While I was gallivanting around Target Field and the abodes of my in-laws, a longtime manager named Ralph Houk died.
His life is probably worth a full-length biography: war hero (Bronze Star, Silver Star, Purple Heart earned in the Normandy invasion and Battle of the Bulge; his rank provided his baseball nickname, "Major"); third-string catcher for the Yankee dynasty of the '50s, behind Yogi Berra; winner of two World Series as Casey Stengel's successor as Yankee manager; manager for 20 years with a lifetime record of 1,1619-1531.
And a bit role in the creation of the Kelly-era Twins.
Step back to the 1986-87 offseason. Carl Pohlad has decided to reshape the organization he inherited with the purchase of the Twins. Andy MacPhail, then 33, was hired during the 1986 season as a consultant/general manager in waiting, and his recommendation to Pohlad was that Tom Kelly, then 36 and the interim manager, get the job on a permanent basis.
Pohlad balked, and it's not difficult to understand why -- his team's two most prominent leaders would be in their 30s. He wanted Houk.
Houk was 67, with 20 years of managing and a post as general manager on his resume. He had, after leaving the Yankees, helped rebuild the Detroit franchise and refocus the Boston Red Sox. If Kelly and MacPhail were fresh faces, Houk represented experience and wisdom.
But he wasn't all that interested in returning to the dugout, and MacPhail did want Kelly. The eventual compromise: Kelly got the managerial job, and Houk was hired as a consultant, the idea being that Kelly could call him for advice.
As the story goes, Kelly called Houk fairly regularly in 1987, less often in 1988, and by the end of Houk's contract, he was basically only calling Houk on a social basis. The Twins offered to renew the consultancy; Houk told them not to bother, Kelly didn't need him as a security blanket.
As a manager, Houk was more about dealing with personalities than strategy. Stengel was a lineup shuffler who never used a set pitching rotation; Houk was the opposite, a guy who preferred to set his lineup and rotation and let it ride until he had to change. Kelly was closer to Stengel in that regard than to Houk. If Houk was influential on Kelly, it was as a handler of men.