While I try to maintain a proper journalistic approach in my research, sometimes I find that I have to battle the tendency to feel like a kid again when I get to talk to former major league players. And there was one occasion in which I was confronted with a persona so great that I nearly gave in to my inner-ten-year-old.
When I was growing up in the late '60s, the Yankee dynasty was a thing of the past, but all of us kids knew enough about baseball and it's history to appreciate the fact that it was something to be treated with reverence. Ralph Houk was the manager of the Yankees at the time and we knew that he had presided over some of baseball's all-time best teams (including the 1961 team that won 109 games) in the early part of the decade--a time that, although only seven years earlier, seemed like it belonged to a different epoch.
And so, it was with great anticipation that I picked up the phone in an attempt to make contact with this living legend (the oldest living manager of a pennant-winning team at the time) in early May of 2010. Working on a book about Mark Fidrych, I was ecstatic when I was able to find a number for the 90-year-old Houk, who had retired to Winter Haven, Florida after baseball. Houk had been the Tiger manager in 1976 when Fidrych arrived in the majors and could provide invaluable information on the season. But how would he receive the call? Would he be willing to talk to me, a mere mortal? How good would his memory be?
I heard a gruff voice pick up the phone. I stammered out a brief introduction and the reason for the call. I was relieved to hear the voice soften and I thought I could hear a smile on the other end. "I'd be happy to talk to you about Mark Fidrych," he said. "We're expecting company any minute, but can you call back tomorrow, say about one?"
I found it difficult to concentrate the rest of the day, my mind continually drifting back to Ralph Houk. This man was a direct link, not only to the Jurassic Age of baseball, but to some of the most important events of the twentieth century. As a young ballplayer, working his way through the Yankee system, he had his career interrupted by World War II. After joining the Army Rangers, he had landed in France shortly after D-Day and fought his way across Europe, spending a cold December of 1944 in Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. He left the war with a battlefield promotion (the source of his future baseball nickname of "The Major"), a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, a Silver Star and a helmet with a hole just above the ear where a bullet went through, narrowly missing his skull.
Ralph Houk had been known as a man with a fierce temper, but also as one of the classic player's managers. It had been said of him that he could handle men better than any manager who ever lived. He was both respected and loved by his players.
I found myself becoming more star-struck as I contemplated this man's history throughout the day. Ralph Houk had told Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris what to do! The degrees of separation with immortality were so narrow it was awe-inspiring: he had replaced as manager of the Yankees, one Casey Stengel, who had once played on the New York Giants for John McGraw, who had, seemingly, invented the game of baseball as we know it.
I did not sleep much that night.
At precisely 1:00 PM Eastern Standard Time the next day, I made the call. I had briefly considered delaying until 1:01, to not seem overeager, but I quickly dismissed the thought. Mr. Houk was warm and friendly when he answered the phone. He gave one of his famous chuckles and launched right in. "Mark Fidrych was one of the finest young pitchers I ever managed," said the man who had also handled Whitey Ford, Dennis Eckersley and Roger Clemens. "He had a lot of confidence, outstanding stuff and the best control of any pitcher I ever managed."
He proceeded to prowl through a ream of memories. I found that his recall was remarkably accurate and, realizing that I was getting great stuff, I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut and let the man talk. I listened as his 90-year-old mind peeled back the years as easily as if they were a ripe banana.
"He thought he could get anybody out and he probably could," he said of the rookie pitcher.
"All the other players liked him right away. He was always so enthusiastic. He just kind of grew on you. All you could do was like him."
"He was one of the most competitive pitchers I ever saw. In a close game in the eighth or ninth inning, you didn't have to worry. You knew you had the game. You didn't even think about the bullpen with him in there."
After talking pleasantly for a while, I worked up the courage to ask an important question I knew might be touchy. Ralph Houk had taken heat from many sources over the years for the arm injury that ended the baseball career of Mark Fidrych. Some said the cause of the injury was overuse. I carefully brought up the subject.
Mr. Houk immediately knew what I was hinting at. I could hear his voice rise slightly and his pace quickened, betraying a hint of his famous temper. "I think his arm got injured just because of the way he played. He played so hard." The words came faster: "Writers are always looking for different reasons for his injury. There's no way that I used him too much. I would have never done anything to hurt him. But he put so much effort into his throwing that I'm surprised he didn't hurt it before."
[Although the 250 innings thrown by the 21-year-old Fidrych in 1976 would be considered abuse by modern pitch-count-fanatics, in defense of Ralph Houk it should be noted that, at the time, 250 innings wasn't even close to the numbers other young pitchers were routinely putting up: Vida Blue threw 312 innings in 1971 as a 20-year-old, Frank Tanana threw 268 in 1974 at 20, Bert Blyleven averaged 291 innings in the six seasons from 1971-76, from 20 to 25 years old. These guys all ended up with more than 200 wins in their careers. Pitchers were expected to throw a lot of innings back then.]
Before hanging up we talked briefly about Fidrych's painful final baseball years, the last two of which came while trying unsuccessfully to make the Boston Red Sox roster in 1982 and 1983. The Red Sox, not coincidentally, were managed at the time by Ralph Houk. "It was really sad," he said. "The arm just wasn't close to what it had been. We gave him as much of a chance as we could. We were really rooting for him to make it back. I would have done anything in the world for him. It was really hard to let him go."
I couldn't help but feel elated the rest of the week after talking to Ralph Houk. Not only had it been a great interview, providing me with valuable insight and some good quotes, but I had touched history. And he seemed like a great guy.
It was with great sadness that I learned, less than three months later, of the passing of Ralph Houk. I thought back to his final comment after I thanked him for his time before hanging up: "No problem. I enjoyed it. I love talking about Mark Fidrych. He was one of my all-time favorites. Call back anytime."
I wish I had.
Ralph Houk, 1919-2010