Tribute to Whitey Ford
By Marty Appel
There was no truth to the oft-repeated story that after clinching the Eastern League pennant for Binghamton in 1949, 20-year old Whitey Ford wrote to Casey Stengel and said, “Bring me up and I’ll win the pennant for you too.”
What he did do was call the legendary scout who had signed him, Paul Krichell, and make the suggestion to him.
But the story would become part of the emerging Ford legend, because it seemed to capture the essence of the cocky, self-assured kid from Queens, who would come to epitomize the style and polish of the Yankees for nearly two decades. He would be known as “Slick” to his teammates, particularly to his best friend, the blond slugger from Oklahoma who was a bit of a hick. Fellow named Mantle.
Before Whitey took his place with the Yankees, only Lou Gehrig and Phil Rizzuto (both also signed by Krichell) had come from the New York streets to star for the Yankees. Whitey, (nicknamed by his Binghamton manager Lefty Gomez), was really one of us. His father worked for Con Ed, his mother was a bookkeeper for the local A&P, and he played stickball in Astoria and hardball for a team called the Thirty-Fourth Avenue Boys. He went to dilapidated Manhattan Aviation High because they had a baseball team and local Bryant High didn’t.
“I had a perfect attendance record at Aviation,” he says, “but it was only because of baseball. I hated that school. We were all supposed to become aircraft mechanics, and not one of us did.”
Eddie Ford played first base on the glass-strewn, grassless diamond under the 59th Street Bridge, but his 18-0 record as a pitcher in the Queens-Nassau summer league, with the Thirty-Fourth Avenue Boys, led to his Yankee contract and a $7,000 signing bonus. He was working in the mailroom for Equitable Life when the offer came.
“The Yankees?” he thought. “I’d have taken whatever they offered. But the Giants called while Krichell was in our house and offered $6,500. So he had to go to $7,000 and he hated doing it.”
Krichell, after all, was the one who had turned Whitey from a first baseman into a pitcher after watching him at a tryout camp.
Armed with a meager working-class wardrobe, Whitey began his pro career in Butler, Pa., where he went 13-4 and already exhibited the good control and crafty pitch assortment that would be his ticket to success. He was never going to be overpowering, but he was as slick on the mound as he was in the clubhouse and he would eventually get as high as 209 strikeouts in a season without ever owning an awesome fastball.
At 5’10” and 180 pounds, he would in fact become the only pitcher of the 20th century under six feet to make the Hall of Fame.
He rolled off a 51-20 minor league mark, went to spring training with the big club in 1950, and then got called up from Kansas City in late June. This was Stengel’s second year as manager of the Yankees, with the team gunning for a second straight world championship. Joe DiMaggio, Tommy Henrich, Joe Page and George Stirnweiss were among his teammates. The mound staff was headed by a trio of intimidating veterans, Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, and Eddie Lopat, who, as a blond and crafty lefthander, most resembled Ford in look and style.
Stengel was cautious with Ford, as he would be throughout the ‘50s. At first he only started him against second division clubs. And before long, Whitey had a 9-0 record, coming within three of the team (and league) rookie record for consecutive wins, set by the Yanks’ Atley Donald 11 years earlier. But in the final week of the season, brought in to relieve Lopat in a game against the Philadelphia Athletics, Whitey gave up a homer to Sam Chapman and was tagged with the 8-7 loss.
It would be the next-to-last victory of Connie Mack’s 53-year managing career. His first victory had come in 1894 when he had managed against the likes of Cap Anson and King Kelly.
The Yankees jumped off to a three-games- to-none lead against the Phillies in the 1950 World Series, and Stengel handed the ball to his rookie southpaw for Game Four. Cool as any streetwise New York kid could be, he went out and beat the Phils without allowing an earned run, and the Yankees had their second world championship in a row.
“Where do the Yankees keep finding these guys?” asked one frustrated American League official.
The answer in this case, of course, was 34th Avenue in Queens, which New York City ought to get around to renaming one of these days in honor of the best local pitcher to ever star in his own hometown.
Although the Baseball Writers Association would name Walt Dropo as its Rookie of the Year for 1950, The Sporting News, the “Bible of Baseball,” polled 220 baseball writers and named Whitey its Rookie of the Year, as he drew 94 first place votes to Dropo’s 66. It was quite an honor for the mid-season callup, but the glamour would be short-lived, as Whitey was called into the Army just weeks later, reporting to Ft. Dix in New Jersey for a two-year hitch. Mostly, he played Army baseball, and managed to avoid assignment to the Korean Theater. He would miss the ’51 and ’52 championship seasons but he would be reminded of his Yankee connections when he threw out the first pitch of the ’51 season while on a pass, or when he married his longtime girlfriend and neighbor Joan Foran on April 14, 1951. Then, the entire team got on a bus and attended the reception at Donahue’s bar on Steinway Street. The one exception – Mickey Mantle. The 19-year old rookie, not knowing Ford and embarrassingly shy, stayed on the bus. Whitey eventually went onto the bus and invited him in – the first meeting of the two men who would go into the Hall of Fame together 23 years and more than a few Ballantine beers later.
Whitey and Joan, now approaching their 50th anniversary, had three children, Sally Ann, Eddie and Tommy. Eddie was a number one draft pick of the Red Sox but never got to the big leagues. Tommy, tragically, died last year after being bitten by a tick in the Hamptons.
Whitey himself has been no stranger to close brushes with death, but he’s one tough survivor. He lost 40 pounds to amoebic dysentery while pitching in Mexico one winter and spent three weeks in the hospital when he got back to New York. He fell out of a tree while he was in the Army. He had circulation problems while still pitching in the ‘60s. He developed heart problems in the ‘70s. He nearly choked to death during a party in his Ft. Lauderdale apartment in the ‘80s, saved by his old teammate Frank Verdi who pounded on his chest. In recent years, he has quietly battled cancer. He never lost his smile or his ability to wisecrack, and never made a big deal of any of it.
When he rejoined the Yanks in 1953, he led the team with 30 starts and an 18-6 record, moving ahead of Reynolds-Raschi-Lopat in Stengel’s rotation. Casey would still fine tune his starts, holding him back for the better teams, while avoiding Fenway, with its poison-to-lefties reputation. Whitey would never win 20 under Stengel, but it never kept him off the All-Star team, and he was consistently thought to be the Yankee ace, even if others, like Bob Grim or Bob Turley or Art Ditmar or Tom Sturdivant or Johnny Kucks, might have a single bigger year than he did. By the end of the ‘50s, it was assumed that the Yankees had three Hall of Famers in their midst – Mantle, Ford and Yogi Berra, who was Whitey’s first roommate and remains his close friend.
He never hurled a no-hitter, but he set a record with two consecutive one-hitters in 1955.
The 1960 World Series was a turning point for both Stengel and Ford. Ditmar (15-9) was given the start over Ford (12-9) in Game One of the World Series against the Pirates. It was an off-year for Whitey, but he was a big game pitcher, and he proved it with two shutout victories against the hard-hitting Bucs in Games Three and Six.
But by not starting him in Game One, Stengel didn’t have him available in rotation for Game Seven, with the Series tied 3-3. Forced to start a sore-armed Turley, the Yankees fell behind 4-0, and went on to lose 10-9 on Bill Mazeroski’s 9th inning home run off Ralph Terry. After the Series loss, Stengel was fired, despite having won 10 pennants in 12 seasons. Many cited his 1960 World Series pitching rotation as one of his greatest failures, perhaps a sign of his “losing it” at 70.
“I won’t make the mistake of being 70 again,” he said.
Ralph Houk, a one-time teammate of Whitey’s, was named as the new manager. He told Mantle that he wanted him to be more of a team leader, and he told Whitey that he was going to work every fourth day for the first time.
Mantle hit a career high 54 home runs (the year of the great Maris-Mantle home run race), and Whitey had his first 20-win season, going a remarkable 25-4, and winning the Cy Young Award as the major leagues’ top pitcher. (Only one award was given in those days). He was helped in large measure by the emerging brilliance of reliever Luis Arroyo, who, on the first “Whitey Ford Day” in ’61, was driven onto the field covered by an eight-foot roll of Life Savers.
“He’s the Chairman of the Board when he’s on the mound,” said Elston Howard, by now having succeeded Berra as the team’s number one catcher. It was a perfect nickname, predating the use of the name for Frank Sinatra. As fun-loving as he was off the field, when Whitey was on the mound, he was all business. The ease of his delivery was picture-book perfect. He fielded his position brilliantly. No one had a better pickoff move. And no one commanded a game as much as he did, setting up hitters with dazzling breaking balls and sneaking in the fast ball in the perfect spots.
Under Houk, the Yankees won pennants in 1961, 1962 and 1963. During the ’61 Series, he broke Babe Ruth’s pitching record (with the Red Sox), for consecutive scoreless innings in World Series competition, running it up to 33 before it ended, a record he considers his proudest achievement. “It wasn’t a good year for the Babe,” he said, with Maris having broken the Bambino’s home run record that same month.
In ’63 he again won 20, going 24-7, including a run of 12 straight victories. But he was beaten twice in the World Series that fall by another product of New York sandlot ball, the Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax. A year later, the Yankees, with Whitey also serving as Yogi Berra’s pitching coach, lost to the Cardinals, as the dynasty that had begun in 1921 came to a close. Mantle and Ford had their last big seasons in ’64, with Whitey retiring in ’67 and Mantle a year later. Whitey quit just days after shutting out the White Sox for his 45th career blanking, bone chips in his elbow finally bringing him down. In the end, the man whose first loss had been in front of Connie Mack, was pitching to Reggie Jackson, and Rod Carew. He had covered a lot of history.
“I showed up in a $20 sports jacket, and I’m leaving in a $300 suit,” he said. “It was a nice run.”
At his retirement, Whitey was the all-time winningest pitcher in Yankee history, having passed Hall of Famers Waite Hoyt, Bob Shawkey, Gomez and Ruffing on the way to his 236-career total. His remarkable .690 winning percentage (236-106) is the highest in history among 200-game winners, with Christy Mathewson atop the National League at .665. He is still the Yankees all-time leader in innings, strikeouts, and shutouts, and his ten victories in World Series competition may never be equaled. Only twice did he lose 10 or more games in a season. His number 16 is retired, and he has a plaque in Monument Park.
Respected statistician Bill James ranked him the fifth greatest left handed starting pitcher in history, behind only Lefty Grove, Warren Spahn, Steve Carlton and Carl Hubbell. He was ranked 52nd overall by The Sporting News in its influential 1998 book, “Baseball’s 100 Greatest Players,” with only Grove, Hubbell, Carlton, Koufax and Spahn ahead among southpaws. He was a member of last year’s All-Century Team.
He didn’t make the Hall of Fame in 1973, his first year of eligibility, some feeling that his stats more represented the great teams behind him. Some even felt it was better to hold him back and let him go in with Mantle a year later. Those who shared the New York Bus Service charter to Cooperstown with them and their guests that summer are still talking about that magical mystery tour bus. The friendship between the two geographically and culturally diverse teammates, whose birthdays were October 20 (Mantle) and October 21 (Ford), was one of the game’s longest running hits. When the two of them were in the same town as Billy Martin, they heard more than a few last calls together.
In retirement, Whitey was a businessman (some hits, some misses), and remained close to the Yankees, who retired his uniform number 16, gave him a plaque in Monument Park, and served them over the years as a broadcaster, roving instructor, major league pitching coach, spring training instructor, and scout.
When I was privileged to edit the Yankee Yearbook during my time as the team’s public relations director, we had an annual ritual in which he would pose with our pitching prospects, demonstrating his technique. Just as our photographer was ready to shoot, Whitey would spit on the ball. He never tired of the gag. And we always had great smiles on the prospects.
He spends half his year in a Ft. Lauderdale condo, and half at the home in Lake Success he and Joan have occupied since 1958.
It has not been easy for Whitey to see the passing of his teammates over the years. DiMaggio, Mantle, Martin, Howard, Reynolds, Raschi, and Lopat have all gone.
“I saw DiMaggio at Old Timers Day in ’98,” he said. “And I said, ‘Joe, when I first met you, you were four inches taller than me! Now I’m bigger than you!’ It was the last time I saw him smile.”
As he nears his 72nd birthday, 33 years removed from his last pitch, he remains the street-smart, wisecracking New York kid who swung a mean stickball bat on 34th Avenue. A lot of young fans can’t even picture that easy delivery in which he would rock back and come three-quarter arm with all sorts of motion on the ball. It’s a shame that he’s no longer a regular interview subject, because today’s kids would love that swagger, that humor and the charm and class behind it. He was a product of the Depression, but he goes down easy in any era.