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.

Today’s Tiger: Tito Fuentes

Tito Fuentes

  • Born: January 4, 1944 in Havana, Cuba.
  • Acquired: Signed as a free agent on Feb. 23, 1977
  • Height: 5′ 11″ Weight: 175 lb.
  • Seasons in Detroit: 1 (1977)
  • Uniform Number: 3, 44
  • Stats: .309 avg., 5 HR, 51 RBI, .745 OPS

When the Tigers sought a player to oversee second base until Lou Whitaker was ready, they could have done a lot worse than Rigoberto “Tito” Fuentes.

Offensively, that is.

TitoFuentesThe switch-hitting 33 year old trailed only Ron LeFlore‘s team-leading .325 average that season but was brutal in the field. He led all American League second baseman with 26 errors, and posted a .970 fielding percentage.

Fans that remember Fuentes’ brief stop in Detroit are more likely to recall his signature bat flip when he approached the plate, tapping the bat handle on the plate, flip it up and catch the handle. This was a move widely imitated during Wiffle Ball games in my neighborhood, and probably others around Detroit, too.

After his one season with the Tigers, his contract was purchased by the Expos, who promptly released him in Spring Training in 1978.

The Tigers were ready to hand second base to Whitaker but picked up infielder Steve Dillard just in case.

Upon Fuentes’ departure, Jim Campbell had some interesting things to say in the Associated Press story:

“I’m not going to knock Tito,” said Tigers General Manager Jim Campbell. “He did a good job for us, especially offensively.

(snip)

“Dillard does some things better than Tito,” Campbell said. “He’s a better fielding second baseman than Tito, he covers more ground. And he runs better than Tito did.”

Good thing Campbell didn’t want to knock him.

Of course, the truth about Fuentes’ brief tenure in Detroit is probably somewhere in this paragraph from the AP story:

There also had been reports that he was haggling with Campbell over a new contract. Fuentes’ salary demands were reported to be in the $200,000 range.

And there you go.

Just ask Rusty Staub or Steve Kemp how receptive Campbell was to salary “demands.”

Fuentes spent the 1978 season, his last in the majors, with the A’s.

Oh, and if you were curious whether Dillard’s range and fielding were better: they weren’t. His fielding percentage of .958 was 12 points worse. But at least he was a better runner.

Former Tigers’ GM Bill Lajoie: “I didn’t want to be the Detroit general manager.”

Former New York Times baseball writer Murray Chass has an interesting piece on his blog about baseball general managers — and what happens after they are fired. One of the men he features is former Tigers general manager Bill Lajoie.

Bill Lajoie hasn’t been a general manager for 20 years after a seven-year term with the Tigers that ended following the 1990 season. He left that job voluntarily, and he has passed up subsequent offers to become a general manager again. In the meantime, he has worked for five other teams, currently the Pirates.

“I didn’t want to be the Detroit general manager,” Lajoie recalled, “but I did interview four other jobs and I was offered three of the jobs but I turned them down. So I obviously didn’t want to be a general manager. My wife had died the year before and my kids were in school. There was a lot of stress in that job.”

Lajoie said that two veteran general managers, Pat Gillick and Andy MacPhail, kept recommending him for general manager vacancies, and he asked them to cease and desist.

Lajoie said he was prepared to take the San Francisco job when Peter Magowan was in the process of becoming their principal owner before the 1993 season.

“I had my stuff ready to go,” he recalled, “and then Magowan told me three things I had to do. I told him you don’t have to pay me $400,000 to answer the phone.”

Lajoie, who is one of the most principled baseball men I have ever met, gave up his Detroit job because “I couldn’t get along with Jim Campbell anymore.”

John Fetzer, the Tigers’ owner and the man Commissioner Bud Selig calls his mentor, “took the job away from Campbell and gave it to me and made Campbell president.”

Lajoie is a senior advisor with the Pirates, who need all the help they can get. Before landing in Pittsburgh Lajoie worked for the Braves, the Brewers, the Red Sox and the Dodgers.

In 1989, when I was writing for my alma mater’s student paper, The Western Herald, I interviewed fellow WMU alum Lajoie and he was very generous with his time. We talked about his career as an All-American baseball player for the Broncos (he was inducted into the WMU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1982), the path leading to the Tigers’ front office and even about how the waiver system works. Just don’t ask me to explain it.

Of course, I can’t find the article anywhere in my college stuff, which is probably good. Based on some of the articles I have found, it’s likely not very good.

A final bit of trivia: Did you know that Lajoie’s 1955 Broncos were national runners up in the College World Series? They lost 7-6 to Wake Forest in the championship game.

Tigers Today: September 17, 2010

ScherzerHead.jpgTigers’ Record:

72-74, 3rd place – 15.5 games

Today’s Game

Tigers @ White Sox | 8:10 p.m. ET – US Cellular Field | On the air: FSD/AM 1270 and 97.1 FM

Pitching Matchup

Max Scherzer (10-10, 3.60 ERA) vs. Edwin Jackson (3-1, 2.94 ERA)

Yesterday’s Results

Off Day

Continue reading “Tigers Today: September 17, 2010”

Three for Thursday

Fenway Park is inching its way toward Metrodome and U.S. Cellular Field status in the heart of this Tigers fan. Anyway…

Number3.jpg

  1. I’ve long been a fan of the Oakland A’s. Admittedly, it was because I loved their gold, green and white ensemble they wore in the 1970s, but also because of Billy Martin‘s Oakland clubs in the early ’80s. The other day I picked up “Champions: The Story of the First Two Oakland A’s Dynasties and the Building of the Third” by Glenn Dickey, at the library.

    The first chapter, fittingly, is about long-time A’s owner Charlie Finley. Dickey shares this nugget: Before Finley bought the Kansas City A’s, one of his many failed attempts to buy a club included the Tigers. Can you imagine? Denny McLain and Charlie Finley? And we thought Jim Campbell was cheap…

  2. I can’t abide by Batting Stance Guy.

  3. If you’re an autograph hound, and I mean that lovingly, you can score a Zach Miner and Clete Thomas autograph on Saturday. Just donate new or gently used baseball equipment, or who provide a cash-money donation, at ABC Warehouse at 30280 Plymouth Road in Livonia from 12:30-1:30 p.m.

    The donations benefit Gloves For Kids, a program designed to provide Detroit’s youth the proper sporting equipment to participate in organized baseball and softball. Tell them The Fungo sent you…and be prepared for a blank stare.

Wanted to mention a couple of housekeeping items. Over the years I’ve grappled with the notion of advertising on The Fungo; I don’t want to clutter up the site with stuff that you have no interest in. You might have noticed that I added an Amazon block ad to the sidebar and Google Ads w-a-a-a-y down the page. A couple of things to point out. I control the Amazon ad and I’ve customized it so it shows only Tigers-related books. So, if you click on the ad and end up buying a copy, I get a morsel of revenue. And I mean morsel.

The Google Ads are there more as an experiment than anything else. I’ve had an Adsense account for about five years and in that time I’ve accrued a whopping $50 in revenue. (Google only cuts checks for $100 or more, so at my current pace I’ve got another five years before I get paid.) Of course, if you feel moved to click an ad, by all means do so.

Bottom line: I’m not going to get rich on these but every little bit helps.

Kemp for Lemon Revisited

Twenty six years ago today the Detroit Tigers traded left fielder Steve Kemp to the White Sox for Chet Lemon. It was the quintessential Jim Campbell Winter Meetings trade.

Kemp made too much money and former GM Campbell didn’t like players who held out (Rusty Staub) or won in arbitration (Kemp, again). Campbell also liked to trade players who, like Kemp and Ron LeFlore in 1979, were entering their walk year.

On Nov. 27, 1981, the Tigers and White Sox swapped outfielders both who were former top selections in the amateur draft (Lemon by Oakland in 1972, Kemp number-one overall by Detroit in 1976), were roughly the same age and who had put together similar careers to that point.

While many Tigers fans might remember Lemon as an All-Star centerfielder who hit sixth or seventh in Sparky‘s lineup, in his first season in Detroit he batted leadoff 49 times and played 93 games right field. (By early July, Lou Whitaker took over the leadoff spot for good.) It wasn’t until 1983 that he switched positions with Kirk Gibson and became the regular centerfielder…until Gary Pettis arrived in 1988. Lemon finished his first season as a Tiger with a .266 average, 19 HR and just 52 RBI in 125 games.

Lemon hit 142 homers for the Tigers in his nine seasons in Detroit and proved to be a rather durable player averaging 134 games played over that span. (Note: There’s no record of the number of rallies Lemon killed in Detroit but would it be far-fetched to think the total to be in the triple digits?)

Steve Kemp was no slouch during his five years patrolling left field at Tiger Stadium. He produced a .284 average, 89 home runs (lowered a bit with his nine homers in the strike-shortened 1981 season), and averaged 84 RBI and 23 doubles. He also displayed a keen eye at the plate averaging 75 walks — including 97 in 1978.

In his only season in Chicago, Kemp had a career year batting .286 with 19 HR and 98 RBI in 160 games. As I noted, Lemon also hit 19 home runs in 1982 but drove in nearly half the number of runs.

After the ’82 season Kemp cashed in on a free-agent contract with the New York Yankees but he, like so many other mid-’80s free agents, flopped in the Bronx. In 1983, Kemp hit .241 with just 12 home runs in 109 games. After the ’84 season he was traded with Tim Foli and cash to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Dale Berra, Alfonso Pulido and Jay Buhner.

An eye injury, suffered when Kemp was hit by a batted ball in batting practice, shortened his career in the mid-1980s. He last played in the majors in 1988 when he played in 16 games for the Texas Rangers, hitting just .222 in 36 at bats. His career batting average in 11 seasons was .278 — five points higher than Lemon’s.

When Jim Campbell pulled the trigger on the Kemp-for-Lemon deal he probably had no idea that Kemp would flame out and that Chet the Jet would play more than 1,100 games in the outfield for Detroit.

Still, he had to like the odds that the trade would work out better than LeFlore for Dan Schatzeder.

As frustrating a player as Chester Earl Lemon could be, he was nothing if not reliable during some fun summers for Tigers fans.