He’d spent the afternoon working the barbecue in his backyard in Lake Success, swapping stories with his neighbors, enjoying a sunny Memorial Day when he was called to the phone. This was 2010, and if Whitey Ford’s birth certificate insisted he was 81 years old, the voice insisted that number was a liar.
“What the hell did Andy do now?” Ford said, cackling in lieu of hello.
By then, Whitey Ford was used to taking calls like these whenever one of his spiritual descendants was nearing one of his records. He once laughed that he spent the entire summer of 1978 talking about Ron Guidry, because Guidry that summer was the best Yankees pitcher anyone had ever seen except for Whitey Ford.
“You know,” he told me once with a bright smile, “if that SOB had only thrown right-handed, nobody ever would have bothered me.”
On this day, another forever Yankees lefty, Andy Pettitte, had beaten the Cleveland Indians, 11-2, in the afternoon at Yankee Stadium for the 236th victory of his career, which happened to tie him for 60th on the all-time list with Edward Charles Ford, better known by any of three nicknames. Slick was one. The Chairman of the Board was another.
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
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(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.
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Whitey Ford at Old Timer’s Day in 2018
But in 1949, pitching for Binghamton of the Eastern League, it was another eternal Yankee southpaw, Lefty Gomez, who took one look at Eddie Ford’s blond hair and dubbed him “Whitey.” And Whitey he would be for the remaining 71 years of a grand, glorious life, to the moment he passed Thursday night at 91 after a battle with dementia.
Crowded is the list of Yankees sluggers who vie for the title of greatest hitter in franchise history, a pile that includes Ford’s best friend, longtime running mate and fellow Cooperstown Class of ’74 inductee Mickey Mantle alongside so many others who only need one name to identify them – Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Berra.
But there is but one Yankees name when you think of the greatest pitcher in team history. That’s Whitey Ford. He was 236-106 for his career in an era when won-loss records still defined who a pitcher was, and that .690 win percentage is the highest in history for anyone who had as many as 200 wins.
He won another 10 games in the World Series – still a record – and from 1960 through 1962 pitched 33 consecutive scoreless innings in the Fall Classic, a mark that has lasted for 58 years, a record that was previously held by Babe Ruth. In quintessential Ford fashion, when he broke the record by shutting out the Reds on Oct. 8, 1961, he led with a wisecrack.
“Maybe,” he told reporters, “I’ll go after a few of the Babe’s hitting records now.”
It was the personality that endeared him to fans every bit as much as his left arm, because he was one of them. He was born in Manhattan and raised in Astoria, cut his teeth playing for a sandlot team known as the 34th Street Boys.
It was following a game against the Bay Ridge Cubs at the Polo Grounds in 1946 in which he threw an 11-inning shutout and cracked the game-winning double that he was approached by all three New York clubs. The Dodgers offered the 17-year-old $5,000. The Giants made it $6,000. The Yankees pushed it to $7,000.
“I was a Yankees fan, sure,” Ford said years later, before adding with a wink: “But I was a bigger fan of seven grand.”
Three years later, summoned from the minors when the Yankees suffered a pitching crunch, Ford won the first nine decisions of his career and helped nudge the 1950 Yankees to a pennant. In Game 4 of the World Series against the Phillies, he was one out from a title-clinching shutout when Gene Woodling dropped the 27th out, losing the ball in the sun. Woodling was despondent afterward. It took a 21-year-old kid to comfort him.
“Cheer up!” he told Woodling. “We won the game! We’re the champs!”
“Thanks, kid,” Woodling said.
The Army took Ford’s next two seasons, but by 1953 he was back, winning 18 games, and he remained a Yankees mainstay through 1967. He was famously friends with Mantle and Billy Martin, and their hijinks carried many a late night and, later, many a talk-show conversation. But he was also married for 69 years to Joan. And while Mantle and Martin had hot-and-cold relationships with their fame, Ford never did.
“I’m just a kid from Queens,” he told me in 2005. “If I hadn’t had a break or two along the way, I’d have been the guy asking for autographs and pictures all these years.”
It’s why he was happy to take a break from his barbecue back in 2010, to talk about another of his pinstriped heirs, Pettitte.
“I honestly stopped caring a long time ago about guys who pass me on lists or break my records,” he said. “But I’m happy for Andy. It’s a great accomplishment for a guy who’s already had a great career. It’s actually an honor that when he does something like that, you would think to call me about it.”
The honor, of course, was all ours. Always ours.