In the eulogy Bob Costas gave at Mickey Mantle’s funeral, he talked about how thrilled people my age used to be when as kids, we opened up a pack of baseball cards and found a Mantle lying in their between a Pumpsie Green and an Eli Grba card. I had a lot of those Grba cards back in the early sixties and many of them would end up clothes-pinned to the forks of my Schwinn bicycle, rattling like a Harley engine against the spokes of my bike’s front and rear wheels. Grba came up in the Yankee organization in the late fifties. He was a tall, hard-throwing right-hander who would pitch mostly out of the bullpen for Casey Stengel during the 1959 and ’60 seasons, with an occasional start thrown in. He was 2-5 with an ERA over six in 1959 and then improved to 6-4 the following year and lowered his ERA to 3.68. It began to look as if he had a future in pinstripes. Two things prevented that from happening.
The first was booze. Stengel’s Yankees loved to drink it. Grba fit right in. Teammates Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford would invite the wide-eyed rookie to join them for a cocktail or two and Eli was thrilled to accept. He might not have been able to keep up with those two superstars on the baseball field but he quickly proved he could do so in the bars of American League cities around the country. By the end of the 1960 World Series, Eli Grba’s drinking problem was in full swing.
The AL was expanding to ten teams in 1961 and Eli Grba became the number one pick of the Los Angeles Angels in the 1960 expansion draft that was used to create the initial rosters of those two added ball clubs. The newly formed Angels may have had more drinkers on their team than the Yankees. They included Grba and his former Yankee teammates Ryne Duren and Ken Hunt. Eli won the first game in franchise history and went 11-13 during his first season wearing a halo’d hat but the drinking problem also advanced to a full-scale disease. He finished 8-9 in ’62 and found himself out of the big leagues for good by 1964. His post-playing life was mired in failed marriages and jobs until he finally quit the booze in the early eighties.
|LAA (3 yrs)||20||24||.455||4.40||92||60||17||9||0||3||405.1||396||229||198||47||199||200||1.468|
|NYY (2 yrs)||8||9||.471||4.74||43||15||9||1||0||1||131.0||117||89||69||15||85||55||1.542|
Just over a year ago, I was watching one of those fantastic replays of old World Series games the MLB Network broadcasts from time-to-time. This one was the seventh game of the 1952 World Series between the Yankees and Dodgers. The series was tied three games apiece and the final game was being played at Ebbets Field.
Eddie Lopat started for New York against that year’s NL Rookie of the Year, the Dodgers’ Joe Black, who was starting his third game of that World Series. Casey Stengel only let Lopat work three innings and then replaced him with the “Super Chief” Allie Reynolds. The Yankees were holding onto a slim one-run lead with Reynolds due to lead off the top of the seventh inning. The old black & white television camera panned to the on-deck circle and standing there, swinging some warmup bats trying to get loose was a Yankee third string catcher named Ralph Houk.
Even though I hadn’t been born at the time this game was being played and I was actually watching a 58-year-old film of the event, I was shocked when I saw the “Major” getting ready to hit and so too was the booth announcer doing the play-by-play (I can’t remember if it was Mel Allen or Red Barber.) Houk had only got into nine games during the entire 1952 regular season during which he had come to the plate with a bat in his hand a grand total of seven times. Here he was about to get
his eighth plate appearance of the entire year in the seventh and deciding game of the World Series with his team ahead by just one run.
The very savvy Preacher Roe had come in to relieve Black and Houk was the first hitter he faced. Ralph had a great at-bat that lasted about a dozen pitches and he ended up smashing a hot shot down third base which was smothered by the great glove man, Billy Cox and Houk was thrown out at by just a hair at first. Even though he made an out, Houk had battled Roe and hit him hard, justifying Stengel’s faith in him.
I remember thinking what a thrill it was for me, an avid fifty-year Yankee fan, to be able to have seen a guy I knew only as a Yankee manager take an important at-bat in a critical game in Yankee history. I had sort of lost my good feelings for Houk after he took the GM promotion the Yankees gave him in 1963 and he fired Yogi Berra as Yankee Manager after the ’64 World Series. I started liking him again after reading how he had not been afraid to stand up against the bullying tactics of a young George Steinbrenner during Houk’s final year as Yankee Manager. And then, after seeing replays of that long-ago at-bat I actually Googled Houk and read up on his career and was pretty shocked when I realized he had turned ninety.
When he died on July 21, 2010, I immediately thought of the thrill of having seen that 1952 World Series at bat just a few weeks earlier. And every time I saw that black armband on a Yankee player’s uniform for the rest of last season, I thought of the Major who won both a Silver and Bronze star leading his men forward on Omaha Beach and into the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge. I thought of the Yankee Manager who won two World Series during his first two years at the helm. And I thought of that third string catcher and unlikely pinch hitter running as hard as he could down the first baseline of old Ebbets field and just getting nipped by Billy Cox’s throw. RIP Ralph Houk.
Houk’s record as a Yankee player appears below, followed by his record as Yankee manager:
|1||1961||41||New York Yankees||AL||163||109||53||.673||1||WS Champs|
|2||1962||42||New York Yankees||AL||162||96||66||.593||1||WS Champs|
|3||1963||43||New York Yankees||AL||161||104||57||.646||1||AL Pennant|
|4||1966||46||New York Yankees||AL||2nd of 2||140||66||73||.475||10|
|5||1967||47||New York Yankees||AL||163||72||90||.444||9|
|6||1968||48||New York Yankees||AL||164||83||79||.512||5|
|7||1969||49||New York Yankees||AL||162||80||81||.497||5|
|8||1970||50||New York Yankees||AL||163||93||69||.574||2|
|9||1971||51||New York Yankees||AL||162||82||80||.506||4|
|10||1972||52||New York Yankees||AL||155||79||76||.510||4|
|11||1973||53||New York Yankees||AL||162||80||82||.494||4|
|New York Yankees||11 years||1757||944||806||.539||4.2||3 Pennants and 2 World Series Titles|
|Detroit Tigers||5 years||806||363||443||.450||5.2|
|Boston Red Sox||4 years||594||312||282||.525||4.0|
|20 years||3157||1619||1531||.514||4.4||3 Pennants and 2 World Series Titles|