This excerpt from The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the New York Yankees by Peter Botte is reprinted with the permission of Triumph Books. For more information and to order a copy, please visit Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Bookshop.org, or www.triumphbooks.com/Big50Yankees.
This excerpt is taken from Chapter 16: Whitey Ford. Ford, the legendary Yankees pitcher, died Thursday at the age of 91.
Ask any devotee of Sabermetrics, the empirical analysis of statistics at the heart of the numbers revolution that has taken over baseball front offices in the 2000s, and they will tell you that wins and losses no longer matter nearly as much as other metrics in determining a pitcher’s value. Although there is overwhelming evidence to support this argument — just ask hard-luck New York Mets ace and two-time Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom — Whitey Ford still deserves full marks for owning a better winning percentage than any pitcher in modern baseball with at least 150 career victories.
He also has registered the most wins in the history of the game’s all-time winningest franchise and the most ever in World Series play. That still has to count for something.
“I don’t care what the situation was, how high the stakes were. The bases could be loaded and the pennant riding on every pitch, it never bothered Whitey,” Mickey Mantle said in Pinstripes and Pennants: The Ultimate New York Yankees Fan Guide. “He pitched his game. Cool. Crafty. Nerves of steel.”
While Joe DiMaggio hailed from the Bay Area, Yogi Berra from St. Louis, and Ford’s closest pal and running mate, Mantle, from Oklahoma, Edward Charles Ford represented the quintessential native New Yorker in every imaginable way. By birth, by quick-wittedness, by cocksure attitude, by guile, by toughness, and by loyalty—both to the Yankees organization and to his fun-loving and success-addicted teammates.
Given his nickname because of his blond hair by minor league manager and colorful former Yankees ace Lefty Gomez, Ford pitched 16 seasons for the Yankees. He was a member of 11 American League pennant winners and six World Series titlists, missing out on two more on each list while serving in the United States Army in 1951 and 1952. Ford’s 10 wins (with a 2.71 ERA) represent the most in World Series play and three more than Yankees predecessor Red Ruffing and teammate Allie Reynolds, as well St. Louis Cardinals ace Bob Gibson.
His big-game prowess earned him “The Chairman of the Board” nickname from catcher Elston Howard. “You kind of took it for granted around the Yankees,” Ford wrote in his book Slick: My Life In and Around Baseball with Phil Pepe in 1988, “that there was always going to be baseball in October.”
Ford was born in 1928 and grew up in Astoria, Queens, but he traveled an hour by bus each way to attend Manhattan’s Aviation Career and Technical Education High School because the high school closest to him, William Cullen Bryant High, didn’t field a baseball team. A lifelong Yankees fan who idolized DiMaggio, Ford showed up for a tryout camp at Yankee Stadium during his senior season in 1946. He signed shortly thereafter with the Yankees for $7,000 — about $500 more than an offer he’d received from the New York Giants.
By 1950, the third of an unprecedented five-year run of championships, Ford made his Bronx debut in a rotation that featured the Big Three of Reynolds, Eddie Lopat, and Vic Raschi. Ford went 9-1 with a 2.81 ERA in 20 games (12 starts) to place as runner-up for American League Rookie of the Year honors to Boston Red Sox first baseman Walt Dropo, who slugged 34 homers and knocked in a league-best 144 runs.
Whitey Ford gets congratulated by Joe DiMaggio, left, and Gene Woodling in 1950 after a six-hit shutout propelled the Yankees into first place.
Whitey Ford is hoisted on Yankees’ shoulders after pitching them to the AL pennant in 1955.
Whitey Ford in 1956
Diamond Images/Getty Images
(From left) Hank Bauer, Gerry Coleman, Whitey Ford and manager Casey Stengel after the first game of the 1957 Word Series.
Whitey Ford with Luis Arroyo.
Whitey Ford with Mickey Mantle.
Hall of Famers Whitey Ford and Reggie Jackson stand on the field for introductions during New York Yankees 59th annual old timers day in 2005.
Whitey Ford with Yogi Berra before game 4 of the 1999 World Series between the New York Yankees and the Atlanta Braves at Yankee Stadium in New York, NY.
AFP via Getty Images
Whitey Ford at Old Timer’s Day in 2018
Ford also was a bridesmaid in the Hall of Fame voting in 1973, missing out on first-ballot election by registering 67.1 percent of the vote (75 percent was needed for election) to finish second in that year’s balloting behind his contemporary left-hander, Warren Spahn. The blessing of that short-term wait was that Ford fittingly was enshrined the following year alongside Mantle, his teammate for all but one season of his illustrious career.
The Yankees also retired his No. 16 in 1974. Ford and Mantle were an inseparable pair who called each other “Slick,” a reference to a team meeting called by manager Casey Stengel, in which he took the two of them and Billy Martin to task for too many late nights on the town. “Some of you guys are Whiskey Slick,” Stengel was quoted as saying in Whitey and Mickey: A Joint Autobiography of the Yankee Years.
Dave Righetti, whose father Leo was a minor leaguer in the Yankees’ system in the 1950s, relayed a story about hanging out with the trio of Mickey, Whitey, and Billy over drinks one year during spring training in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Also among the revelers was Dave Thomas, the owner of the Wendy’s fast-food chain, Righetti said. “Hell, if I didn’t drink or smoke, I’d win 20 games every year,” Ford said. “It’s easy when you don’t drink or smoke or horse around.”
Ford’s father, a former semi-pro ballplayer, worked for Con Edison for several years but later owned a bar with a friend in Astoria. His son, a prototypical crafty lefty, was all business on the mound, however, leaning heavily on his curveball and creativity to keep opposing hitters off balance. Stengel took cautious steps to not overuse Ford in the first half of his career, citing the southpaw’s 5’10”, 180-pound frame as a reason for using him in more than 225 innings just once in his first nine seasons. After Stengel was fired in 1960, replacement Ralph Houk employed Ford more heavily, often pitching him on three days’ rest. The result was a 25-4 season over a career-high 283 innings in 1961, the summer of the M & M Boys’ home run chase, for Ford’s only Cy Young Award. He also went 24-7 with a 2.74 ERA in a league-high 269 innings in 1963.
Starting at the age of 32, Ford averaged 260 innings per season from 1961 to 1965 until injuries and age forced his retirement in 1967. That left his final won-loss record at 236-106, a record .690 winning percentage for pitchers with at least 150 wins. Ford also set a record of 33 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings in the Fall Classic (eclipsing the previous mark of 29 2/3 by Babe Ruth). He was named World Series MVP in 1961. After the 21-year-old rookie tossed eight-and-two-thirds innings without allowing an earned run in his first World Series start in the Game 4 against the Philadelphia Phillies in 1950, Arthur Daily of The New York Times wrote that Ford “has the brass of a burglar.” When asked a few weeks earlier by a reporter after a key September start had been the biggest game he’d ever pitched, Ford deadpanned: “Well, no, I remember pitching the Maspeth Ramblers to a 17–11 victory over the Astoria Indians. That was a good one, too.”
“Just a great guy, always in a great mood, what a sense of humor,” said Roy White, a teammate during Ford’s final three seasons. “In those days you didn’t hang out with the big guys as a rookie. They had their circle. The one thing about Whitey, I know he mentioned me in his book as one of the most underappreciated Yankees, so I always appreciated that.”
Ford endured some painful moments after he retired. He underwent surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his head in 1995 and again in 2000. His 44-year-old son, Thomas, a former cameraman for WPIX station in New York, died of a heart condition in 1999.
Ford also detailed in his autobiography that he’d doctored the baseball while pitching late in his career, especially as he dealt with hip and elbow injuries and a circulatory condition that required surgery. The eight-time All-Star wrote that he had difficulty mastering the spitball, but he claimed to learn from pitcher Lew Burdette how to strategically apply mud to the ball. He also scuffed the ball with a wedding ring specially made for him by a local jeweler. Ford even would cover the pitching rubber with dirt so he could start his delivery several inches in front of it.
“Talk about adding a yard to your fastball,” he joked. “I didn’t begin cheating until late in my career, when I needed something to help me survive…I didn’t cheat when I won the 25 games in 1961. I don’t want anybody to get any ideas and take my Cy Young Award away. And I didn’t cheat in 1963 when I won 24 games. Well, maybe a little.”
When it was over in 1967, Ford continued the quips, saying, “I came in wearing a $50 suit, and I’m going out wearing a $200 suit, so that’s pretty good.”
The Chairman of the Board was better than pretty good. His lifetime ERA of 2.75 is the lowest by a starting pitcher in the live ball era (since 1920), though Los Angeles Dodgers star Clayton Kershaw had a 2.44 mark in his first 12 seasons through 2019. Ted Williams once called Ford the toughest pitcher he ever faced. His first manager agreed. “If you had one game to win and your life depended on it,” Stengel said. “You’d want [Ford] to pitch it.”