No Yankee past or present celebrates a birthday on May 27th and since its Memorial Day, I thought it would be fitting to recognize two well-known Yankees who made significant contributions to the US War effort during WWII.
The first is the great outfielder from the great Yankee teams of the late forties and fifties, Hank Bauer. While still a minor leaguer in the White Sox organization, Hank enlisted in the Marines in 1942 and he spent the next three years of his life battling malaria, storming the beaches of islands in the Pacific and leading a battalion of men in fierce jungle fighting with a merciless enemy. During the deadly Battle of Okinawa, Lieutenant Bauer lost 58 of the 64 marines in his platoon during the Japanese counterattack. He was awarded two bronze stars and a pair of purple hearts. He also lost a brother, Herman, who was killed in action in France in November of 1944. When Bauer returned home, he figured his chance at playing baseball had passed him by and he became a pipe-fitter. A scout for the Yankees remembered Bauer and signed him to contract. It took Bauer three years to make it to the Bronx and by the time he did, in 1948, he was already 26 years old. But when he finally did put on those pinstripes, he played the game like he lived his life, hard at it all the time.
After signing with New York as a minor league catcher in 1939, former Yankee manager, Ralph Houk joined the Army a few weeks after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. He attended officers’ candidate school and didn’t get sent overseas until July of 1944. That October, Houk and his reconnaissance unit got their first taste of combat during the Battle of the Bulge. He was wounded in the leg but refused to leave the battle front. His commanding officer sent Houk out alone in a jeep to go behind the enemy’s lines and scout German troop positions. He returned three days later with bullet holes in both sides of his helmet. One of the first American soldiers to step foot in Germany, Houk led several dangerous missions against key enemy positions in the 9th Armored Division’s march through the Rhineland. He won both a silver and bronze star plus a purple heart. He left the Army a Major and that rank then became his well-known and respected baseball nickname until he passed away in July of 2010.
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|