The man with the golden grin and glowing cigar is Ralph Houk, manager of the Yankees. His joy is understandable, for his team has just wrapped up the American League pennant (well, almost) and laid to rest Houk's personal ghost, the shade of Casey Stengel. As successor to that popular old idol, Houk was, from the start, under implacable pressure to win. The Yankees responded to Houk's great need with one of their greatest seasons. But until last weekend the team was still in mortal jeopardy of losing the pennant (and Houk of losing his job)—second-place Detroit also was having an amazing year. Then at Yankee Stadium, stimulated by big crowds, big games and big money, the Yankees conclusively crushed the Tigers. And Houk at last could have himself a great big winner's smile.
HOW HOUK'S MEN WIN
The 1961 Yankees are distinctively and decidedly Ralph Houk's. With his own ways of handling personnel and his own strategy he has produced a New York team as good as Casey Stengel's best. His changes have been major ones. He de-emphasized the role of manager. He junked Stengel's controversial platooning system. He increased Whitey Ford's starts and Ford's reaction was to win more games than any Yankee pitcher in 27 years. In spring training Houk told Elston Howard the catching job was his alone, and that he need not hit home runs but should go for singles up the middle. Howard is now among the league's leading hitters. Houk made Yogi Berra the permanent left fielder, and for the first time in several seasons local fans no longer tremble when a ball is hit in that direction.
Houk's greatest problem—and the Yankees' greatest asset—is the M&M boys. With a half million dollars awaiting the man who breaks Babe Ruth's home run record, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle recently had begun to swing at bad pitches—occasionally to the point where they hurt the team. "Sometimes you hit homers off bad balls," Maris said. He and Mantle kept on swinging, and Houk did not complain.
Against Detroit last weekend the Yankees showed how well they could play Houk's game. Friday night it was Left Fielder Berra who threw out a key runner after a fine stop, and singles hitter Howard who scored the game's only run after getting a hit to center. Mantle and Maris swung futilely. The next day Detroit's Frank Lary tried to treat M&M like ordinary batters. Mantle surprised the Tigers by bunting in a tying run, and Maris shell-shocked them with two home runs that won the game. Sunday it was Mantle's turn to hit two, and as a ninth-inning climax Howard, presumably with Houk's permission, hit a three-run homer instead of a single to break a tie score and break up the Tigers. The result was a sweep of the series and an almost certain pennant for a new kind of Yankee team—Ralph Houk's kind.