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.

The Monday Report: A-Jax’s Throw, Ron LeFlore’s Record and Mats Wilander’s Birthday

Welcome to the last full week of August. The Tigers enjoy a 4.5-game lead on the Indians today. The last time they led the A.L. Central by that many games was Sept. 16, 2009.

Leading Off: I’ve watched a lot of Tigers baseball in my time but I can’t recall a more exciting final out sequence as the one we saw on Sunday to preserve a 8-7 Tigers win. Austin Jackson’s flawless throw to Alex Avila. Rick Porcello seemed hell bent to surrender a seven-run cushion but thankfully the bullpen did enough to blow it entirely … The Tigers head to Tampa Bay for a four-game set … They also are looking for their first winning streak of more than three games since June 7 when they had a four-game winning streak snapped.

Around the Central: The White Sox crushed the Rangers 10-0 at U.S. Cellular Field; the Red Sox downed the Royals, 6-1, and the Yankees blanked the Twins, 3-0.

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The Tigers are in first place, 4.5 games ahead of the Indians.

Today’s Game: Tigers @ Rays — Justin Verlander (18-5, 2.31 ERA) vs. Jeff Nieman (8-4, 3.29 ERA) | 7:05 p.m. – FSD/1270 AM and 97.1 FM

Verlander has won each of his last six starts for the Tigers dating back to July 21, compiling a 2.36 ERA and 51 strikeouts during that stretch.

In nine career starts against the Rays, Verlander’s 5-1 with a 3.88 ERA.

With a win tonight, he would equal his career high in victories set in 2009. It would mark the fastest a Tigers pitcher won his 19th game of the season since Mickey Lolich did so in the club’s 114th game of the 1972 season.

On this date, Ron LeFlore swiped his 27th consecutive base as the Tigers beat the Twins, 7-3. He began the streak on July 16.

On this date in 1981, the Tigers acquired first baseman Ron Jackson from the Twins for outfielder Tim Corcoran.

On Aug. 22, 1997, The Tigers pounded the Brewers, 16-1, with the aid of 23 hits and an 11- run seventh inning. Bobby Higginson got five hits, while Travis Fryman and Tony Clark drive in four runs apiece.

Happy 35th Birthday to Jeff Weaver. Also celebrating today is Doug Bair; he’s 62.

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  • The Tigers are #10 in ESPN’s Power Rankings, up from nine last week. They trail the D-backs (who have one more win) and this week’s opponent, the Rays (#7).
  • Somehow I missed out on Dave Schoenfield’s reminiscing about Chet Lemon last week:

    If you’re too young to remember Chet Lemon, he was a superb ballplayer. He could them run down in center field — in fact, his 512 putouts with the White Sox in 1977 remains the American League record, not bad for a guy who had converted from third base as a rookie the year before. He hit .300 three times, had some power, drew some walks, got hit by 10 to 20 pitches a season. He did a lot to help his teams win.

    What Chet Lemon wasn’t very good at was stealing bases.

  • This is a topic that deserves more thought than I have time for today but am I the only one who thinks Miguel Cabrera has a profound lack of hustle on the bases, particularly out of the batter’s box?
  • SI‘s Joe Sheehan thinks the stars are aligning in the Tigers favor after sweeping the Indians:

    Jackson’s base-runner kill helped Jose Valverde escape a bases-loaded, no-out jam and convert his 37th consecutive save this season. The Tigers have fended off a series of challenges by the Indians, and after a trip to Tampa Bay get seven games against the Twins and Royals to stretch their lead before six more against the White Sox and Indians. That week may represent both teams’ last shot to keep the Tigers from making September a coronation.

  • Are the Tigers winning with other clubs’ talent?
  • Not a game goes by that I don’t wish the Tigers still had Placido Polanco batting second.
  • It doesn’t matter if the Twins send Jim Thome to the Indians before Aug. 31. The Tigers are set to face both clubs six more times this season so, they’re hosed either way.

Finally, Happy 47th Birthday to tennis hall of famer Mats Wilander who, in 1988, won the Australian Open, French Open and U.S. Open.

Today’s Tiger: Jason Thompson

Jason Thompson

  • Born: July 6, 1954 in Hollywood, Calif.
  • Bats: Left Throws: Left
  • Height: 6′ 4″ Weight: 200 lb.
  • Acquired: Drafted by the Tigers in the fourth round of the 1975 amateur draft.
  • Seasons in Detroit: 5 (1976-80)
  • Uniform Number: 30
  • Stats: .256 avg., 98 HR, 354 RBI, .779 OPS
  • Awards: Three-time All Star (1977, ’78 and ’82)

JasonThompson.jpg
On May 27, 1980, Tigers GM Jim Campbell traded my favorite player, first baseman Jason Thompson, to the California Angels for outfielder Al Cowens.

The Hollywood native joined the Tigers full time in 1976 and played 123 games that year, hitting .218, with 17 home runs and 54 RBI. Two of the homers cleared the rightfield roof at Tiger Stadium. It was in 1977, though, that he made his mark: .270, 31 homers and 105 RBI — and earned an All Star Game selection.

Continue reading “Today’s Tiger: Jason Thompson”

Today’s Tiger: Steve Kemp

Steve Kemp

  • Born: Aug. 7, 1954 in San Angelo, Texas
  • Bats: Left Throws: Left
  • Height: 6′ 0″ Weight: 195 lb.
  • Acquired: Drafted by the Tigers as the first overall pick of the 1976 amateur draft.
  • Seasons in Detroit: 5 (1977-81)
  • Uniform Number: 43, 33
  • Stats: .284 avg., 89 HR, 422 RBI, .826 OPS
  • Awards: All-Star 1979

When the Tigers traded left fielder Steve Kemp to the White Sox for Chet Lemon, it was the quintessential Jim Campbell Winter Meetings trade.

SteveKemp.jpg

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.

Steve Kemp was terrific 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.

Continue reading “Today’s Tiger: Steve Kemp”

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.

Today’s Tiger: Mickey Stanley

Mickey Stanley

  • Born: July 20, 1942 in Grand Rapids, Mich.
  • Acquired: Signed by the Tigers as an amateur free agent in 1961
  • Seasons in Detroit: 15 (1964-78)
  • Uniform Numbers: 49, 24
  • Stats: .248 avg., 117 HR, 500 RBI, .675 OPS
  • Awards: 4 Gold Gloves (1968-70, 1973)

MickeyStanley.jpgFor many fans, Mickey Stanley’s defining moment with the Tigers came in the 1968 World Series when manager Mayo Smith shifted him from the outfield to shortstop — a position he’d played only in nine major-league games.

The move was made specifically to keep Al Kaline in the lineup while adding some pop to the ’68 team’s woeful production at shortstop. Ray Oyler played most at short that year (111 games) but hit just .135, while backups Tom Matchick and Dick Tracewski combined hit an anemic .180.

In his terrific bio on Stanley, which appears in the 2008 book Sock It to ‘Em Tigers, Jerry Nechal sums up the new shortstop’s performance in the Series against the Cardinals:

Obviously a quick learner, Stanley went on to amaze the baseball world in the Series. In the first inning of Game 1 he was tested by a leadoff ground ball off the bat of the speedy Lou Brock. Brock was out on a close play and Mickey’s fielding at shortstop became a nonfactor. He successfully handled 30 of 32 chances, making two inconsequential errors.

Mickey Stanley broke in with the Tigers on September 13, 1964, singling in his first at bat off Claude Osteen, and appeared in just four games that season. He played in 30 games the following season before making the big club out of Spring Training in 1966, and soon became a fixture in centerfield for the Tigers until a speedy rookie Ron LeFlore took over in the mid-’70s.

My greatest memory of Stanley comes from Aug. 10, 1977, the first Tigers game I ever attended. The starting pitcher for the Tigers was rookie Jack Morris who would pitch 7.2 innings on the way to his first major-league win, but he wouldn’t have gotten the win that night without a dazzling play by Mickey Stanley with two out in the ninth inning.

With Von Joshua at first, Cecil Cooper stood at the plate as the potential tying run. He launched a pitch from Steve Foucault deep to right field and from my lower deck seats on the first base side, it looked like it would indeed tie the game. Instead, Stanley timed his jump and took away a home run, securing a 5-3 win for the Tigers — and Morris.

And it took no time for me to decide who my favorite Tigers were.

Mickey Stanley retired after the 1978 season, his 15th, after playing in 1,516 games — all with the Tigers. According to Nechal’s biography, today Stanley lives in the Brighton, Mich., area.