Ralph Houk walked in looking 45 years old. He is tanned, his hair is turning blond, but that is why he was there.
“There is only so much golf and so much fishing one can do,” he said during his introduction to the firing line known as the Red Sox managing job. “Baseball is harder to leave than you think it is, and you pick up the paper and start reading the box scores, and, well, I got a little itchy. I really began missing the competition on the field.”
Two years into his retirement, at the age of 61, Houk wanted to get back into the game. Haywood Sullivan said he had “a few candidates in mind,” but he talked to only one. After returning to Boston a week ago yesterday from the World Series, Sullivan called Houk at his house in Pompano Beach and asked him to meet him at the Fort Lauderdale airport. Sullivan got in at 8:30 p.m., took the 11 p.m. flight back, and in between offered Houk the job and detailed to him the possibilities of trading certain veteran star players, including Fred Lynn.
Houk didn’t have to wait long to answer. When he and his wife, Betty, took off on a cruise the next morning, Sullivan knew he had his manager. “I had some other offers, or I should say feelers,” said Houk. “But as soon as I heard it was Boston, I knew I wanted to come. I certainly hope this is going to be a lot of fun, and I think it will be. I’ve always felt that this was an awfully exciting city, one way or the other.
“I’m not going to make any predictions. But I wouldn’t be back in baseball if I didn’t think we had a chance at winning. That’s really why I’m back - to win one more pennant.”
So, armed with a two-year contract (”I didn’t come here for the money”) that he signed minutes before the 5 p.m. press conference in the Fenway Park press room, Houk began what may be the part of the job that bothered some of his predecessors the most - dealing with the New England media. He had to defer comments on personnel and coaches because he still must meet with Sullivan and the other members of the organization to discuss those situations.
He made it clear that Sullivan had told him of the moves he is trying to make (Sullivan reiterated his position on the Lynn-to-the-Dodgers trade by saying that if Los Angeles accepts his proposal, the deal will be made immediately). “I’ve been away for two years, I haven’t even watched games on television, so I can’t really comment on anyone until I’ve had a chance to sit down with the people in the organization, go over the roster and so forth,” said Houk. He added that he, Sullivan and others will sit down and discuss his coaches. “This has come so fast . . . two weeks ago, I never would have dreamed I’d be here.”
Sullivan was asked what there is about this man who won pennants his first three years with the Yankees (1961-63) that prompted the Red Sox general manager to hire him. His answer was simple: “Spirit and leadership.” Sullivan spoke of “attitude,” and the fact that he feels he has brought a steady, solid baseball man into the clubhouse and the organization needed no articulating.
Houk knows about challenges. He took over when Casey Stengel was fired after losing the World Series to Pittsburgh in 1960, although Yankee people say one of the reasons that forced the move was that Boston already had tried to hire him (in 1959) and was trying again. “Then I took over for Billy Martin in Detroit (in 1974, after a second tour of duty as Yankee manager, 1966-73), and he had been pretty popular,” said Houk. And when he left the Yankees and George Steinbrenner for Detroit, he knew he was taking over a team that had fallen apart. He accepted it, maintained a modicum of respectability and turned the Alan Trammells, etc., over to Les Moss and Sparky Anderson after the 1978 season. Now he comes here, where for the first time since the winter of 1974-75, the city is not talking next year.
“You never start out a season saying, We’re going to finish third,’ “ said Sullivan, “but sometimes you do get into a rebuilding process, work hard and hope anything can happen. Look what happened here in 1967. In 1975.”
Sullivan is a believer in taking a deep breath and spending a season to
break in some kids, even if it means third or fourth place. He feels Houk is outstanding with kids, and in turn, Houk said, “I’ve heard from people who have nothing to do with the Red Sox that they have some truly outstanding kids.” One thing about Houk: He believes he can win.
And one thing about the Red Sox: They are really pleased that Ralph Houk is their manager. As the press conference wound down, in the back of the room, Sam Mele said, “This is a great day. This is a great man.”
Notes: While they announced the hiring of Houk, the Red Sox also revealed their 40-man roster. Only 39 places are filled right now, leaving a spot open in case of a deal. Assigned outright to Pawtucket were pitchers Joel Finch and Steve Schneck, infielder Larry Wolfe and outfielder Sam Bowen, while catcher Dave Rader and outfielder Jimmy Dwyer were bid goodbye on their way to free agency. Added to the Boston roster are 6-foot-8 righthanded reliever Billy Mike Smithson (5-9, 2.91, 4 saves, Pawtucket), fireballing RHP Jerome King (6-6, 3.98, Bristol) and catcher John Lickert (.257, Bristol) . . . RHP Danny Ray Parks, who was 10-10 at Pawtucket and is given a shot at making the parent club next spring, may be added later when other matters are settled . . . Houk reported that Johnny Pesky was his player-third base coach in Denver when he was player-manager in 1955. “Pesky almost got my leg broken,” laughed Houk. “He sent me one time when I was out by 45 feet.” . . . One of Houk’s best friends flew up from New York just for the occasion - American League public relations director Bob Fishel, for many years the Yankees’ PR man.