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Lessons in Management from New York Yankees Manager Ralph Houk

Updated on December 26, 2012
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Ralph Houk, called “the Major,” took the helm of the premier major league baseball team, succeeding the long-time, winning manager Casey Stengel ahead of the 1961 season. The man with a tough-guy reputation inspired confidence and affection from his players through his reassuring approach to management.

Houk set an example that highlights effective leadership principles. He’d honed these qualities in combat and the high-pressure field of professional baseball. All those who manage personnel, whether in direct report, project management, volunteer coordination, or collaborative situations, can find something useful to emulate from the way Houk managed the New York Yankees of the early 1960s.

Houk’s Background

Kansas native Houk fought in World War II. He saw action on D-Day at Omaha Beach and at the Battle of the Bulge as part of the 9th Armored Division. The military decorated Houk for valor and courage, awarding him the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and a Purple Heart. The citation said Lt. Houk took charge during a German assault amidst gunfire “so intense that his clothes were torn by enemy machine gun bullets.” Houk “calmly moved from one position to another directing his men[, directed a tank’s fire against the enemy, and] . . . was directly responsible for repelling the enemy attack.” He was promoted to the rank of major.

Ralph Houk played backup catcher in the 1940s and 1950s behind Yogi Berra, who held the starting catcher job. So, Houk spent lots of time working with pitchers in the Yankee bullpen and observing.

He then moved into the Yankees management, most notably serving as minor league manager of the Triple A Denver team and as first base coach for the major league team. Houk did confront umpires who made bad calls that cost his team. But he cultivated future Yankee standouts like Tony Kubek and Bobby Richardson. Once, when pitcher Ryne Duren (another Denver protégé) had been drinking and took a swing at Houk on a train from Kansas City to Detroit in 1958, Houk reacted by knocking Duren’s hand away and inadvertently scratching the pitcher’s face with his World Series ring.

But as manager of the big club, Houk had his own methods of managing people. He’d go after umpires and reporters, but not usually his bread and butter — his players.

Stengel vs. Houk

Following Stengel seemed a daunting task (Casey had won 10 pennants and seven World Series in 12 seasons). Yet, Houk led the Yankees of 1961, ’62, and ’63 to win the pennant in those three consecutive years and to take two World Series, before promotion to general manager. The performance of weak teams in his later career were something beyond his control, but Houk had already proven himself an effective leader.

In contrast with Stengel, who agitated his players even when the team gave command performances on the field and in the pennant race, Houk engendered confidence and allegiance among his players.

Stengel’s approach sought to motivate players by keeping them angry or on edge. Granted, it worked with some players. But Stengel’s criticism of his own players, in the clubhouse, the dugout, and the newspapers, coupled with frequent substitutions and pinch hitting, caused many capable players to question their own abilities and to chafe under a manager they could not be assured was on their side if they were to seek his advice.

It might have been a little easier on the stars (though Mickey Mantle also came under Casey’s constant criticism), but talented Yankees like Richardson, Kubek, Jerry Lumpe, and Norm Siebern had a more demoralizing experience under Stengel. Though Stengel’s genius worked for the team’s success, it came at a human price.

The Ralph Houk School of Management

The new management, Houk, made immediate changes in how the Yankees operated. Houk fostered leadership. For example, Houk charged Mantle with being a team leader. Because all the players liked Mick, Houk knew Mantle could inspire his colleagues if given the challenge. In the ’61 season with Mantle contending with teammate Roger Maris in a home run race and suffering intensely painful injuries, Mantle’s example touched his teammates deeply and caused them to give even greater effort.

Also, motivation by criticism was out; motivation by praise was in. “We have the finest infield in baseball,” Houk repeated regularly. Its players responded by turning 180 double plays in Houk’s inaugural season. He encouraged struggling players. Johnny Blanchard recalled, “Ralph always had some kind word to say. He’d pat you on the back and tell you to hang in there.”

Manager Houk set out from the beginning to instill self-confidence in his players. Third baseman Clete Boyer recalled, “At his first meeting, Ralph said we knew how to play the game better than he did. So if we wanted to bunt, bunt. If we wanted to hit-and-run, then hit-and-run.” Houk said, “I learned that the hardest people to handle weren’t the stars, but the guys who didn’t play every day. That’s why I went out of my way to talk to the guys on the bench, let them know that they were important to the team.”

Platooning was out. Guys played regularly at their positions, without steady substitutions. This change gave certainty. Joe DeMaestri called Houk “a player’s manager . . . [who] put his best nine guys on the field and let them play.” Richardson, a Houk protégé from the minors, said when Houk became manager he told him, “I don’t care if you hit .170, you’re going to be my second-baseman.” That set the stage for Richardson’s winning five straight Gold Gloves. But not only the starters gained certainty in their expectations under Houk. “The utility players knew exactly how and when they were going to be used,” Rollie Sheldon noted.

Houk corrected and instructed, knowing a little negativity was necessary, but that it would go a long way. One time, pitcher Bill Stafford failed to cover first base when a grounder went to that side of the mound. “After the game, Ralph came over and said how well I’d pitched and how great everything was. Then he said, ‘And Bill, you gotta get to first base because if the next guy had hit a homer, we lose 3-2.’” Houk didn’t mention Rollie Sheldon’s mental error that allowed Detroit’s Chico Fernandez to steal home on the forlorn hurler. Rather, he put Sheldon back on the mound the next game to display his confidence in the remorseful pitcher. And Houk reserved the tough conversations for private, individual settings.

Houk didn’t get too familiar or play favorites with his players. He would take out a group of players, if Houk was treating for a meal, not a single player who might then be rumored to be the skipper’s pet. And he didn’t shy away from making tough decisions, like trading veteran pitchers Art Ditmar and Bob Turley for less seasoned hurlers Sheldon and Bill Stafford in June of 1961. He warned carousing Don Larsen in no uncertain terms that his extracurricular activities had better not interfere with his on-field performance.

During boos the first two months of the ’61 season, when the Yankees trailed in the standings, and after any losses, the tobacco-chewing manager who’d braved Nazi bullets assumed responsibility for a loss and refrained from throwing any of his players under the news media’s bus.

Another leadership quality of Houk’s was a positive attitude. Pitcher Bud Daley lost his first four games under Houk. He asked the manager if he shouldn’t put him in the bullpen. Houk replied, “Oh, we won’t do that. The law of averages says you’re gonna win pretty soon.” Such a response took added pressure off the struggling player. Houk’s famous optimism led New York sportswriter Dave Anderson to say, “If he found a bomb on the [luxury liner] Queen Elizabeth, he’d tell the passengers how much they’ll enjoy the lifeboats.”

A positive attitude from the guy at the top filters down from the manager to the coaches to the starters to the benchwarmers, and it affects how team members perform. Houk knew this. He’d led men in combat and spent time himself warming the bench.

Houk versus Stengel Management Style

Which is the better method of managing personnel, that of NY Yankees manager Casey Stengel or of Ralph Houk?

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Conclusion

Yankees manager Ralph Houk set an excellent example in leading an organization in a high-pressure sector. He faced tremendous external pressures and criticism, but Houk kept the negative upon himself. With his people, Houk employed positive reinforcement, encouragement and praise, set clear expectations and gave certainty to all his team, inspired leadership and self-confidence. He preserved his own stature as leader with appropriate boundaries and even-handedness, as well as disciplining when necessary, but without overdoing it.

Perhaps above all, Houk adopted a positive attitude that was inspirational. This type of personnel management proved successful to team cohesion and performance. Houk’s management style gives a terrific model of leadership.

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