, whose firing in Detroit started this whole mess, was hired by Steinbrenner. Finley wound up hiring Alvin Dark to manage the A’s in 1974.
[/callout]

So what was Houk’s vision when he came to Detroit? To erase “the thin line between losing and winning”, and to rebuild “but not make change for the sake of change.”

That’s what he told the AP during his introductory press conference at his Oct. 11, 1973 introductory press conference — at which he was two hours late due to a series of flight delays. (Couldn’t get a direct flight from New York?)

“I like the batting power. That’s what always worried me when we played Detroit,” Houk told the UPI. And he knew of what he spoke: the Tigers trailed only the Indians in 1973 in home runs (157); in ’72 they finished third behind Boston and Oakland with 122. Detroit led the league with 179 in 1971.

During his first press conference, Houk also told reporters that he wanted Al Kaline to be his designated hitter in 1974. And Kaline was the Tigers’ primary DH that season, hitting .262 with 28 doubles, 13 HR, 64 RBI and a .726 OPS in his final season.

The mid-1970s didn’t provide Tigers fans much in the way of relevance in the American League East standings. But they weren’t expected to contend. Houk’s job was to develop the Tigers’ young players and clear the runway for a contender in the 1980s — if not sooner.

Though he was at the helm for one of the most dreadful seasons — 1975, when the club finished 57-102, the fifth-worst season in team history — and one of the most captivating stories of the decade, if not franchise history: Ron LeFlore’s journey from Jackson State Prison to Tiger Stadium.

Houk’s Tigers had nowhere to go but up in 1976 — and they did, winning 17 more games and improving to 74-86.

The story in 1976, of course, was Mark Fidrych, a gangly right-handed pitcher, who emerged from fringe prospect to national sensation and became the star-attraction on a team filled with journeymen. Fidrych, of course, went 19-9, started the All-Star Game and won the American League Rookie of the Year Award.

Turning the Corner…Slowly

It was in 1977 that Houk and the Tigers began introducing fans to the young players that would become the core of the 1984 World Series champions. That season, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Lance Parrish, Jack Morris and Dan Petry arrived in Detroit to join Steve Kemp and Jason Thompson.

The club finished 74-88 in fourth place – an improvement over the fifth-place finish in ’76 … but not really. The expansion Blue Jays joined the American League East that season and, by comparison, every team got better.

Houk_Card

The Tigers seemed to turn the corner in 1978, finishing with their best record under Houk, 86-76, but dropped to fifth place.

“It’s time for me to go fishing.”

On Sept. 21, 1978, Houk surprised the Tigers when he announced his retirement at the end of the season. The 59-year-old Kansas native wanted to spend his summers at the fishing hole, but on the way out he wanted to stick it to the media, whom he saw as never giving him a fair shake in Detroit.

“The pressure of you people, the press … that’s been the toughest thing,” he told the AP when he announced his retirement. Then with a laugh he added, “You can’t slap writers any more. You can’t punch them. You can’t do anything. A lot has changed.”

“I’ve been treated so great here,” Houk was quoted by the UPI. “It’s been an interesting job but the only way I could have stayed here five years was my associations with Mr. Campbell and Mr. Fetzer.”

“Truthfully, I did not intend to stay here this long,” Houk said. “It’s been gratifying to me to see some of the young players we have stuck with develop.”

Check this out from the same UPI story:

Houk, 59, originally signed a three-year contract to manage the Tigers but it was replaced after 1976 with a unique self-renewing agreement that raised his pay above the average of his contemporaries and provided for additional attendance and club performance bonuses.

It also had a built-in year of severance pay should the contract be terminated by either side. Campbell had said repeatedly Houk could manage the Tigers for as long as he wanted.

Performance bonuses? Attendance clauses? And for all these years we thought the Tigers’ brass was living in the 1920s. Knowing Campbell’s reputation for employing skinflint tendencies, I’d guess those attendance bonuses were
unattainable given the quality of the ball club.

All told, Houk’s Tigers teams won 363 games and lost 443 from 1974-78. Hardly outstanding but probably right in line with what Campbell expected when he hired him.

The Tigers named Les Moss, then the manager of their Triple-A Evansville club, to replace Houk for the 1979 season.

As we know, that experiment lasted all of 53 games before the Tigers cut him loose in favor of Sparky Anderson.

Houk returned to the dugout in 1981 as manager of the Red Sox, a job he held until 1984. I remember thinking at the time that it had to be strange for Houk to be back at Tiger Stadium in ’84 watching many of his former players steamroll their way to the World Series. Or gratifying … or both.

By most accounts, Ralph Houk wasn’t a warm human being, particularly with the press, but he was probably the ideal man for the job. And that job was to bridge the gap between the 1968 champions and the next generation of Tigers, the guys who won the World Series in 1984.

He’ll never have the legacy of his successor, Sparky Anderson, but Ralph Houk’s place in Tigers history is an important one — if often forgotten.

Trades! (From 50+ Years Ago)

On Nov. 20. 1957, the Tigers and Kansas City Athletics pulled off a 13-player trade which included second baseman Billy Martin, outfielder Gus Zernial and pitcher Mickey McDermott coming to Detroit.

So what, you ask? So, exactly one year later the Tigers sent Martin and pitcher Al Cicotte to the Indians for relievers Ray Narleski and Don Mossi, and shortstop Ossie Alvarez.

Not the most exciting stuff but, hey, at least it’s about two trades that actually materialized.