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Houk a major influence on Cox
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Forsyth County News
Sad news last Wednesday: Ralph Houk passed away peacefully of natural causes. He was 90.

In a 20-year managerial career, Houk guided the Yankees (‘61-’63, ‘66-’73), Tigers (‘74-’78) and Red Sox (‘81-’84), winning 1619 of 3157 games, three pennants and two World Series.

But in these parts, Houk’s probably best known as the mentor of Bobby Cox.

When asked this spring by Charles Bethea of Atlanta Magazine to name his idols growing up, Cox responded, “I liked Ralph Houk a lot. Good guy, honest guy. Common sense guy. Type of guy you really wanted to go out and play hard for all the time.”

Cox told Mark Bowman of, “I loved Ralph. He was just outstanding. A big influence on me with how he treated people. Our personalities are both pretty tough. I can be as tough as anybody. But that comes when it comes.”

When bad knees and limited talent ended Cox’s playing career in 1970, Houk was instrumental in convincing the Yankees brass to hire him as a minor league manager.

Despite his toughness, Houk was known as a player’s manager. He never criticized a player in public. “I don’t think you can humiliate a player and expect him to perform,” he told the New York Times. And he always treated the 25th player on the roster with the same respect afforded future Hall of Famers.

“Ralph was a great baseball man who handled his players well, and they played hard for him,” Al Kaline said in a statement released by the Tigers. “He was well-respected and a fun guy to be around. I enjoyed playing for him during my last year.”

Houk wasn’t afraid to go to bat for his players, either; another trait he passed on to Cox. In his day, Houk could enliven arguments with umpires by kicking dirt with the best of them.

He achieved a lofty ranking from American league umpire Jim McKean, who told the New York Times in 1977, “We’ve got the worst in this league: Earl Weaver, Billy Martin, Ralph Houk, Gene Mauch. You name them, they’re all maniacs. You can’t reason with those guys. You don’t try.”

Yet each man mentioned achieved great success as a manager. When managers fight for their players, their players fight for them. A lesson Cox learned well.

Houk made it to the big leagues as a backup catcher for the Yankees in 1947. In his first game, he notched three hits against the Senators. It would be his career record. He finished the year hitting .272 — his career average — getting 92 at bats in 41 games.

But for his entire eight-year career, he garnered only 158 at bats in only 91 games. And let’s not forget two World Series at bats. He learned the game from the vantage point of the Yankees bullpen. “I used to sit out there with the pitchers who weren’t in the starting rotation, and I learned exactly what went through their minds,” he once told Lee Allen.

In 1961, he succeeded Casey Stengel as the Yankees manager. He led one of the Yankees’ greatest teams to 109 wins and a World Series victory over the Reds.

“Sometimes, when you have good players, you can mess it up, and he didn’t do that,” shortstop Tony Kubek told the Associated Press last week.
“He didn’t over manage. He was probably, more than a strategist, a handler of men. He had the Yankees’ spirit, the Yankees’ winning attitude.
He had all the qualities that make a special manager.”

Houk would lead the Yankees to another World Series title in 1962, becoming the first manager to win the Series in each of his first two seasons.
He won another pennant in 1963, but the Dodgers swept the Yanks in the Series.

In 1964, Houk moved up to be the Yankees general manager, but he returned to the dugout in 1966. By then the Yankees had grown old, and they wouldn’t win another pennant until 1976. And Houk would never manage another postseason game.

But that doesn’t diminish his record as an influential manager and a great man to play for. “He was a great guy,” Tigers radio analyst Jim Price told the A.P. last week. “I knew him very well, and everyone that played for him loved him.”

Added Kubek, “He was just a wonderful guy, loyal to his players. The Major was just a great person.”

Ah, yes, the nickname, the Major. That was Houk’s final rank in World War II, where he served with great distinction. He participated in the Normandy invasion and a crucial skirmish during the Battle of the Bulge.

His Silver Star citation read, “Through his gallant leadership, he was directly responsible for repelling the enemy attack.”

On rare occasions, Houk would display his battle helmet, complete with two bullet holes.

“That damn bullet went in the back, scraping my helmet liner, and came out the front,” he once told his commanding officer, Caesar Fiore. “An inch lower, I wouldn’t be talking to you.”

An inch lower, and the Major wouldn’t have been around to mentor Bobby Cox.