Drafted by the Yankees in 1939, Houk played three years of minor league ball before voluntarily enlisting with the Army Rangers. He attended Officer Candidate School at Fort Riley in Kentucky and eventually participated in the invasion of Normandy and The Battle of the Bulge. After being shot in the calf during the latter, he returned to the battlefield immediately after he had the wound bandaged.
Later in that same battle, Houk disappeared for three days after he was sent him out to doing some scouting of enemy troops, his commanding officer recalled:
When he turned up he had a three-day growth of beard and hand grenades hanging all over him. He was back of the enemy lines the entire time. I know he must have enjoyed himself. He had a hole in one side of his helmet, and a hole in the other where the bullet left. When I told him about his helmet, he said 'I could have swore I heard a ricochet.' We marked him 'absent without leave' but were glad to have him back alive.
Houk returned from the war decorated with a Silver Star, a Bronze Star with an oak leaf cluster and a Purple Heart and earned the nickname The Major.
When he rejoined the Yankees in 1946, he started in AA and made the jump to AAA mid-way through the season. When the '47 season rolled around, he found himself serving as Yogi Berra's back up for the Big League club and went 3 for 3 with a double and a walk in his debut on April 26th. He only made it to the plate 104 times in that season, and it would turn out to be a career high, never amassing more than 14 in the remainder of his eight years with the Yankees. During all that downtime, he talked with the pitchers out int he bullpen and started collecting an impressive amount of knowledge about all angles of the game.
He began his career as a manager before he even hung up his cleats. The Yankees named him manager of their AAA team at the time, the Denver Bears, and he strapped on his gear and took a couple of hacks at the plate in 1955 before deciding his days as a player were over. In 1958, he left Denver to serve as Casey Stengel's first base coach, where he remained for three years.
The experiences The Major had in the army ended up coming in handy when he took over for the ousted Stengel before the 1961 season, as he said in an interview with Time Magazine:
Being in the war probably helped my managing. It made me understand the problems young men have and the pressures they go through not only in a war but in baseball.
By most accounts, Houk was a "player's manager" but possessed a fierce temper which he would occasionally direct towards the umpiring crew. He wouldn't throw one of his men under the bus to the media, but he would unload on them behind closed doors if he perceived a lack of effort.
Houk would arrive to the ballpark four hours early - something that wasn't nearly as common is those days as it is now - to begin preparing for the day's game. He spent that time looking over line up cards and strategizing with his coaches and scouts about the opponent to see if he could "pick up one or two little things".
His disciplined preparation - along with an incredibly loaded roster - brought the Yankees two World Series titles in his first two seasons at the helm and an AL Pennant in the third. After the 1963 season, however, Houk became general manager and asked Yogi Berra to be his skipper. The Yanks lost in the Fall Classic again in 1964 and Houk (unpopularly) fired Berra and replaced him with Jonny Keane.
After Keane led the team to a 77-85 record in 1965 (good for just 6th place in the AL after five consecutive pennants) and began the '66 season 4-16, Houk took over as manager once again. The Yanks finished in last place that, 9th out of 10 the following season, and had descended into mediocrity. Houk's final season as the Yanks' skipper was in 1973, the last year that the team was still owned by CBS. George Steinbrenner asked Houk to return, promising to bring him talent and restore the once-great franchise but demoralized by the fans' constant booing, Houk decided to move on.
From New York, The Major went to Detroit, managing the Tigers through five marginal seasons from '74 to '78. He also skippered the Red Sox from 1981 to 1984 but had no division titles to show for his efforts in either stop. He became vice president of the Twins in 1986 and held that post in 1989, when he decided to retire for good.
Despite spending the end of his career with other organizations, Houk is best remembered as a Yankee. Although he wasn't a big part of it, the Yankees won six World Series in his eight years as a player. His managerial career started with the legendary summer of '61 and ended just before George Steinbrenner took over the team in 1973. He was a great solidier and baseball man who lived a long, proud life. Rest in peace, Major.