Ralph Houk, "The Major," manager of two championship Yankees teams as well as the Tigers and the Red Sox, has died. Houk was many things: a legitimate World War II hero who received a Silver Star for courage under fire at the Battle of the Bulge; a backup catcher who was eternally stuck behind Yogi Berra and Charlie Silvera and thus maintained the least-valuable roster spot in baseball from 1950 through 1954; the manager who took over for Casey Stengel and became the feel-good, let 'em play alternative to the controlling older man; a guy who just had to lead off his bad second basemen; the general manager who hired, then undermined Yogi Berra; George Steinbrenner's first managerial scalp… I could go on and will in a longer consideration of Houk. For now, I'd like to share this brief passage from Season of Glory, the book that Houk co-authored with Robert Creamer. I've always been critical of Houk–he never won with a team that wasn't put together by Stengel and George Weiss, and his handling of Whitey Ford is ironically celebrated for the very reason that it was a bad idea–but he did have some ideas that might never have occurred to, say, Don Baylor. The reference to Baylor is pointed–this section refers to Houk's time as the manager of the Yankees' farm club at Denver from 1955-1957:
[Yankees co-owner Del Webb] loved baseball–he'd been a semipro pitcher… Denver was the top Yankee farm club and naturally Del and I would sit and talk about the ball club. He'd always say, "I like the way you handle pitchers." I had a tendency to leave a pitcher in a game a lot longer than other managers in the league did, even when they were being hit pretty hard. Del really liked that, being an old pitcher himself and from the old school where pitchers stayed in there and pitched.
Well, I don't think Del knew it, but I had to leave the pitchers in. Denver was a hitters' ballpark. It was a mile high there, the air was thin and the ball carried. Pitchers always had trouble there. You couldn't pull them too quick or you'd go right through your pitching, you'd be using everybody practically every day, and you'd overwork them and you'd ruin your staff. So I'd leave pitchers in longer than other managers who weren't used to the ballpark. That gave me an advantage because they'd be jerking their pitchers right and left, and after they'd leave Denver they'd go somewhere else to play and it would take them a week to get their pitching staff straightened out.
Just to give you a sense of the way Denver played back then, in '57, Norm Siebern hit .349/.443/.617 with 45 doubles, 15 triples and 24 home runs. His major-league peak was .308/.412/.495 with Kansas City in 1962–25 doubles, six triples, 25 home runs. That year, Marv Throneberry hit .250/.375/.511 with 40 home runs–the previous season he'd played there as well and hit .315/.386/.611 with 42 home runs. His majors best was .250/.315/.445. We can debate whether leaving young pitchers in for long innings was smarter than pulling them out, but the need to preserve a staff is a managerial imperative as well. In either case, our condolences to the friends and family of Ralph Houk.
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From what I can tell, he was on the Yankees' active roster for the full seasons of 1950-51-52, was on released in Auguest of '53, re-signed the following spring and was cut again in July of '54. (Baseball Reference doesn't show any minor league stats for those years) and played 10-3-9-8-1 games -- 31 games, with 31 plate appearances, in a bit over 4 full seasons. Has any position player every been used less? Has any PITCHER ever been used less?
When Houk came in, he used Ford in regular rotation, regardless of opponent. Ford was thrilled. The writers applauded, or at least have subsequently: At last! Whitey Ford is being used correctly! Whitey's innings shot up--he led the AL with a career-high 283 IP in 1961 despite having arm problems in 1960--and he had his big 24/25-win seasons, but his career also came to a rapid close. I can't prove cause and effect there, but I've always wondered. Hence, Houk's change with Ford is celebrated for the same reason it should be scorned.