I was talking on Facebook with a friend of mine the other day about — among other things — Casey Stengel, the legendary New York Yankees manager and the first skipper of the New York Mets. (And the man whose nickname is the title for this blog, by the way.)
I’ve always found him to be a fascinating character, a man who’s unfortunately best known to the general public for his way of mangling the English language. “Most people my age are dead at the present time,” he said after being hired at age 72 to manage the Mets on their entry into the National League in 1962.
And he was also a media favorite for having a playful personality which often hid a subtle and strategic mind. As a player with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1919, he quieted a hostile Brooklyn crowd when he tipped his cap as he came to the plate and a sparrow he had tucked beneath the headgear flew out.
But even even with the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford in the lineup, you don’t manage a team to five straight World Series championships (1949-1953) on charm alone. He could also be sarcastic and distant, according to his players.
A lot has been written about him, but the best biography I’ve found is Stengel: His Life and Times (1984), by former Sports Illustrated staff writer and editor Robert Creamer. I’m glad to see it’s recently been put back in print by the University of Nebraska Press, which has an intriguing line of books about sports.
But I’m digressing already. I’m not a New York Yankees fan by any means, but I couldn’t help thinking that it’s been a sad time recently for their supporters, with the passing of long-time public address announcer Bob Sheppard on July 11 and team owner George Steinbrenner two days later.
And on Wednesday it was announced that Ralph Houk, a man who was sort of a bridge from the Stengel to the Steinbrenner eras, had died at the age of 90.
Houk, a Silver Star medal winner as a World War II veteran, played for Stengel as a backup catcher to Berra in the late Forties and early Fifties. He succeeded Stengel as Yankees manager and led the pinstripers to three American League pennants before becoming the team’s general manager after the 1963 season.
He later came back for a much less successful stint at Yankees manager, quitting — not coincidentally — at the end of the 1973 season after the first year of Steinbrenner’s ownership. He was the first in a long line of managers to bristle under The Boss’ interference in the on-field operation of the team.
As a manager, Houk was the Bobby Cox of his era, known for sticking up for his players and earning many colorful ejections from games. As a front-office executive he was one of the last of the old-school hardline baseball men, before free agency and the swing of the balance of power overwhelmingly to the players.
(A couple of other reading recommendations: Jim Bouton’s tell-all book, Ball Four in which the former Yankee pitcher tells a hilarious tale of what it was like to negotiate with Houk for a raise, and David Halberstam’s portrait of the man in October 1964, a really good book about baseball in an era of social change.)
Houk later became one of the few managers in major league baseball history to lead both the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox (1981-1984) — which thanks to the excessive hype given that series by modern-day media would be a much bigger deal now than it was then.
He helped develop the players that won the 1986 American League championship for the BoSox and then had a hand in building the Minnesota Twins’ 1987 championship team as a vice president for that team in his last major league assignment.