Ralph Houk is a happy man. He laughs easily, at his own jokes or at someone else's. People around him experience a feeling of well-being, of relaxed confidence, and this may prove to be his most valuable asset as the new manager of the New York Yankees.
He succeeds a man who had the faculty of provoking laughter, although he was not, essentially, easygoing. Casey Stengel was driven by certain needs that do not affect Houk: for instance, newspapermen found it almost impossible to talk to Casey's coaches because Casey wanted the word from the Yankees to come from him.
"I can understand that," Houk (his name is pronounced: How-k) said the other day. "A coach can get himself into lots of trouble talking to newspapermen if he isn't careful. When I was a Yankee coach and the writers asked me questions I used to shrug and say, 'I don't know. Ask Casey.' That was safe."
Although Houk will not say so, it was also a Casey dictum. Houk has no such restrictions on his coaches.
"I have faith in them," he says. "They may be misquoted now and then, but who isn't? They are good men and they know how I think and I know how they think and I can trust them."
As much as he trusts his coaches, Houk actually allows them less leeway than Stengel did his. When he arrives at Yankee Stadium soon after 9 o'clock in the morning of a day when the Yankees play at home he has an immediate conference with his pitching coach, Johnny Sain, who may walk into Houk's small office while his boss is very carefully rolling the socks of his uniform down into precise place on his thick, muscular legs.
"How about him?" Sain will say, pointing to one of the Yankee pitchers listed on the card he carries.
"If you think so," Houk answers, looking at his own card. "But if he doesn't want to go tomorrow, we'll try this one." He stabs at the card then with the butt of a cigar, which is in the corner of his mouth most of the time except when he is on the field managing. Then he wears a cud of chewing tobacco in his cheek with some distinction.
Stengel allowed his pitching coach to select the man for the day. Houk consults Sain, decides with him on who will pitch, then announces the pitcher himself. Thus he assumes complete responsibility for the choice; Stengel did not.
Houk has a curious reluctance to discuss Stengel.
"I learned most of what I know about managing when I had the Denver ball club," he says. "I made a lot of mistakes there, but I learned something from all of them. My first year, we started off the season with something like seven wins and 19 defeats. You can't get much worse than that. The big thing I had to get rid of was my temper. I got kicked out of six, seven ball games. You can't do much managing from the clubhouse. So I quit going to bat with umpires. I don't mean I quit arguing with them. But I quit getting kicked out of ball games. Take Durocher the other day, when he and Jocko Conlan were kicking each other on the shins. What good did that do Leo? Every umpire in the league said to himself, 'That s.o.b. I'll take care of him.' So then they're looking for you. They want you to holler. That doesn't do you any good. But you can't let them get away with anything. You got to keep them honest. You got to make them know you're looking if they happen to blow one."
As a major league manager, Houk has translated his Denver lessons into action by becoming a quiet and judicial man.
"I try to play a game an inning ahead," he says. "That's one reason I get here early in the morning, before anyone else does. Then I can sit down at my desk and go over everything in my mind and figure out what the visiting club has and what I should do in the game coming up. You have to stay an inning ahead of the game all the time."
Now that he has conquered his temper, Houk finds the toughest thing he has to face as the manager of the Yankees is the sportswriters.
"In a big city like New York," he said, "you have a lot of writers to contend with. Some guys like the club, some guys like the manager. But you can't always figure why they feel the way they do, and you got them to contend with. In the minors you had more work to do as a manager, and you had less guys to help you do it. Up here, you got a big staff, so you don't have so many details to take care of yourself."
How to handle a writer
"But you get a lot more things to do on the outside. Like this morning, I got you to talk to. I wouldn't have that in the minors. That reminds me of another thing I learned in Denver. You have to try to disregard what the sportswriters say. You can't get sore at them. They can get down on you for any reason—like one guy did out there. He didn't like the Yankee organization or the owners of the Denver club. He didn't even know me and he never talked to me, but he ripped me and the ballplayers every day. Finally, one day, I called him and made an appointment to see him. I told him, 'I don't mind what you say about me, but don't go tearing up my ballplayers.' Then I told him about Bobby Richardson and Woodie Held, and I talked about the trouble they were having and I said to him, 'You watch. By the end of this season these guys are gonna be showing you what kind of ballplayers they are.' And they did. And that guy never wrote any more bad things about me or about the ball club."
This act of transforming an enemy into a friend really marked the beginning of the thoughtful, careful Houk. He was not always thus. His commander during World War II once characterized him as "a cigar-smoking, whisky-drinking, tobacco-chewing lady-killer."
Houk has a rather raffish sense of humor, a carryover from his playing days. A Kansan (he was born in Lawrence in 1919), he broke into Organized Baseball in 1939 with Neosho in the old Arkansas-Missouri League and had a good record as a minor league catcher—for example, he batted .302 with Kansas City, a Triple-A team, in 1948. But he was never outstanding in the majors; he was, in fact, a third-string catcher with the Yankees and played in only 91 games, with only 158 at bats, in more than seven years as a major leaguer. Yet he played with a verve and enthusiasm that made him in his brief appearances a valuable member of the team (the record book shows that he batted .571 in 1949, four hits in seven times at bat). He played—and lived—with an ebullient and earthy sense of humor, which he still possesses.
Of course, as the manager of the Yankees, Houk tempers his humor with decorum. Even when he clowns he retains a sense of dignity that allows the Yankee players to laugh at his clowning without presuming on his good nature. Like most managers, he believes it is wrong to become too close a friend of his players.
In spring training at St. Petersburg this year he often entertained the team in the clubhouse with hilarious stories of his experiences in the minor leagues and as a manager in Puerto Rico, but once on the field he directed the club firmly and evenly and without the least hint of familiarity the kind of familiarity that managers fear breeds contempt.
He ran the Yankee training camp with meticulous efficiency, with each phase of training allotted its precise stretch of time, with each player judged thoughtfully and carefully. When Houk says that he tries to play each game an inning ahead, he is being coldly factual.
He is aware of and sensitive to criticism: this was apparent on Opening Day. Whitey Ford, the best Yankee pitcher, started that first game of the regular season and pitched superbly for six innings. Pedro Ramos, the pitcher for the Minnesota Twins, pitched even better, his efforts aided and abetted by a Yankee hitting slump which had carried over from spring training. In the top of the seventh inning Bob Allison hit a walloping home run off Ford, and the next batter doubled. Another man walked, the next sacrificed, and now in the press box some sportswriters began to question Houk's decision to keep Ford in the game to pitch to the next batter, who was Ramos.
"Ramos ain't a bad hitter," Houk explained the other morning, as he sat in his small but reasonably luxurious office just off the Yankee dressing room at the Stadium. "But Ford is a good curve-ball pitcher, and I figure he can break one low and Ramos will hit on the ground, and we cut off the run at the plate. I got the infield playing in close to do that. So Ford throws a ball and it's low, but it's about here." He showed where with a slicing motion of his hand just above his knee. "It shoulda been here." Again the slicing motion, the hand just below the knee. "Now, how much difference is that? Maybe six inches. That's baseball. Six inches high or low. Ramos gets a cheap line drive over the shortstop's head and in come two runs. Now I don't think Whitey was tired when he threw that pitch, and he doesn't either. I had Terry and Coates warmed up, but I wanted Whitey to go all the way. Say I pull Whitey right away when they got those hits off him. This is a 162-game season. So I pull Ford and put in Terry, and he gets the side out. Now it's 1-0 for them and say we get a couple runs and win the game. Whitey's pitched six innings of as good baseball as you're likely to see, but I pulled him and somebody else gets credit for the win. How does that make him feel? You got to think of your players. They win the games for you. And besides, if Whitey gets out of the hole, he's as good as anybody else for the last few innings. You know anyone better?"
Ordinarily Houk has a pleasant, open face (he looks, in repose, very much like an ex-president of the Future Farmers of America, which, indeed, he is), but sometimes his face becomes forbidding. Now, as he thought about the unjustified criticism that had been forthcoming when he let Whitey Ford stay in the game, his face was dark.
"Why don't they ever ask me why I do something?" he said. "Like when I put Kubek in as lead-off batter against Bud Daley. They were curious about that, but no one asked me about it. Well, look. Kubek has always hit pretty good against Daley. Not a hell of a lot, but good enough. He gets on. So then I got Richardson hitting second. So here's the best guy on the club for moving the runner up. He can bunt, he can hit behind the runner, he can hit on a hit and run. He always gets the bat on the ball. Then what? You got Kubek on second. They can't walk Lopez to get to Mantle and Maris, can they? So I figure I'll get a run in the early innings and hang on to it. We're not getting runs in bunches, remember. One run, two runs. That can be important when a club is hitting as we've been lately. So that's why I put Kubek in as the lead-off hitter. Sound logical?"
Houk does not believe in the wholesale platooning of players that Casey Stengel made into a trademark.
Can't afford errors
"Maybe I would if I had the material," Houk says. "But there are so many things to consider. Say you get a mediocre pitcher or a poor pitcher in the ball game. You can't platoon in the infield. You can't go for pinch hitters. You can't give away any defense at all. A real good pitcher, you figure to pitch himself out of trouble if the infield blows a couple behind him. But an average guy pitching, he needs all the help he can get. So you got to go with the best defense you can put in the game. You can't worry about they got a lefty or a righty pitching. You got to have the best fielders behind your pitcher. Doesn't do any good to add hitting if the hitter makes an error at the wrong time and gives them a real big inning."
The players had just begun to straggle into Yankee Stadium to dress for a game against Kansas City. Whitey Ford was due to pitch again.
"Someone said in the paper the other day that I didn't realize Ford was just a six-or seven-inning pitcher," Houk said as he prepared to leave his office. "Sheee. This guy didn't see Whitey go nine the last time out in Florida, eight the time before and strong enough then to go nine. Watch him today."
Ford went nine and shut out the Athletics on three hits. Houk, after the game, puffed on his cigar and smiled.