As a manager, Houk had an absolute horror of being accused of pushing the panic button. By his definition any change in plans is a sign of panic. For instance, Houk was most reluctant to bring up any player during the season. As far as he was concerned, he had very carefully picked his squad during spring training, considering every angle, filling every hole, and to call up some other player to fill some spot that was not being adequately covered was an admission that he had been wrong.
It worked for him as a manager. Of course, it helps a little to have a squad with the ability of the Yankees, but it also helps if you have the ability, which Ralph Houk does have in abundance, to convince the players that they can do anything you tell them they can do. Unfortunately for Houk, the promotion to the front office brought out his worst quality, that total inability to improvise, and negated his greatest virtue, his ability to lead men. To adjust one's plans to changing conditions is not, of course, a sign of panic at all. It is a sign of balance, of intelligence, of real leadership. Freezing to an outdated situation—that is a sign of panic.
The decision to make Yogi Berra, of all people, the manager of the Yankees was admittedly one of the more moonstruck episodes in baseball. Furthermore, pitting him against Casey Stengel of the crosstown Mets was the worst mismatch in history. No boxing commission would have allowed it. Yogi is a completely manufactured product. He is a case study of this country's unlimited ability to gull itself and be gulled. Yogi had originally become a figure of fun because with his corrugated face and his squat body he looked as if he should be funny. When he turned out to be a great ballplayer in spite of his odd appearance, a natural feeling of warmth went out to him, as to the ugly duckling who makes it big in a world of swans. It pleased the public to think that this odd-looking little man with the great natural ability had a knack for mouthing humorous truths with the sort of primitive peasant wisdom we rather expect of our sports heroes. Besides, there was that marvelous nickname. You say "Yogi" at a banquet and everybody automatically laughs, something Joe Garagiola discovered to his profit many years ago.
Casey Stengel, an earlier prospector in those fields, had made this discovery long before Garagiola. Casey had always bounced his best lines off Yogi. Newspapermen and magazine writers, picking it up, were happy enough to go along with the act, since it made their own jobs that much easier and also because, I suppose, enough of them eventually came to believe it themselves.
As manager, Yogi got the Yankees space in the papers, which was, when you come right down to it, what he was hired for, although he still didn't come close to the Grand Old Gnome of Shea Stadium. But, then, Stengel had something going for him. Casey is a legitimately funny man.
There is, however, one point that should be added here, irrelevant though it might be. Yogi did do one thing that Stengel didn't. Yogi won the pennant, and Casey finished last. Berra cut it close, winning by only one game, but the pennant was really pretty much locked up through the entire final week. And, whatever their protestations, a close race was exactly what the Yankees wanted.
Did Berra make mistakes? Of course he did. Stengel had spent a lifetime managing before he came to the Yankees. Houk had served a three-year apprenticeship in the minors and three more years coaching under Stengel. Berra had spent one year as a player-coach. When he was hired, it was obviously with the tacit understanding that he was going to be permitted to make his mistakes right out there in the open where everybody could see them. It didn't seem quite fair to tell him, at the end of the year, that he had been on probation all the time.
How much help was he given? As a freshman manager he needed, above all else, a wise old head as pitching coach. Houk's first move as general manager was to dump his wise old head, Johnny Sain. To replace him, Houk and Berra picked Whitey Ford, giving the freshman manager a freshman pitching coach, and a part-time one at that.
The pitching got messed up, no question about it. And Yogi was at least partly to blame. He was using his long relievers short and his short relievers long and, like all new managers, he was waiting too long before he got his starting pitcher out of there.
The team's hitting was below Yankee standards, too. Yet with all their difficulties, the Yankees did come on with that rush down the stretch. Unless I have been sadly misinformed by all those sensation-seeking columnists, the manager during that stretch run was Yogi Berra.