This is about Ralph Houk, the new manager of the Boston Red Sox.

But first a word about the Red Sox. When the 1980 season ended, the word for them was hopeless. They were a stumbling, inefficient group that finished 19 games out of it in the American League East.

By winter, it was to get worse. Carlton Fisk, Fred Lynn and Tom Burleson opted out, jumped ship. Fisk went the free-agency route. Lynn and Burleson were traded, but only because they were incipient free agents who knew the money-poor Boston ownership could not meet their price.

Now the Red Sox were desolated, the guts of their club gone. Even with them, the Red Sox had not functioned very well. Without them, Fenway Park promised to become a house of horrors for Boston's fans.

They also were without a manager, Don Zimmer having been fired by popular acclaim.

And who would take the job? What citizen of sound mind would try to turn this thing around?

The clear need was somebody with a track record for heroism.

How about a chap who once machine-gunned his way through the lines in the Battle of the Bulge on a mission to deliver intelligence to U.S. rescue troops?

That situation in 1944 in the Bulge was at least as grim as the condition of the Red Sox now.

Inside the Bulge they tapped 23-year-old 2d Lt. Ralph Houk for the job of getting out the information. He was also expected to shoot his way back. One German bullet left two clean holes through the top of Houk's helmet. Houk said, "Thinking back, I'm glad that (he) was wild high."

Some of the stuff written about him, about how he got battlefield promotions all the way from private to major, wasn't quite true, he said. "I got to be a major but I was already a lieutenant when we got in trouble." Anyway, he said he didn't feel like much of a hero.

But somebody in the War Department must have thought Houk was a bit heroic at some point. They didn't hand him a Silver Star to go with three bronzes and a Purple Heart in recognition of his modesty.

Houk is somewhat surprised to find himself manager of the Red Sox. He'd quit the Tigers at the end of the 1978 season (not fired, quit) because he said. "I just wanted to put some lines in the water in Florida where I live, and reflect a bit, and maybe do some travelling with my wife, go some places we'd missed out on. Maybe fool around in the garden, and see if I could learn to play golf."

In baseball he had good marks. Played on a lot of pennant-winning Yankee teams, albeit as a third-string catcher behind Yogi Berra and others. yAnd when they picked him to succeed Casey Stengel as Yankee manager, he won three straight pennants right away.

The phone rang a couple of times last season with clubs asking him if he'd return to the game, and he said no, thanks. Last October when the call came from Boston and Red Sox co-owner Haywood Sullivan asked Houk the question, and whether he could fly to Fort Lauderdale to talk to Houk the next day, Houk put him off.

"I told Sully I was leaving with my wife and another couple the next morning to do some fishing in the Keys," Houk said. "He phoned back a couple of hours later to say he could get a plane to bring him in that night and would I talk to him at the airport."

Houk agreed to take the Boston job in that airport conference. "Sully leveled with me, saying the team was going to lose Lynn and Fisk and Burleson. I appreciated that. Sully explained that if he didn't meet their salary terms they'd all go to arbitration, and probably win and get big money from him and the next year they'd be free agents again, and want more. I saw his point."

Houk is not deluding himself abot the immensity of his job with the Red Sox. "But there's more to this club than may meet the eye," he said "Thank heaven it's still a pitcher's game because that's where I think we're strong. After pitching, some other things could fall into place."

He says Fisk's loss hurts but that he is not bereft of a catcher. "I can tell you Gary Allenson will do a good job," Houk, an old catcher, said, as if implying it takes one to know one. "The good catcher is one who does the job so well you don't notice him. He doesn't let a pitch go through him or make a wild throw or miss a foul pop. I'm talking about Allenson."

Going into Saturday's games, Houk had the Red Sox off to a 7-10 start. And he has Carl Yastrzemski agreeably consnenting to a designated hitter's role, at least until the warmer weather is more compatible with Yaz's 41 years.

Hawk Harrleson, the Red Sox television voice, said, "That's a big plus, Yastrzemski's rapport with Houk. It's good to have Yaz with you in Boston. It's awful bad to have him against you. Yaz has got a big, big constituency up here."

Harrelson related how Houk keeps the whole team loose with his own sometimes easy approach to the game.

"In Chicago, the day after young Mark Clear gave up two home runs to the White Sox, Houk went up to him in the clubhouse and said, 'Hi ya, Boom Boom,'" telling the kid indirectly not to worry too much about such things.

In his years with the Yankees, Houk's pals were Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin, and he says there was some roughhousing, of course. One story Mantle tells is mostly true, he says. That was the episode in St. Louis near the hotel when remarks were passed in the presence of ladies by some boorish bum.

As Mantle tells it, "Martin took out after the fellow and I wanted a piece of him, too, but Houk steps in and says, 'No, you two guys have to play tomorrow and I don't, so I'll take care of this guy.'

"Houk decked him good and I helped the guy up and Ralph flattened him again. When it happened a third time and I go to help him up once more he said, 'I don't know who you are, but this time I don't want to get up.'"

He still commands respect and, with his evenly distributed 190 pounds he looks as if he could enforce it, if need be. Even in his 60th year. p