Ralph Houk named Yankees manager 53 years ago

Ralph Houk

Ralph Houk was named manager of the New York Yankees on this date, May 7, 1966.  What was so significant about this?  Well the Yankees, in the days before George Steinbrenner owned the club, rarely changed managers, during the season.  But in 1966 they were off to a horrendous start at 4-16 and in last place in the 10-team American League, 12 games out of first.  These were the same Yankees who had a losing record in 1965, after winning five straight American League pennants.

Rumors had been circulating for weeks that Johnny Keane, in his second-year as Yankees manager – as Vice President and General Manager, Houk fired Yogi Berra and hired Keane – was about to lose his job and that Houk would return to the dugout.  As the Yankees’ continued to slide in the first week of May, Houk was seen seated next to the Yankees dugout with Michael Burke, liaison between CBS and Yankees management. (CBS purchased the Yankees in 1964 and at this point owned 90 percent of the franchise.  However, Dan Topping, longtime Yankees owner, still held 10 percent of the club, remained as president and ostensibly was still calling the shots.)  It could not bode well that Houk and Burke were next to the dugout, watching Keane pilot a sinking ship.

The once proud Yankees had become a laughingstock.  Witness this exchange between St. Louis Cardinals broadcasters Harry Caray and Joe Buck, as reported in the May 16th issue of Sports Illustrated:
         Caray: You know the Yankees are one and 10 and drew only 3,300 people today?
         Buck:   Break up the Yankees!

Something had to be done.  Would the once stable Yankees make their fourth managerial change in six seasons?  On the day “Kauai King” won the Kentucky Derby, May 7, after the Yankees started a long road trip with yet another loss, Topping lowered the boom.  He offered Houk, who managed the Yankees to three pennants and two World Series titles between 1961-63, the chance to serve as both manager and GM.  Houk did not want the dual assignment – although under the new arrangement he would have major say on player moves – and signed a new four-year deal to serve as manager only.  Topping installed his son, Dan Topping Jr. as the new GM.

Suffering from pneumonia at his Miami home, Topping talked to Houk by phone and then fired off the following telegram to Houk, as reported in the New York Times:

     “Have decided we simply must make change, despite our efforts and hopes to snap out of this. As discussed, Johnny Keane will be relieved immediately and you are appointed manager of the Yankees on a four-year contract, through Nov. 1, 1969.”

(In 1966, four-year contracts for managers were unprecedented.  Heck, four-year contracts for managers in 2019 are rare.)

When Topping wrote “immediately” in his telegram to Houk, he wasn’t kidding.  A dramatic photo in the same SI issue that reported the Carey-Buck exchange, shows a line of Yankees departing their clubhouse and heading to their dugout at Anaheim Stadium with Keane in suit and tie cutting through the line.

The Yankees responded for “the Major” in his first game back in the dugout, beating the California Angels, 3-1, before 42,861, the largest crowd in the new Anaheim Stadium.  Mickey Mantle knocked in all three runs and Fritz Peterson hurled a four-hitter.

Under Houk, the Yankees briefly caught fire and started to play like the old Yankees, winning 13 of their next 17 games.  They had “pulled” to within 9 1/2 games of first place.

Feeling that his club was poised to make a run, Topping then saw fit to turn his ire on his broadcasters: Red Barber, Phil Rizzuto, Joe Garagiola and Jerry Coleman.  As Barber wrote in his book, “The Broadcasters,” Topping sent out a memo to the broadcast crew telling them their broadcasts were not up to par and that now with the ball club winning, the broadcasters needed to pick up their game too.

Alas, Barber, Rizzuto, Garagiola and Coleman could not hit, field or pitch and in the end, neither could the Yankees.  After improving to 17-20 and advancing into sixth place, the Yankees began their slide again, all the way to the cellar, where the club finished at 70-89, 26 1/2 games behind the champion Baltimore Orioles.

Near the end of the season, Topping sold his remaining interest in the club to CBS and resigned as president.  Burke became the new president and his first assignment was to fire Barber.  He told the New York Times: “The decision was made two weeks ago by the Yankee organization before I took over.  Unfortunately, it fell to me to tell Red about it.  Of course, I went along with the decision.”

By January, Keane was dead of a heart attack at the age of 55.  Barber never returned to broadcasting baseball games and Houk never recaptured the glory he experienced in his first tour as Yankees manager.  He resigned on the last day of the 1973 season, following the final game at the old Yankee Stadium, presumably unable to work under the new ownership, led by Steinbrenner.  Houk would later manage the Tigers and Red Sox, while Barber would be introduced to a new audience and star on a popular Friday morning segment over National Public Radio with Bob Edwards.

In the end, however, instead of buying the “Tiffany” of baseball teams, it turned out “The Tiffany Network” had purchased a pig-in-a-poke.  It would be left to Steinbrenner, managerial changes and all, to restore the Yankees to their former glory.

Paper heralds Babe Ruth’s first home run

It was the day after, Friday, May 7, 1915.  The New York Times was heralding the New York Yankees comeback 4-3 win over the Boston Red Sox, before nearly 5,000 fans.  But a key component to the story was a Red Sox pitcher named Babe Ruth, who hit his first big league home run.

In the Times story, written without a byline, here was the lead:
       “Those Yanks won another game at the Polo Grounds yesterday, after fighting the Boston Red Sox tooth and nail for 13 innings.  The score was 4 to 3.”

In the game story, the Babe received his due:
       “For Boston, the big left-handed pitcher, Babe Ruth was all that a pitcher is supposed to be, and some more.  He put his team into the running in the third inning by smashing a mighty rap into the upper tier of the right-field grandstand.  Ruth also had two other hits to his credit.  His pitching throughout was of high-order and it was only through the highest kind of effort that the Yanks were able to break through his service.”

Ruth pitched the distance, 12.1 innings, and absorbed the loss.  Two of the four runs he allowed were earned.  He permitted 10 hits, walked three and struck out three, evening his record at 1-1.  Ruth would finish the season at 18-8 on the mound, after going 2-1 in his initial big league season in 1914.

But let the record show, his first major league home run – he would hit four in 1915 – came against the New York Yankees.   And as trite as it may sound, after that date, the rest was history.

Happy Birthday, Willie Mays

Willie Mays/You Tube

Willie Mays turns 88 today.  He might have been the greatest baseball player to ever grace a diamond.

I once saw Willie Mays hit a home run at Shea Stadium, while he was playing with the San Francisco Giants. If you never saw him play, go on You Tube.  There are numerous videos of Mays at his best.

In 1973 I had the chance to interview Mays, when he was playing for the Mets.  The interview was a disaster.  Hey, I was 18 years old.  Give me a break.  I was nervous as all get go.  Mays could not have been nicer, and I was informed by the Mets PR director he had undergone dental surgery that morning.  Bottom line, however, is that I could have asked better questions.  You win some, you lose some, I guess.

Mays played with the New York and San Francisco Giants, before closing out his career with the Mets, between 1951-1973.  How many people know that number 24 actually wore number 14, when he broke in with the Giants in 1951?  Or that he was on deck, when Bobby Thomson hit the famous “Shot Heard Round The World.”  Or that at the tail end of his career, he played in the World Series for the Mets, going 2-for-7 against Oakland?

In 22 seasons Mays had a lifetime batting average of .302.  How about these other career numbers:

  • 660 home runs
  • 1,903 RBI
  • 3,283 hits
  • 338 stolen bases
And in today’s statistical vernacular, he had a slash line of .302/.384/.557 for a .941 OPS.
The Hall of Fame broadcaster Red Barber, who witnessed everybody from Joe DiMaggio to Jackie Robinson to Stan Musial to Ted Williams to Mickey Mantle, once told me Willie Mays was the greatest all around player he had seen.
“I don’t know anybody who was better on an all around basis, doing everything that a ball player was supposed to do better than Mays,” Barber told me in an interview.  “Mantle might have been the greatest ballplayer who ever lived, except he was so badly injured all the time.”
Happy Birthday, Willie. 

Fitch High’s Menhart new Nationals pitching coach

Paul Menhart/You Tube grab

Being from Connecticut, I always root for someone from my home state.  And so it is that Paul Menhart was named last week, as the new pitching coach for the Washington Nationals.  Menhart went to Fitch High School in Groton.  His coach was Ed Harvey, who just happens to be Matt Harvey’s dad.

Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe reports that Menhart “also came out of the famed New London American Legion program coached by Jim O’Neill.”   (O’Neill was inducted into the New London Sports Hall of Fame in 2010.)

Of course, one man’s fortune is another man’s misfortune.  In this case, it’s Derek Lilliquist, who was let go as pitching coach.  Our paths crossed, when he pitched for the Richmond Braves and I broadcast their games.  Here’s hoping Derek latches on with another club.

First Yankees bat day was so successful it was a nightmare

Bat Day No. 2/ You Tube grab

On May 5 the New York Yankees will hold their 2019 “Bat Day.”  The first 10,000 “guests” ages 14 and under will receive a commemorative baseball bat.  It is a far cry from the first “Bat Day” held by the Yankees on June 20, 1965, Father’s Day, when 40,000 bats were distributed.

Some 72,245 “guests” jammed Yankee Stadium for the double-header between the defending American League champions and the first place Minnesota Twins.  The paid crowd was 71,245.  It was the largest crowd to watch a major league baseball game since July 4, 1961, when 74,246 watched the Yankees play the Tigers at the Stadium.  The clubs were in a heated pennant race that season and we all know about Maris and Mantle in ’61.

The Yankees had not anticipated that they would start their decline in 1965, when they scheduled “Bat Day.”  Their goal was to become more fan-friendly.  The ball club was winning pennants but losing fans, especially young fans, to the last place lovable Mets.  The Yankees outdrew the Mets in the Amazins’ first season in 1962 by nearly a half-million fans, but the the tables were turning.  The Yankees outdrew the Mets by about 300,000 in 1963, but when the Amazins’ moved into their new digs at Shea Stadium, it was game-set-match for New York’s National League entry.  In 1964, the last place Mets outdrew the first-place Yanks by 500,000. 

By 1965, the Yankees had been sold to CBS and although the ball club’s management team was still the same, the nation’s number one television network knew the Yankees corporate image had to change.  Thus the Yankees joined Detroit and Cleveland in scheduling “Bat Day.”  The promotion had been encouraged by the Hillerich and Bradsby Company, makers of the Louisville Slugger.

When the attendance was announced that day, the Yankee Stadium organist – it was the first year the Yankees had an organist, a response to an organist at Shea Stadium in 1964 – played “We’re in the Money.” 

With the Stadium, bursting with people, the gates had to be closed at 1:15 P.M., 10 minutes after the first game got underway.  Thousands, who entered the ballpark could not find seats and standing room only areas were inadequate.  Many fans were given their money back and left.

The heat was on Yankees GM Ralph Houk.  In those days a general manager’s responsibility also included marketing the club, negotiating broadcast contracts and myriad other duties, in addition to putting together a roster and making trades.  What was Houk to do?

“The Major” had to act quicker than firing Yogi Berra and hiring Johnny Keane and he did, issuing the following statement:  “Despite the great interest in our first ‘Bat Day,’ we did not plan to hold another such event until next season.  However, the demand grew to such proportions this past week that we decided to take care of the many requests we have had from fans who could not be here today and we are happy to announce another ‘Bat Day’ on Saturday afternoon, Aug. 14.”  Just like that, Houk had calmed the waters.  If only he could do the same for his failing team, which dropped a twin bill to the Twins and fell 11 games out of first.

The second ‘Bat Day’ was also a winner as the game attracted 51,244.  When added together, the two “Bat Days” accounted for one-tenth of the Yankees 1,213,552 season attendance.  The Mets outdrew the Bombers by a half-million at the gate that season too.

In time, the Yankees did a better job of handing the big crowds at their historic but decaying stadium and “Bat Day” became a popular attraction.  Photos of the kids being asked to hold their bats aloft were certain to make the next day’s papers.

These days, the Yankees routinely outdraw the Mets at the gate.  They can thank George Steinbrenner and the club’s success on the field for that.  Steinbrenner hated to lose to the Mets in anything, from games to attendance to publicity.

Somehow, however, the May 5 “Bat Day” won’t seem the same, with just the first 10,000 “guests” 14 and under being given a baseball bat.  The photos may not even make the next day’s papers.  Of course, these days there aren’t many papers around either.

Yogi Berra got his last two hits 54 years ago

Yogi Berra collected the last two hits of his career 54 years ago on May 4, 1965.  He did it not as a New York Yankee but as a New York Met.

Berra had produced a Hall of Fame career with the Yankees and retired in October 1963 to become their manager.  As every ardent Yankee fan knows, he was fired after the seventh game of the 1964 World Series, following the Yankees loss to the Cardinals.  Although an unpopular move by the Yankees, in a perverse way management did him a favor with the dismissal.  The club went down hill quickly, following his departure, and Berra was no where near when the excrement hit the fan.

Meanwhile, Yogi’s long time manager with the Bombers, Casey Stengel, invited him to become a player-coach with the Mets, a club Stengel started managing at its inception in 1962.  Yogi agreed.

Berra played for the first time as a Met on May 1, appearing as a pinch-hitter 12 days before his 40th birthday.  In a game at Cincinnati, he batted in the eighth inning and grounded out to first.  On May 4, with the Mets back home, Berra played against the Philadelphia Phillies, catching Al Jackson.  The paid crowd at Shea Stadium was 17,321.

As it turned out, Berra was one of the key contributors in the Mets, 2-1 victory, as he went 2-for-3 with a run scored.  His seventh-inning RBI turned out to be the difference, as it gave the Mets a 2-0 advantage.  Typical of the Mets of that era, Yogi actually lost an RBI with his first inning single, when Joe Christopher was tagged out at third base for the third out, before Ed Kranepool crossed home plate.  Leonard Koppett, covering the game for the New York Times, wrote “Yogi had what might be termed a ‘run batted out’ instead of a run batted in.”

The next night against the Phils, Berra appeared in the eighth inning as a pinch hitter and grounded out pitcher to first.  That night, Philadelphia won, 1-0, as Jim Bunning dueled Warren Spahn.  Both Hall of Fame pitchers hurled complete games in a tidy one hour and fifty-two minutes.

Yogi played his last game on May 9, catching Jackson again in the first game of a doubleheader against the Milwaukee Braves.  The Mets lost 8-2 and he went 0-for-4.   His last at bat in the ninth inning – against winning pitcher Tony Cloninger – was a fielder’s choice ground out.  He ended his career stranded at second base.  While catching in his last game, he had to figure how Jackson had to pitch to Felipe Alou, Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron and Joe Torre, the top four hitters in Milwaukee’s line up.

Without a designated hitter in 1965 in either league and his legs aching, no way Yogi was going to catch many more games for the Mets.  And so it was, on the eve of his 40th birthday, Berra announced his retirement as a player.  He remained as a coach with the Mets and later became their manager, winning the pennant in 1973.

Berra finished his playing career with 2,150 hits, his last two while in a New York Mets uniform.

Gehrig’s ties to Hartford, Eastern League recalled on historic day

On Tuesday, May 2, 1939, before the game between the New York Yankees and Detroit Tigers in Detroit, Lou Gehrig took himself out of the line-up.  Thus ended his then record streak of playing in 2,130 consecutive games.

The papers the next day were filled with stories of Gehrig’s streak coming to an end.  A wire service photo made the rounds of Gehrig standing in the dugout with his successor, Babe Dahlgren.  New York Times reporter James P. Dawson also noted in his story that Gehrig succeeded Wally Pipp, who was benched by manager Miller Huggins in 1925 “to make room for the strapping youth fresh from the Hartford Eastern League club to which the Yankees had farmed him for two seasons…”

Gehrig’s dismal spring training in 1939 and early season woes through the Yankees first eight games made his self-benching inevitable.  Yankees manager Joe McCarthy told the media Gehrig wanted to meet with him immediately after the manager arrived by plane from his Buffalo home, following a day off. “Lou just told me he felt it would be best for the club if he took himself out of the line-up,” McCarthy noted, during his extensive comments to the reporters gathered around him.

Gehrig also spoke, telling the media “I decided last Sunday night on this move.  I haven’t been a bit of good to the team since the season started.  It would not be fair to the boys, to Joe or to the baseball public for me to try going on.  In fact, it would not be fair to myself, and I’m the last consideration.”

The news about Gehrig led to quotes from notable baseball personalities, including Hank Greenberg and Everett Scott, the player who held the consecutive game playing streak before Gehrig at 1,307.
Coincidentally Pipp, a Michigan business man, happened to be in Detroit on the day Gehrig announced his benching. 

As the Yankees captain, Gehrig brought the line-up card to home plate before the game.  After the meeting ended, it was announced over the P.A. system that Gehrig would not be playing, ending his streak.  He received a standing ovation, as he returned to the dugout.

At the time, Gehrig had not been diagnosed with ALS.  Gehrig thought he had lumbago and later was  treated for a “gall bladder condition” after the 1938 season.  It was even thought that he would return to the line-up at some point in 1939.  The Times speculated “Gehrig’s withdrawal from today’s game does not necessarily mean the end of his playing career.”

The first place Yankees clobbered the Tigers without Gehrig, 22-2 in a game which took 2:22 to play. Gehrig’s replacement, Dahlgren, went 2-for-5 with a double, home run and two RBI in front of 11,379.

Gehrig, of course, never played another game.  He gave his memorable “luckiest man in the world” speech in between games of a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium on July 4.  He died on June 2, 1941.