Between the Lines / A major loss
I'm sorry, but I just couldn't bring myself to shed any tears over George Steinbrenner's recent demise. Nor did I grieve the passing of the Yankees' stentorian announcer, Bob Shepherd. But I was sad when I heard that Ralph Houk had died at the age of 90.
For me Steinbrenner will always remain the world class, sore loser, bully boy of the Bronx. He turned bad manners, public ridicule and a win-at-all-costs attitude into modern virtues. I admired his enormous generosity, but at the same time, I believe he helped turn our national pastime into another exercise of run amok capitalism -- all bottom line, no heart.
I also marveled at Bob Shepherd's legendary diction. His graceful words seem to come from high out of nowhere, each of them spoken with precision and finality. I'm reminded of the long doubleheaders we sat through with my father in the old Yankees Stadium. Shepherd's voice was synonymous with the clay diamond and emerald green fields in the "House that Ruth Built." It flowed through hot July days and bright October noons. It mixed with the roar of the crowds. But I always sensed a bit of the pedant in Shepherd, the English teacher who dazzled the great unwashed with his florid syllables. I'd rather listen to Studs Terkel any day for my English lesson.
But you won't ever hear me say a bad thing about Ralph Houk. This attitude goes back years to an event my father brought us to one Sunday at St. Theresa's school hall. Houk was coming to speak at our parish's father and sons communion breakfast. I couldn't believe it. The manager of the great New York Yankees in the very same cafeteria where I ate my bologna sandwiches. This couldn't possibly be true. Gods never appear in ordinary places. This was certainly one of the big moments of my life and I could hardly wait to see him.
My father worshipped the Yankees with a devotion second only to his Catholic faith. He had a particular fondness for "The Major," a lifetime bullpen catcher, who served as a ranger in World War II and had seen some bloody conflict. For Dad, The Major was the real thing -- a kick-butt kind of hero who would take the Yankees to greater heights and make sure they played like men. Houk was 10-feet tall in my eyes, a man who wore the same pinstripes and rubbed shoulders with Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.
We were seated at the long tables when The Major walked in the back door and made his way to the stage. A great buzz went up in the hall. I turned to see a chunky man of average height with a head of wavy brown hair. He looked like a cross between a boxer and one of the butchers at the A&P. He smiled a bit shyly, his beer belly hanging over his belt. I stifled my shock that he was wearing a plain blue suit and a pair of glasses instead of his Yankees uniform. Ralph looked every inch the ordinary guy who cut his grass on Saturday morning and read the newspaper on the stoop before supper.
Houk's voice was blood and guts; he was the General Patton of the New York Yankees. There was a no-nonsense quality to his plain-spokenness. I can't remember much of what he said, but I'm sure it was the usual sports platitudes of playing hard, never quitting and believing in yourself. He didn't make a big deal out of it. There were a few jokes but The Major clearly wasn't much for speeches. After his short talk the fathers were allowed to ask him questions about the next season. I remember him referring to "Mickey" and just the mention of that famous first name sent shivers down my spine. Here was a common man who walked among the gods.
My big moment came at the end of the questions when kids were allowed to come forward for an autograph. My father had given me one of the fresh white Little League baseballs that he hoarded like gold. I waited in line in front of the speaker's table. By now, The Major had lit up a large stogie and looked like he might be sitting on the top step of the Yankees' dugout. I handed him the new baseball and he asked me my name. I could barely get a sound out of my mouth. He took the ball in his thick fingers and scribbled away with a fountain pen.
"There you go, son," he said as he handed me back the ball.
I didn't look at it until I got back to our table. The words were clear as could be: "To Barry, Ralph Houk."
My heart quickened so that I could hear the blood pumping in my ears. I took the ball home and set it on our fireplace mantle like the Holy Grail. It occupied a place of honor there for years until my brother Timmy traded it for a cupcake at school. By then I didn't care much about it, but with The Major gone now, I wish I had that ball in my hands one last time to study the signature and bask in the reflected glory.
Barry Wallace writes a weekly
column for the Fairfield Citizen.