For the Major, there never was any place in the whole world like the stadium, the one called Yankee and the only one that had a peculiar feeling all its own. "You held your breath as you drove off the cloverleaf at the Major Deegan Expressway," he recalls, "especially if you were young and a Yankee, and more especially if you were young and the new Yankee manager." It was a principality unto itself, filled with some of the most pampered human beings ever seen in sports, awash with mean little conceits and insufferable arrogance, but the Major now remembers only how big men cried when they were sent away, how it felt to be a Yankee in New York and a winner.
As Ralph Houk talks, it is hard to draw a bead on him, sitting in his now-spare little office under a picture of a ridiculous Tiger, an office that is still redolent of the salami sandwiches Billy Martin used to bounce off the wall. Except for the package of Red Man chewing tobacco (his coat of arms) on the desk in front of him, nothing else summons up the once-hard image of Houk of the Yankees, a man who was sort of a cross between a hayseed Freud and a roadhouse mug, depending upon what set of furies he had to deal with at the moment.
Last week as Houk of Detroit (it sounds odd) came off the road with his stumbling Tigers, one thing was certain: a uniform, a place and the people who work for you do make a difference. Nobody in Detroit assigns divinity to him, or immunity, just because he was once the rock of the Yankees and made it big in a town where even a sluggard of a doorman thinks he is special. It's called the big-league complex, and New Yorkers swallow it by the pound. No, out in Detroit the Major is just plain Ralph and you can forget about that New York jazz. Ralph Houk, the snarling war hero, the lady-killer, America in microcosm.
All of that impressed the late Dan Topping, who owned the Yankees, and it is not lost on General Manager Jim Campbell of the Tigers. "He's a man's man," Campbell says, but to Houk's credit he has never bought a nickel's worth of it. The big city never turned Houk's head for a moment, and he always worked close to the horns of reality. Socially he was invisible and if you did happen to see him he wasn't looking up at some wing-flapping French waiter, he was listening to the coarse babble of Toots Shor. Houk was simply a commuter in his personal life and as a manager he was not half of what a small band of hack big city propagandists said he was. He insisted then as now that genius and managing are not related. "There's nothing mysterious about managing," he says. "How many moves can you make? Players fire managers. If they believe in you, you don't have to do anything else." He cackles (another of his trademarks) and then irrigates his wastebasket with a stream of tobacco juice. He does not have to say another word. It is clear why the Tigers picked Houk up when he left the Yankees, deeply frustrated over his inability to win in the last eight years.
Three things have always been noticeable about Houk as a baseball man. He was positively one of the worst general managers ever to put on a tie. As a manager he could be as volatile as the wrong end of town on a Saturday night. And his players always seemed to have an irresistible urge to light candles at his feet. The third quality is why Jim Campbell covets Houk as if he were the Star of India. Houk is expected to erase fear and loathing in Detroit, to bring a modicum of sanity to a club that crashed into emotional shards in the erratic hands of Billy Martin.
"I remember a day in spring training of '73," says one fan. "Martin had simply vanished from the Tiger camp after a row with Willie Horton. I'll never forget Jim Campbell sitting in the stands moving his feet up and down like pistons and sucking on Rolaids by the box."
Campbell's days of worry are over now, for in Houk he has a baseball lifer, a man who subscribes to all the Biblical tenets of the grand old game. He is as gray as a banker's 10-year-old suit, as charming as a country loafer and, like so many third-string catchers who spent their careers in fear of the road secretary handing them a plane ticket to another town, Houk is exasperatingly patient. Above all he knows how to survive. "Any change for Ralph," says one old critic, "is viewed by him as pushing the panic button." This approach fits perfectly with the instincts of the Tiger front office, a conservative organization that was aghast at the behavior of Martin even though he led the team to a division title.
The players themselves are effusive about Houk, while barely mentioning Martin's name. Only Outfielder Jim Northrup, who refused to be whipped by Martin, speaks candidly of the difference between the two managers. "Ralph is just a flat-out better manager than Billy all the way around," says Northrup. "He makes it easy for his players to play. He has made the game fun for us again."
Says Al Kaline, "where has he been for 21 years?" Kaline seemed relieved when Houk asked him if he wanted to become the team's designated hitter this year, though one critic was outspoken about Houk's blasphemous move: "I do not like this man, I do not like him at all. He is taking from me—all of us in Detroit—one of the great joys of our life. You see, we don't have too much in Detroit—one good theater, one London Chop House, one Windsor Tunnel and one rightfielder. He is taking our right-fielder away from us, and summer in the city may never be the same again."
The fact is that Kaline, as well as a couple of other Tigers, can barely make it to first base anymore. To many, the Tigers, stylistically and geriatrically, are so old that one cannot help but think of going out and getting them hot tea and shawls as they sit in the dugout, wincing at the raw spring winds in from the Detroit River. An exaggeration, says Houk. Even so, it seems doubtful the Tigers will win anything this year—they led the American League East in mid-May but are currently fifth. Yet, their well-trampled egos might shape up again, and it will be a happy club. That is what Houk specializes in these days.
As for Houk himself, he is happy, too. He may now be managing in the murder capital of the U.S., but what was New York, a Shangri-la? Besides, Houk never cares about towns. A baseball man takes his meals in his hotel room and pores over his esoteric charts and statistics far into the night. It is at the ball-yard where he is most comfortable, spraying tobacco juice all over creation, forever grabbing handfuls of pebbles in front of the dugout, occasionally walking to the mound looking like a bag of old laundry and now and then—just for player uplift—circling an umpire like a demented water buffalo, as Houk did when he returned with his Tigers to New York several weeks ago.
"I'll tell ya," he says, "I don't miss New York at all. This is the best baseball town in the country. Yankee Stadium with its memories, well, yes, I miss that, but this is a good town, a good place to be."