Houk's last two years as an active player, 1953-54, were actually spent as the Yankees' full-time bullpen coach, thus beginning his managerial apprenticeship. In 1955, he was named manager of the Yanks' AAA affiliate, the Denver Bears of the American Association. Following three highly successful seasons at Denver, Houk returned to the Bronx as Stengel's first-base coach from 1958-60. From late May through early June 1960, Houk served as acting manager of the Yanks for 13 games while Stengel, 70, was sidelined by illness. (The team won 7 and lost 6.) Then, after the Yanks lost the 1960 World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates — and with Houk one of the hottest managerial candidates in baseball — the Yankees "discharged" Stengel (to use Stengel's own words) and promoted Houk.
A player's manager
Houk was known as a "player's manager" — albeit one with a fearsome temper — and the early 1960s Yankees responded to his leadership. His 1961 team led by Roger Maris (61 home runs), Mickey Mantle (54 homers) and Whitey Ford (25 victories) won 109 games and thrashed the Cincinnati Reds in five games in the World Series. His 1962 club won 96 games and the pennant and outlasted the San Francisco Giants in a thrilling Fall Classic. In 1963, the Yanks won 104 games and rolled to the pennant, but were ignominiously swept in four games by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Series.
In the Yankees front office
That winter, Houk moved into the Yankees' front office as general manager, replacing Roy Hamey, and Berra, at the end of his brilliant playing career, became the Yanks' new skipper. Yogi would win the 1964 pennant, but Houk and the Yankee ownership quickly became disenchanted with Berra's work and in mid-season they made up their mind to fire him. After Berra's seven-game loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1964 World Series, Houk sacked the Yankee legend and ironically hired the Cardinal manager, Johnny Keane, as his successor. But the great postwar Yankee dynasty was aged and crumbling, the farm system had seriously deteriorated, and the inception of the player draft cut into Yankee recruiting. Keane, a longtime minor league skipper, was better suited by temperament for managing young players than established and aging superstars, and his hiring was a failure. The team fell to sixth in 1965 and had won only four of the first 20 games of 1966 when Keane was fired by Houk, who named himself manager.
Back to the bench
Houk came down from the front office (he was eventually succeeded as general manager by Lee MacPhail) to begin a second, and far less successful, term as Yankee skipper, finishing the 1966 season. Their talent depleted, the Yankees finished dead last—the first time they had done so since 1912. At season's end, the Yankees would start a long rebuilding process, which included Bobby Richardson's retirement (longtime roommate Tony Kubek had retired with a bad back after the 1965 season) and the trading of both Maris and Clete Boyer.
Houk would continue to manage the Yankees from 1967-73. His best season was 1970, when the Yanks won 93 games, but finished 15 games behind the eventual world champion Baltimore Orioles. He worked for George Steinbrenner for one season, in 1973, and was the Bombers' manager during their final game in 1973 at the "original" Yankee Stadium prior to its closure for two seasons for needed renovations.
He then left the Yankee organization to become the manager of the rebuilding Detroit Tigers. His 1975 team lost 102 games, but by 1978 Houk had restored Detroit to respectability and brought to the majors future stars of the Sparky Anderson Tigers such as Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell and Jack Morris. After an 86-76 season in 1978, Houk retired.
Boston Red Sox
Since the late 1950s, Houk and the Boston Red Sox, the Yankees' arch-rivals, had flirted over their manager's job. After two years of retirement, in the autumn of 1980, Houk (at 61) was ready to get back into baseball and when the Red Sox called about their open managerial post (they had fired Don Zimmer), he jumped at the chance.
Although not as daunting as his Detroit assignment, Houk faced another rebuilding job: the powerful Boston team of the 1970s was about to lose marquee players such as Carlton Fisk and Fred Lynn and needed to retool its roster. But Houk rose to the challenge, and in four seasons produced three over-.500 teams. On his watch, Boston broke in young players such as Wade Boggs, Roger Clemens, Bruce Hurst and Marty Barrett. When Houk retired from managing permanently in October 1984, just after his 65th birthday, he bequeathed the core of another pennant winning ballclub (in this case, in 1986) to his successor, John McNamara.
His final record, over 20 years with the Yankees (1961-63, 1966-73), Tigers (1974-78) and Red Sox (1981-84) was 1,619 wins and 1,531 losses (.514), plus eight wins and eight losses in the World Series. After his first three championship seasons, he never appeared in the postseason.
Houk served in the front office of the Minnesota Twins under Andy MacPhail, Lee's son, from 1986-88 before quitting the game for good. Colorful opinions about Houk can be found in Jim Bouton's classic 1970 memoir, Ball Four. Houk was Bouton's first major league manager and sparred with him over contracts when Houk was the Yankees' GM.