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 Non-Sequiturs: The Peralta, Sardinha and Pirates Edition

We’re now so far into the Post-Jhonny Peralta Era that we’re starting to talk about his possible, potential and highly unlikely and not improbable return to the Tigers for the last weekend of the season – and presumably the postseason. This whole saga calls to mind a couple of things. First, it’s how fleeting these controversies can be. In the course of five days, the Tigers trade for José Iglesias, keep him warm at third base for a couple of games, watch Peralta get suspended and then … crickets. Or what seemed like crickets.

I’ll admit there have been several game situations in which I wished Peralta was in the lineup, but for the most part it’s bygones. What about you?

The second thing is that when you think about all the things we Detroit fans have endured over the years, we haven’t witnessed a key player at the center of huge MLB-wide story. Think about the occasions when the national spotlight shone on a Tigers player it was,by and large, for positive reasons. Here are the stories that come to mind:

Am I missing anything? I don’t think so.

The last baseball scandal I can remember which remotely approaches Biogenesis is the mid-’80s Pittsburgh cocaine trials, but no Tigers were implicated in that one. But this time, man, the Tigers were in the thick of it. (Unlike when fringy player Exavier Prente “Nook” Logan was named in The Mitchell Report back in 2007, but he was hardly a household name or an essential part of the Tigers future – or present for that matter.)

Even though he’s working out with the Tigers now, I still can’t imagine we’ll see Peralta again in a Tigers uniform. Stranger things have happened, I suppose, but I can’t see the Dombrowski/Leyland Administration brining that level of distraction to the club during a playoff run.

Apropos of nothing:

  • Now, can we talk about Rick Porcello? Actually, I’d rather not; it’s too frustrating. Some other time.
  • I can’t believe I’m writing these words: I wish the Mets were better than they are. This is quite a statement given my deep-seated hatred of those mid-‘80s teams led by Davey Johnson. The only redeeming quality from those clubs was my favorite undervalued Tigers player: Howard Johnson. I always felt like he was the solution to Sparky’s third-base problem but instead, the skipper saw the future at third with Tom BrookensChris PittaroDarnell Coles, Jim Morrison and whomever else they could plug into that spot. And more often than not, it was Brookens. Where was I going with this? Oh, yeah, the Mets. Never mind.
  • If the Tigers’ current situation leaves you unsettled, contrast it with last year’s Sept. 10 dilemma: they were three games back of the White Sox. A 5.5-game lead over a flawed Indians club works better for me.
  • I was glad to see Tony Paul’s article last week on how this team is not the 2009 Tigers – and it’s not simply because there’s no Dane Sardinha, no Zach Miner, no Fu-Te Ni. This team just doesn’t have the feel of a club that will cool along with the September temperatures. Am I wrong? (Just for fun, look back on some of the names on that ’09 roster. Oy.)
  • Don’t look now but thanks to his four-hit night on Tuesday Alex Avila is hitting .221.

Finally, speaking of Pittsburgh: congratulations to the Pirates and their fans on a long-deserved winning season. Pittsburgh officially might have suffered more years of losing baseball than Detroit fans, but we’ll always have this on them and any other awful team: 2003.

Six Months Off, Two Months In: The Daily Fungo Returns

Six months ago I turned out the lights on The Fungo. The other day, I changed my mind. I know you’ve got lots of great Tigers blog choices so I hope you’ll work this site into your rotation.

Allow me, if you will, to catch up on the past half-year:

  • Victor Martinez out. I think this injury, like few others that I can remember, showed how close to the edge a Tigers offense was treading. Suddenly the club had no designated hitter, no number-two catcher (though who expected him to catch more than a handful games – at most – in 2012?) and no one to hit behind Miguel Cabrera. And, with Magglio Ordonez not coming back, who else would be a reliable middle-of-the-order hitter?

    Today, I wonder how much better the Tigers would be with Martinez at DH over Delmon Young? Methinks much, much better. I hope the possibility of a September return becomes a reality. If the Tigers have faded by that point I’m sure we won’t see #41 until Spring Training 2013.

  • Prince Fielder in. When word circulated Tigers had signed him for nine years and $214 million not long after Martinez was lost for the season (presumably) I thought “of course they did.” It was the quintessential Mike Ilitch move – and likely displeased Dave Dombrowski for no other reason than he was forced to again deal with Scott Boras. The immediate thought was “they wouldn’t move Cabrera to third would they? Nah.” Ahem.

    As a Tigers fan, who suffered through so many years of superstar-less teams, how could you not love the addition of yet another All Star? I loved it and, with his current .320 average, still do.

    P.S. I heard this on MLB Network Radio yesterday on the way to work and saw it on ESPN.com today:

    Prince Fielder (at 275 lbs) just hit his 10th career triple. According to baseball-reference.com, Prince Fielder is the second player in MLB history weighing at least 275 pounds to have 10 career triples. Adam Dunn (285 lbs) also has 10.

    Delicious.

  • Brandon Inge whines, whiffs and vanishes. So much has been written on this guy that I won’t waste much of your time with it. My issue with Inge, beyond his anemic hitting, was that he suffered from delusions of grandeur.

    Remember when he was the Tigers’ starting catcher and the club signed Pudge Rodriguez? Inge thought he should still be the starter. Remember when they traded for Cabrera and he thought he should still be the starting third baseman? No one argued that Cabrera was a better defender but did Inge really think the Tigers would stick Cabrera in left field in 2008 … or move him to DH after signing Fielder?

    From all accounts Inge is a tremendous person and certainly didn’t deserve to get booed as loudly as he did at Comerica Park. But if he hit even .240, he’d be the Tigers’ second baseman today.

  • Delmon Young shows his ugly side. We didn’t think the Delmon Era in Detroit would be a light and breezy affair, did we? I’ll be surprised if he’s on the roster at the end of June.

  • Verlander’s gem. I was bummed out when Josh Harrison foisted the ball into center, which I heard on the radio. When I saw the replay, I wondered why Jhonny Peralta didn’t lay out and try to knock it down. After a couple more looks it was clear that it would’ve been tough for him to get his glove on it.

    Not since Mark Fidrych have the Tigers had a pitcher you’d pay to see no matter the opponent. Every Verlander start is appointment TV for me.

I could go on – about the infuriating offense, Max Scherzer‘s Max Scherzerism, the inconsistent relief work, Austin Jackson‘s resurgence, Brennan Boesch‘s slow start, Ryan Raburn‘s woes, Doug Fister‘s injuries, dismal umpiring – but why bother?

Final thought: It’s bad enough to see the Tigers struggling as they are, but to see the White Sox sitting atop the A.L. Central is insulting.

And so is the idea of Craig Monroe as a studio analyst. (But I’m sure Rod is happy to have him around.)

The End of Denny McLain’s Career Began in 1966

A couple weeks ago, friend of the Fungo Lynn Henning wrote why it made sense to give Justin Verlander an extra day of rest heading into the three-game weekend series against the Indians.

In the column, Henning pointed to specific examples in Tigers history where heavy workloads resulted in truncated careers – among them Mark Fidrych.

Here’s the gist:

[L]et’s talk about some past Tigers history that might help put the Verlander decision in better perspective.

(snip)

Denny McLain won 31 games in 1968 — the only man in the past 77 years to have done so — and 24 the following season.

He won two Cy Young Awards during those two seasons. He won Most Valuable Player in 1968.

He pitched a combined 661 innings — no misprint — during those two campaigns.

He was 25 years old at the end of the ’69 season.

He won 21 games, total, the remainder of his career. His arm had been fried during those two colossal seasons.

I knew pitchers 40 years ago regularly went deep in games and threw a lot of pitches, but McLain’s output in 1966 was staggering.

On Aug. 29, 1966, McLain threw 229 pitches in the Tigers’ 6-3 win over the Orioles. He gave up eight hits, walks nine and struck out 11 Orioles to notch his 16th win. According to the Baseball Reference.com box score, McLain faced 43 batters in the game.

He was just 22 at the time.

In that game, McLain set the Orioles down in order only one time, the bottom of the second. In every other inning he faced, on average, about five hitters per inning.

Did I mention he was only 22?

Three days later, on Sept. 1, McLain faced the Indians in Cleveland and again went the distance, facing 39 batters. He retired the side 1-2-3 twice in the game but otherwise had a similar pattern to his previous start. (The Tigers won, 4-2.)

[callout title= McLain By the Numbers]

13-4 – McLain’s record in the first half of 1966

7-10 – His record in the second half

.214 – Opponents’ batting average against (lefties hit just .199 off him in ’66)

21 – The number of starts McLain made (out of 38) on three-days rest

1.13 – His ERA in the one start he had on two-days rest (one ER over eight innings)

6.16 – His ERA in the first inning

2.52 – His ERA in the ninth inning

8 – The number of starts to begin the season in which McLain pitched seven or more innings

[/callout]

On Sept. 6, McLain pitched nine innings, allowed 11 hits, two runs and struck out six, in an 8-2 win over Washington at Tiger Stadium. He faced 38 Senators hitters in this game, his 18th win.

McLain’s 1966 campaign concluded with him making three starts in the span of eight days. On Sept. 23, he didn’t make it out of the third inning, surrendering eight earned runs on seven hits.

Three days later he went eight innings, allowed one run on four hits against 30 Angels batters on the way to his 20th win.

On Oct. 1, the next-to-last day of the season, McLain would pitch 3 2/3 innings, allowing four earned runs on seven hits. He took the loss, his 14th, 5-2 to the A’s.

Fourteen and a third innings in three days. Totals like that can certainly make it a bit easier to appreciate today’s pitch-count obsessed mindset in baseball.

All told, McLain threw 264 1/3 innings in 1966. Forty years later, a 23-year-old Verlander threw a comparatively meager 186 innings – and there was talk then that he was approaching overworked status.

There’s no chance the Tigers would put such a ridiculous workload on Verlander – or, in a more apt comparison, Rick Porcello, and Lynn Henning’s column makes a good case for why pitch counts matter, even though I admittedly roll my eyes when I hear them mentioned during games.

And a closer look at a season from 45 years ago explains Denny McLain’s precipitous fall from a 31-game winner at the age of 24 to the loser of 22 games three years later, and his departure from baseball when he should have been entering his prime.

Remembering Jim Northrup: My First Big-League Autograph

The first-ever autograph I scored was Jim Northrup’s.

I’m fairly confident the year was 1978 and it was at my baseball banquet at St. Isaac Jogues in St. Clair Shores. Word had spread that there would be a Tigers player at the banquet and I held out hope, despite my brother’s assurances I was nuts, that the Tiger would be Mark Fidrych.

Instead, it was Northrup and I remember thinking, “This guy?”

Of course I knew who he was. I listened over and over to the album (which is now available on CD!) my Dad bought for me, The Year of the Tiger ’68, that chronicled Mayo Smith’s amazing team.

Still, he was no Bird. Or my then-hero Jason Thompson or Steve Kemp.

Ultimately it didn’t matter a whit because I was standing next to a man who played for the Tigers.

My encounter with Northrup was memorable for another reason: I think I annoyed him. We were one of the first families to arrive at the banquet, which was held in the church basement that five days a week served as my school lunchroom. I remember my Mom encouraging me to take the banquet program and asking him for an autograph. So I made a beeline to the little stage area where he was standing by himself and got his impeccably written signature.

A while later a player from my team showed up and he ran over to a table and grabbed a banquet ticket. He asked Northrup to sign it. So enthralled was I about Northrup being there — and mind you, it could’ve been any former Tiger at this point — I took one of the same tickets from that same table and scurried up to the stage and asked him for another autograph.

He looked down at me and said, “How many autographs do you want, kid?”

I was more than a little embarrassed but he winked at me and I didn’t feel so stupid. (As it ends up, the ticket I used for the second autograph belonged to my teammate’s sister and I had to relinquish it to her. No one, it seemed, was pleased with autograph number two.)

[callout title=The Jim Northrup File]

Bats: Left  Throws: Right
Height: 6′ 3″, Weight: 190 lb.

Born: November 241939 in Breckenridge, Mich.
High School: St. Louis (Mich.) High
School: Alma College
Signed
by the Tigers as an amateur free agent in 1960.
Debut: September 30, 1964
Numbers worn with Tigers: 30, 5
Teams (by games played): Tigers/Orioles/Expos 1964-1975
Final Game: September 27, 1975

Tigers Stats (11 seasons): 1,279 games;  .267 avg., 145 HR, 570 RBI, .763 OPS

[/callout]

I don’t remember much about what Northrup said during his after-dinner remarks but I do recall lots of laughter and my parents enjoying his reminscing about the ’68 team.

A few years later I got to know and appreciate Jim Northrup when he was Larry Osterman‘s partner on the old PASS network broadcasts. I can’t verify this but I would be shocked to learn that Northrup did one nanosecond of preparation. What I can guarantee is that no other Tigers announcer in my lifetime was as appropriately critical of players and the plays they made or didn’t make as old number 5. He was, in many ways, the unJim Price and I thoroughly enjoyed every game he called.

More on this from Lynn Henning in his column today:

No question, Northrup was glib and acerbic. So much so, his tongue got him into trouble as much as it got him noticed.

Exhibit A there was his career as a Tigers television announcer. It ended in 1995, and no one had to explain why Northrup was unceremoniously yanked. He was blunt, unapologetically so. A new front-office regime wasn’t interested in subjecting owner Mike Ilitch to Northrup’s reviews, no matter how accurate or welcomed they might have been by a Tigers audience.

Back to the baseball banquet. The event was winding down and we all had our trophies – which we’d earned and not every kid got one. Imagine.

Anyway, my Dad suggested I get an autograph on the bottom of my trophy. I explained I already had asked for two from Northrup and he might get mad. Dad shrugged and said, “Go ask him.”

So I walked up and ever-so meekly asked him to sign the trophy and he just smiled, signed it and as he handed it back to me said, “Way to go.”

From that moment on I was a Jim Northrup fan, though I never saw him play a single game.

Little Good News for Zumaya

ZumayaFor a long time — even up until this spring training — I thought the Tigers had bought themselves enough time to get Joel Zumaya healthy by drafting Ryan Perry, signing Jose Valverde and then signing Joaquin Benoit.

With today’s news that Zumaya is headed to the 60-day disabled list, with no clear answer on what’s causing the pain in his throwing elbow, I’ve come to grips with the fact his days in Detroit, if not baseball altogether, are reaching the end.

Tigers head trainer Kevin Rand summed up Zumaya’s road back from his most-recent injury:

“On the fracture side, everything is fine, but there’s something causing pain. He’s tender right over the screw (that was inserted during the surgery).

“It’s frustrating for Joel. It’s real tough. He rested it six weeks, picked up a baseball, everything felt great.

“Twenty-four throws in he felt great, on the 25th he felt something — and now he can’t pick up a baseball.”

Plenty has been written about the similarities of Zumaya and Mark Fidrych, pitchers that burst onto the Detroit sports scene three decades apart. (Including a piece on this site from November 2007.)

Of course, the similarities had nothing to do with their pitching and everything to do with their immense talent. Talent that was snuffed out by persistent injuries.

Here’s hoping that Zumaya will return to baseball and ideally with the Tigers. Today, though, I can’t see it happening.

What do you think? Vote in our latest Fungo Flash Poll.

Tigers Today: June 29, 2010

Tigers’ Record:

41-34, 1st place; 1/2-game lead

Today’s Game

Tigers @ Twins| 8:10 p.m. ET – Target Field | On the air: FSD/AM 1270 and 97.1 FM

Pitching Matchup

Armando Galarraga (3-1, 3.68 ERA) vs. RHP Nick Blackburn (6-5, 6.10 ERA)

Yesterday’s Results

Tigers 7 – Twins 5

Continue reading “Tigers Today: June 29, 2010”