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.

Today’s Tiger: Champ Summers

Champ Summers

 

  • Born: June 15, 1946 in Bremerton, Wash.
  • Died: Oct. 11, 2012
  • Acquired: Traded by the Reds to the Tigers for a player to be named later on May 25, 1979. The Tigers sent Sheldon Burnside to the Reds to complete the trade October 25, 1979.
  • Seasons in Detroit: 3 (1979-81)
  • Bats: Left Throws: Right
  • Height: 6′ 2″, Weight: 205 lb.
  • Uniform Number: 24
  • Stats: .293 avg., 40 HR, 132 RBI, .896 OPS

Champ Summers was a fan favorite in Detroit and for good reason. He came to the Tigers as a career underachiever — at least at the major-league level — in an under-the-radar trade roughly a week before they hired Sparky Anderson in 1979.ChampSummers

The year before, John Junior Summers was the Minor League Player of the Year for the Reds’ top farm club, Indianapolis of the American Association. He led the AA with a .368 average, 34 homers and 124 RBI. It was in the majors, though, where Summers struggled to out together a career — and it wasn’t from a lack of opportunities. After debuting with the A’s in 1974 — a team with a loaded outfield featuring Reggie Jackson, Joe Rudi, Rick Monday and Bill North, among others — he spent two seasons with the Cubs (hitting only .217 with four home runs.) Next up was parts of three seasons with the Reds … and a .199 average.

In 1979, Summers was hitting .200 with a single home run after 27 early-season games with the Reds. But on May 25, the Reds sent him to the Tigers and, at the age of 30, he began the best three seasons of his career.

That season he batted .313 with 20 home runs (14 solo) in 90 games and posted a .614 slugging percentage along with a 1.028 OPS. Anderson played Summers primarily in rightfield with a few DH assignments sprinkled in.

The Tigers rewarded him with a three-year contract near the end of the ’79 season. He told the UPI:

“I really enjoy it here. I really feel at home,” Summers said. “Sparky likes me and I like him.”

(snip)

Summers approached the club recently the possibility of signing a contract for next season.”I wanted to know so I could make plans for this winter,” he said. “After I signed, it was like a great weight lifted off my shoulders. I never felt wanted before.”

Tigers fans loved Summers and he continued to provide punch to a young lineup. In 1980, his numbers slipped ever-so slightly but they were solid: .297/17/60 with an OPS of .897. His production dropped further in the strike-shortened season of 1981 when, at age 35, his average fell to .255 and his power numbers plummeted, too. Summers hit only three home runs and eight doubles in 64 games in what would be his final season in Detroit.

In March 1982 the Tigers dealt him to the Giants for first baseman Enos Cabell. Summers would struggle in his two seasons in San Francisco, posting a .231 average and four home runs. In ’83 he hit .136 in 29 games.He was on the move again in December 1983 when the Giants traded him to division rival San Diego. Summers appeared in just 47 games for Dick Williams’ Padres and hit .185 with no home runs.

Summers’ career would end in the ballpark where he had his greatest success, albeit on the losing end of the 1984 World Series. His lone career World Series at bat came as a pinch hitter in game four at Tiger Stadium. Pinch hitting for Alan Wiggins with two out in the top of the eighth, Summers struck out swinging against Jack Morris.

The next day NBC showed him as he sat on the top step of the visitors dugout watching the Tigers celebrate their championship. I still wonder if they showed him because he was a former Tiger or because he looked so forlorn. Perhaps both.

At the age of 38, Champ Summers’ career had come to and end — just as he predicted in the 1979 UPI story announcing his Tigers contract:

“If think I can play five more years,” he said. “If Yaz can play ’til he’s 40, I can play ’til I’m 38. I take good care of myself.”

Summers passed away from kidney cancer on Oct. 11, 2012. That day the Tigers defeated the A’s 6-0 in Game 5 of the American League Division series.

The Case for Jack Morris – and Everyone Else

Scott Raab of Esquire lobs this grenade into the Jack Morris/Hall of Fame discussion:

The Baseball Writers’ Association of America was founded in 1908 and boasts more than 800 members, many of whom were hypnotized at some point during the 1980s and programmed to vote Jack Morris into the Hall of Fame because — they really say this — “Jack Morris knew how to win,” which means that although Jack’s numbers aren’t dazzling in the context of Cooperstown, he had grit, and he was savvy, and he was a warrior, a legend, one of the best big-game pitchers baseball has ever seen.

In the other corner, living in their parents’ basements: the Sons of Bill James … He is Yahweh to a 30-year generation of dweebs, baseball writers and broadcasters, and general managers, and there is a general consensus among them that — based on a fair, square preponderance of data — Jack Morris, while a very good pitcher, was not among the very greatest, and is thus unworthy of the Hall.

Read the rest here.

 

 

Does It Matter if Morris and Trammell Aren’t in the Hall of Fame?

It’s been two weeks since the Baseball Hall of Fame announced that not a single player would be enshrined this summer. Not Jack Morris. Not Alan Trammell. Not Kenny Lofton. Not anyone.

Leading up to that not-surprising-yet-disappointing announcement by Hall President Jeff Idelson, I listened to the pro-Morris and anti-Morris crowds shout their claims as to why the man either belonged in Cooperstown or would become, at best, the pitching version of Jim Rice: a solid major leaguer with some notable accomplishments but not worthy of a call from the Hall.

With one year of eligibility remaining, Morris hovers close to the 75 percent required for election; this year he appeared on 67.7 percent of writers’ ballots. Tram appeared on just 33.6 percent. I keep thinking Morris’ day will come but after reading Rob Neyer’s analysis, I’m thinking neither star from the ’84 team will end up with a plaque in the Hall of Fame. A few years ago, on ye olde podcast, Lynn Henning told me that he didn’t think Morris would get in but that Trammell would … some day.

Here’s what Rob said:

This was Biggio’s — and Jeff Bagwell‘s, and Mike Piazza‘s, and Curt Schilling‘s, and Alan Trammell‘s, and Jack Morris‘s, and Tim Raines‘s, and everyone else’s — best chance for a while. For them, what’s next is a lot of years hoping for a phone call that won’t come.

(And if you want some more on the Morris thing, read Rob’s column from last week. Yowza.)

The goodwill for Trammell seems to grow every year but it never translate into votes. Maybe that’s because he still has three more years on the ballot, who knows? Nevertheless, Sports Illustrated‘s Jay Jaffe says Tram belongs:

While that’s reassuring as far as justice eventually being served, Trammell deserves better than to have to wait. He held his own among the great shortstops of the 1980s and ’90s in his day, and he deserves his spot alongside them in Cooperstown.

But then I got to thinking: Does it even matter if Trammell and Morris aren’t in the Hall of Fame? Does it matter they might not ever get in?

No, it doesn’t matter. At least not to me. Is this fueled by resignation? Sure, to some degree.

The more I read about their respective candidacies, the more I enjoyed being reminded of their careers with the Tigers and the truckloads of memories they provided for more than a decade. Long-time readers of this site know I’m a die-hard Morris fan, my first-ever Tigers game coinciding with his first major-league win. And I’ll never forget how Trammell put the Tigers on his back the final week of the 1987 season to clinch a division title.

Of course I want to see my favorite players in the Hall of Fame. But if they aren’t, does it mean they aren’t among the best players ever to play the game? Nope. At the very least, they’re among the best players ever to play for the Tigers.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Three for Thursday: Tram and the Hall, The Return of Willie Blair and Lame Journalism

A few morsels for you on a slow news day:

1. Now that most of the glitzy offseason moves have been completed, attention is turning to the Hall of Fame ballot. For Tigers fans that means lots of anti-Jack Morris articles and a few pro-Alan Trammell pieces. At SI.com, Jay Jaffe makes the case for Tram:

Despite his Hall of Fame-caliber numbers, the BBWAA voters have given Trammell little recognition in 11 years on the ballot. His candidacy deserves a closer look while he’s still got at least a puncher’s chance.

Jaffe does an excellent job examining Tram’s career and how it stacks up against his American League East contemporaries.

2. Remember Willie Blair? Sure you do. In four seasons with the Tigers, 1997 and 1999 to 2001, he compiled a 30-29 record with a 5.44 ERA. He won 16 games for the ’97 Tigers. Anyway, this week he was named the Padres’ new bullpen coach.

3. This might be the stupidest thing I’ve read all week. And maybe longer than that.

Finally, Happy 36th Birthday to Aubrey Huff. Yeah, I know.