Ralph Houk was a lucky man, in more ways than one.
When Casey Stengel left the Yankees, Houk took over, winning World Series titles in his first two seasons — the first in the midst of the chaos of Maris’ and Mantle’s assault on the home-run record in 1961.
But a main part of Houk’s legacy was away from the baseball field, and on the battlefield, where he survived some fierce fighting during his service.
Houk, 90, died Wednesday at his home in Florida. The longtime manager of the Yanks, Tigers and Red Sox served in World War II in the European theater.
A member of the 9th Armored Division, Houk received the Purple Heart, Silver Star and Bronze Star with oak leaf cluster and four campaign stars for his service. He achieved the rank of major before leaving the Army and joining the Yankees, where he backed up Yogi Berra.
This story from his commanding officer, Caesar Fiore, about Houk’s two-day disappearance in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge, is a gem.
“One day in the middle of the battle I sent Ralph out in a jeep to do some scouting of enemy troops,” said Fiore. “After being out two nights we listed him as ‘missing in action.’
“When he turned up he had a three-day growth of beard and hand grenades hanging all over him. He was back of the enemy lines the entire time. I know he must have enjoyed himself. He had a hole in one side of his helmet, and a hole in the other where the bullet left. When I told him about his helmet he said ‘I could have swore I heard a ricochet.’ We marked him ‘absent without leave’ but were glad to have him back alive.”
Houk also was a member of the 9th Armored Division’s baseball team, which made it to the playoffs for the 1945 ETO World Series.
He managed the Yankees from 1961-63 and 1966-73, the Tigers from 1974-78 and the Red Sox from 1981-84. He won six World Series as a player for the Yankees and two more as Yankees manager.
Fittingly, his nickname in the majors was “Major.”