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Seldom has the thinking baseball fan, or even the nonthinking one, been presented with so perplexing a situation as the turnabout of the New York Yankees in the first three weeks of Ralph Houk's return to managing. Under Johnny Keane the Yankees had lost 16 of the first 20 games of the season. In almost all of them they were listless and ineffective. After Houk took over, they won 13 of 17, pulled out exactly the sort of close games they had been losing and displayed the crisp efficiency and opportunism that had marked successful Yankee teams for almost 40 years before the debacle of 1965.
The turnabout raised all sorts of questions—about Keane, about Houk, about the Yankee talent, about the attitude of the players, about the future of the American League race, about poetic justice and about luck. But the question that people found hardest to deal with was: Can a manager make that much difference?
The traditional view in baseball had been that losing was the fault of the manager and that winning proved the manager a genius. But in the last 10 years a vast reeducation of the baseball public has taken place, in which newspapers, radio, television, books and magazines all made the point—which was finally accepted—that managers are no better or worse than their material, that their range of influence has only a slight effect on the collective ability of the athletes under their command. A generation ago the fan yelled for the losing manager's scalp; today the fan usually sympathizes with the deposed victim.
And now, just as this shift in values has been thoroughly assimilated and the subtle lesson learned, there comes the Yankee case, which seems to turn everything upside down again. A change in managers apparently has made a huge difference. How can this be? Is the old simpleminded idea true after all? Or was Keane, innocent scapegoat for Yankee failure, victimized by an inexplicable run of bad fortune while Houk rode the crest of a coincidental hot streak? It was hard to understand, and those who prefer black-and-white certainties in sport felt vaguely uncomfortable.
And yet a very definite answer could be given in this puzzling circumstance: Houk did turn a loser into a winner (although it remains to be seen exactly how much of a winner it will be). The generalization remains true: managers, by and large, win only as much as their material will allow. But it is also true that this specific case was an exception.
To begin with, three constants should be understood. First, Houk did not take an incapable team and make it play well—by magic, psychology, inspired leadership or any other intangible means. No man can do that. What he did was arouse a talented team that had been playing far below its ability and raise it to its proper level of performance.
Second, Keane's failure—and it was a failure—was not a reflection on his competence as a major league manager. He was, is and probably will be again a highly capable man in his profession. But he was definitely the wrong man in the wrong spot at the wrong time.
Third is luck, always a major factor in sport and in the mental state of an athlete. If Keane had been luckier and Houk unluckier, things could have looked different and, through interplay with the people involved, have become different.
Given this framework, let's see what actually happened.