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.

Gibby an All-Star at Last

Nice feature on Kirk Gibson in today’s Arizona Republic. He’ll be on Bruce Bochy‘s staff for the All-Star Game in Phoenix next Tuesday and it will be the first time Gibby appears at an All-Start Game in uniform.

Back in 1985 and ’88, Gibson had better things to do. He politely turned down offers from managers Sparky Anderson and Whitey Herzog to rest, go hunting and spend time with family.

Gibson also wasn’t afraid to fire off a salvo or two, like when he said, “There are players in this game that want to be stars – let them go play.”

Today, he probably wouldn’t say such a thing, although he still refuses to publicly endorse any of his own players as reserves for next week’s game.

Avila at Third? Not All That Uncommon in Tigers History

Tonight Alex Avila is the Tigers’ starting third baseman in the opener of a three-game series in Denver against the Rockies.

Avila’s never played third in the majors but he’s not the first Tigers player to be pressed into action there. Did you know that Al Kaline appeared in two games at third during his career?

In 1961, he played a full nine innings at third, fielding a pair of chances cleanly, with a putout and an assist. Four years later he played 5.1 innings of a game with three chances, two putouts and an assist.

Johnny Wockenfuss, who played mostly at first, catcher and in the outfield, became even more of a utility man for Sparky Anderson when he played … parts of two games – all of 2.1 innings – at third base but never saw any action.

Like Kaline, in 1965 Willie Horton played third but outlasted him be two-thirds of an inning. In one game he played six innings, fielded two chances and earned an assist on both.

Others taking a turn at the hot corner include:

  • Mickey Stanley: 18 games over two seasons (1975 and ’76), 61 chances, 13 putouts, 46 assists and two errors
  • Alan Trammell: 43 games in two seasons (1993, ’96), 100 chances, 26 putouts, 69 assists, five errors
  • Ty Cobb: 1 game in 1918, two chances, with an assist and a putout.
  • Charlie Gehringer: 6 error-free games (and 26 chances) in 1926 for The Mechanical Man

I’m looking forward to this experiment. Having Avila’s bat in the lineup is huge and having him at third, well, can’t be any worse than Ryan Raburn.

What do you think?

Friday Freehans, Link Style

The Tigers make their first visit of the year to Chicago which typically means nothing but anguish.

Not this weekend.

Detroit’s recent good fortune against the Sox continues. (Right?)

  • Here’s a terrific piece about Sparky Anderson from someone who knew him in his southern California community for 40 years.
  • Out here in Phoenix, there’s some noise about the Diamondbacks pursuing the Mets’ David Wright. All things being equal — and Brandon Inge’s mono notwithstanding — I’d sure rather see him in Detroit. What about you?
  • The Tigers’ all-time record against the White Sox heading into play tonight is 1,012-996-1. Why does it seem as if  half those losses have come since 2004?
  • Two tidbits about tonight’s starter Andy Oliver: 1. He was selected to participate in the Futures Game held prior to last year’s All-Star Game in Anaheim, but was unable to participate because he’d been called up to the Tigers. 2. Following last season, Baseball America named Oliver the third-best prospect in the Tigers organization, the 13th-best prospect in the EasternLeague and the 19th-best prospect in the International League.
  • On this date in 1952 the Tigers acquired lefty Bill Wight, infielders Johnny Pesky, Walt Dropo and Fred Hatfield and outfielder Don Lenhardt from the Red Sox for righthander Dizzy Trout, infielders George Kell and Johnny Lipon and outfielder Hoot Evers.
  • Have you been itching for a closer look at the Tigers’ platoon situations? ESPN.com’s Christina Kahrl has you covered:

The Tigers might be the team with the most potential variations, to the point that Jim Leyland could flirt with multi-positional solutions every bit as creative as [Rays skipper Joe] Maddon’s. After all, the Tigers broke in Ryan Raburn in a multi-positional utility role with a lean toward starting him against lefties in the past, and using youngsters Andy Dirks and Casper Wells as platoon outfielders now. Raburn and Brennan Boesch have struggled to stick in regular roles, opening up a host of possibilities for Leyland to try to hide some of his players from the sources of some of their struggles.

Finally, Happy 61st Birthday to singer Suzi Quatro, who played Leather Tuscadero on Happy Days. Did I just date myself?

Have a great weekend.

Friday Fungoes: The 40-game Mark, Verlander’s No-hit Follow Ups, Magglio’s Demise

Every year someone (usually Tom Gage) rolls out the time-worn Sparky Anderson truism about not judging a team until after it’s played 40 games. I suppose it’s my turn.

On Saturday against the Royals the Tigers will play game number 40 and, at worst, will finish that game at an even 20 and 20. So what conclusions can we draw from these first 40 games? For that matter, what conclusions can we draw from the past week, which delivered some terrific baseball?

Are they as bad as they looked against the Royals in April and the Tribe two weeks ago? Or are they as good as the club the swept Chicago at home?

I hate to punt on this, but I think we’ll know more about the Tigers after another series against the Royals, Indians and White Sox.
What do you think?

In the meantime, here’s a look at the Tigers’ record after 40 games since Jim Leyland arrived in Detroit.

  • 2010: 23-17
  • 2009: 24-16
  • 2008: 16-24
  • 2007: 24-16
  • 2006: 27-13

As I’m writing this, Justin Verlander has kept the Royals hitless through four innings. Earlier this week I was wondering how he fared in the start following his June 12, 2007 no-hitter. Well, it was a bit different from his 12-strikeout torching of the Brewers. Verlander’s next start came against the Phillies on Sunday, June 17 at Citizens Bank Park. His final line: six innings, seven hits, two walks, three earned runs.  The Tigers won, 7-4.

I sure hope we haven’t seen the last of Magglio Ordonez, who was placed on the 15-day disabled list today.

“He’s been feeling the effects of his ankle off and on during the season here,” trainer Kevin Rand said. “We decided to look at it, and to err on the side of caution, we’re shutting him down.”

The stats are ugly: .172 with one home run and five RBIs in 26 games this season. I can’t believe that his hitting skills have plummeted to Gerald Laird levels simply due to age. You?

Buried at the bottom of the Ordonez story is this little update on Carlos Guillen.

Guillen was in the clubhouse as well and has started baseball-related activities again.

Guillen says he’s been able to hit, run and take ground balls, although there’s still no timetable for his return.

Talk about a forgotten man.

Finally, on this date in 1913, Joe Louis was born. He was the world heavyweight champion for a record-setting 12 years.

Have a great weekend.

The Mysterious Enos Cabell

I love “where-are-they-now” pieces as much — and probably more — than the next guy.

cabell_enosSo, when I saw Tom Gage’s piece about Enos Cabell over the weekend, I was interested to read why Cabell, who hit .311 for the 1983 Tigers, moved on after that season.

He wanted to stay a Tiger, and they weren’t averse to him staying.

“But they wouldn’t give me a raise,” Cabell said Saturday. “I hit .311, played with a knee brace the last two months of that year, and they wouldn’t give me a penny more.

“So I said bye-bye. I was pretty sure the Astros wanted me back, anyway.”

As Rob Neyer might say, well, maybe. I remember there was talk about Cabell having a drug problem and that Sparky Anderson wanted none of that in his clubhouse. Then, in 1986:

Commissioner Peter Ueberroth gives seven players who were admitted drug users a choice of a year’s suspension without pay or heavy fines and career-long drug testing, along with 100 hours of drug-related community service. Joaquin Andújar, Dale Berra, Enos Cabell, Keith Hernandez, Jeffrey Leonard, Dave Parker, and Lonnie Smith will be fined 10 percent of their annual salaries to drug abuse programs. The commissioner also doles out lesser penalties to 14 other players for their use of drugs.

Somewhere in the middle is the truth, right?

Meet the Kinder, Gentler Kirk Gibson

The next best thing to Kirk Gibson being the Tigers’ manager is watching him lead my local team, the Diamondbacks. He’s getting lots of attention as the Dbacks arrive in camp as 2011 marks his first full season as the club’s skipper.

The focus seems to be on how he and his staff, which includes bench coach Alan Trammell, will shape this relatively young team — Melvin Mora notwithstanding — and emphasize the positive.

In his blog today, the Arizona Republic‘s Nick Piecoro writes about how Gibby is falling in line with the organization’s new fan friendly mindset — specifically, autographs. As one whose autograph requests of Gibson as recently as three years ago (actually it was a photo request at Spring Training; I was wearing a Fungo t-shirt for crying out loud) have been spurned, this interested me:

The Diamondbacks’ daily schedule is posted on video boards in and around the clubhouse, and right there, before the day’s work is complete, is a required task for every player: sign autographs.

Diamondbacks CEO Derrick Hall loves to call his organization the most fan-friendly in baseball, but it isn’t just the front office that’s on board with the autograph policy.

There’s agreement coming from the manager’s office.

“They’ll sign every day,” Gibson said. “When the catchers are done, they’ll sign. That’s something that’s important.”

Gibson admitted to being “terrible” at signing when he was a young player but said Detroit manager Sparky Anderson convinced him of the importance of treating fans well.

“Sometimes, when we’re young, we think we’re the most important thing about the game,” Gibson said. “The reality of it is, when you leave the game, it just keeps right on going.”

Anderson’s point to Gibson: What happens if the fans leave?

“None of us would be around,” Anderson told him.

“It really is important,” Gibson said. “As good as times are right now, I went through five work stoppages. The last one was 1994 and I remember how the game was after that. We don’t want to destroy that. They’re very important. They’re great human beings and support our game of baseball. They deserve to be treated with respect as well.”

I’m heading over to the Dbacks’ new Spring Training site on Monday to watch some workouts. Do you think Gibby or Tram will agree to a photo for one of their fanboys?

What about you? Do you have any experiences with Gibson or any other big leaguer brushing off your autograph requests?