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.