The Boston Red Sox, weary of playing second fiddle to New York so often in recent years, have hired old Yankee Ralph Houk himself in hopes of finally overtaking their perennial tormentors.
Even so accomplished a maestro as this three-time former pennant winner, however, will have a tough time orchestrating any kind of serious challenge with the material he is likely to have at hand next spring -- as he surely must realize. The logical assumption, therefore, is that Houk is being brought in to launch a youth movement which will strive for as much immediate success as possible but will be equally concerned with rebuilding the club for the long haul.
Houk, at least for the record, is more optimistic.
"I wouldn't be back in baseball if I didn't think we had a chance to win," he told a press conference at Fenway Park. "That's why I'm back -- to win one more pennant."
If he can do so with the team that is likely to assemble under his tutelage at Winter Haven, Fla., next spring, it will surely be the crowning accomplishment of his managerial career. The 1980 Red Sox showed many glaring weakeness while struggling home a distant fourth, and now due to contract problems they find themselves virtually forced to trade All-Star center fielder Fred Lynn, and possibly shortstop Rich Burleson as well, under conditions where they have little chance of getting full value in return.
General Manager Haywood Sullivan summed it up well when he introduced Houk as the successor to Don Zimmer, who was fired after a 4 1/2-year tenure during which Boston often came close but never could quite make it to the top.
"You never start out a season saying, 'We're going to finish third,'" the general manager said, "but sometimes you do get into a rebuilding process, work hard, and hope for the best. Anything can happen in this game. Look at 1967, when this team had been next-to-last the year before and won the pennant. And look what happened in 1975."
What happened in those years was that the Red Sox were rebuilding (there were two rookie starters on each club) and still managed to win pennants. somewhat the same thing happened this year in Philadelphia, where four rookies played significant roles. It isn't that regular a scenario, however -- and no one knows this better than Houk.
Ralph's baseball career began in 1939 when he turned down a football scholarship at Kansas to sign with the Yankees. He spent three years moving up through the minor leagues, then spent 1942-45 serving with the Rangers of the 9 th Armored Division in Europe during World War II, earning the Silver Star, and rising to the rank of major.
Returning to baseball, he finally reached the Yankees in 1947, which happened to be the same year that another rookie catcher named Yogi Berra arrived on the scene. Houk wound up as a third stringer for virtually his entire big league career through 1954 -- which in terms of preparing him for managing was undoubtedly a blessing in disguise.
Houk must have thought managing was a lark when he started out. His first big league season was 1961, and all he had to do was write names like Mantle, Maris, Ford, etc., on his lineup card and then sit back and watch what happened. Those Yankees won both the pennant and the World Series, making Houk only the third first-year manager to turn that trick (and the last one until Philadelphia's Dallas Green did it this year). New York won it all again in 1962, then won another pennant but lost the World Series in 1963, after which Houk moved up to the post of general manager.
Three years later, Ralph returned to the field managing post -- but for him it most definitely wasn't better the second time around. By 1966 the Yankees had deteriorated into a very bad club which finished 10th and last that season and ninth the following year. He continued managing the team through 1973, bringing it back to respectability, but never came any closer than second place.
In 1974 he moved to Detroit, where he spent five years at the job many think he will be trying to duplicate in Boston -- taking over a team that was beginning to disintegrate and working with young players to build it into a contender.
So Houk knows firsthand as well as anyone that a manager is only as good as his players. His record shows that he usually gets at least as much as expected out of the talent at hand, and sometimes more, as with the teams he had in contention in the '70s. He has a reputation for being tough but fair, and of working well with pitchers -- a result, no doubt, of all the time he spent in the bullpen as a third-stringer.
During Ralph's first Yankee tenure, for instance, Ford had his two biggest years (25-4 and 24-7), Jim Bouton had his only 20-game season, and Luis Arroyo, a formerly nondescript hurler, was a 1961 reclamation project who won 15 games and saved 29 others. The list continues, with Mel Stottlemyre fashioning several big years in the '60s and '70s. And for those who think the 61-year-old Houk might be an "old guard" manager out of touch with today's players, it is interesting to note that he was at Detroit when a not-so-conventional young man named Mark Fidrych exploded on the scene in 1976.
Pitching has been Boston's most consistent problem over the years, so here too Houk seems an excellent choice. And if he feels any pressure in coming out of a two-year self-imposed retirement spent relaxing in Florida to take over a post in which the constant hassle from fans and the media has bothered many of his predecessors, he doesn't show it.
Asked if it was a big challenge, Houk reminded listeners that he hadn't walked into easy spots in the past.
"I replaced Casey Stengel in New York," he said, with no need to elaborate on what a tough act that was to follow. "And in Detroit I came in after Billy Martin, who had been very popular with the fans. In my career, every job I've had has been a challenge."