Friday, November 12, 2010

The Major Gives Us a Day to Remember

Earlier this year, Ralph Houk, who managed the New York Yankees after Casey Stengel was fired following the 1960 World Series, passed away at age 90. He led the team to world championships during his first two seasons (the first featuring the Maris/Mantle drive to break Babe Ruth’s home-run record). After being swept by the Dodgers in 1963 World Series, Houk moved upstairs as general manager in 1964 and returned to the helm in 1967, managing seven more seasons without another pennant. He would later manage the Tigers and Red Sox. Our family and Houk crossed paths during the 1972 season, resulting in a memorable and now bittersweet day.

Mickey Mantle. Ralph Houk and Roger Maris

Arriving home at midnight on Saturday, June 3 (I was living there at the time), I was surprised to find my parents still awake. They couldn’t wait to tell me this “great story.” They had pulled into the garage of their condominium building on Lake Shore Drive after dining out and saw their neighbors and another couple had just arrived. The neighbor, Harold, introduced them to Ralph Houk, who they had seen dining alone at That Steak Joynt (a long-closed Old Town restaurant) and asked to join them. The Yankees were staying a few blocks away at the Ambassador East, so they drove him back to the garage. Harold then informed my father that Houk wanted them to join him for drinks at his hotel suite. Harold and his wife declined, but the other couple and my parents took up his offer.

Houk was nicknamed “The Major” for his Army rank during World War II, for which he was awarded the Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Silver Star. He was known to enjoy a drink or two. My father, on the other hand, was not much of a drinker, although I gathered from my mother that he had a few more than usual in the spirit of the evening. A rather reserved guy, she said he and Houk enjoyed swapping baseball stories, which ended with an offer of tickets for the next day’s doubleheader. My mother concluded the story by saying, “Now don’t get your hopes up too high.  He had a lot to drink and he might lose our phone number.”

Ralph Houk

I was barely awake the next morning when the phone rang and my mother called out, “Marv, it’s Ralph Houk!” My father asked for three tickets – my brother was studying for his first-year law school exams and couldn’t make it – and we headed out to Comiskey Park. We picked up the tickets at will-call and made our way to our seats: one in the first row behind the Yankees dugout and two in the second row. Houk came out of the dugout before the game, and my father and I shook his hand and thanked him for the tickets.

Shortly before the game started, a distinguished gentleman and a pretty young woman sat down next to my parents. Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell them they were sitting next to Yankees President Michael Burke, a former OSS agent known for a botched wartime action in Albania that may or may not have been compromised by Kim Philby. My mother spent most of the game trying to figure out who the date was, hearing only that they had met at a party the night before.  Burke, who was a year older than my father, turned out to be divorced. After the sale of the Yankees to George Steinbrenner the following year, Burke became the president of Madison Square Garden and also president of both the New York Knicks and New York Rangers.

Michael Burke and George Steinbrenner, 1973
The White Sox, beginning a pennant run after losing 106 games only two seasons earlier, defeated the Yankees, 6-1, in the first game. We had long departed by the time Dick Allen won game 2 with a walk-off, 3-run pinch home run. The announced crowd was 51,904, more than 7,400 over capacity.  Fans were everywhere – even packing the walkways behind the center-field bleachers – and here we were sitting right behind the dugout, having had absolutely no intention of going until the night before.

Comiskey Park, September 30, 1990
Every available space was filled on June 4, 1972

We didn’t know it at the time, but this would be our last Sox game together. My father died suddenly a week before Opening Day in 1973. I can still see him sitting next to Michael Burke, as happy as can be. And maybe he’s swapped a few more stories with The Major; I know he’d enjoy it.

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