Remembering Whitey Ford

Whitey Ford, the most successful pitcher ever to play for baseball’s most successful franchise, died on Thursday at the age of 91. Ford was the mainstay of the New York Yankees’ pitching staffs for almost the entirety of the team’s post-war dynasty (though he missed 1951 and 1952 due to military service).

The Yankees called up Ford from the minor leagues during the 1950 pennant race. He responded by winning nine of ten decisions, plus Game 4, the final contest, of the World Series. Ford allowed no earned runs over eight-plus innings in that one.

At the time, the other Yankee pitching stars were Vic Raschi (born in 1919), Allie Reynolds (born in 1917), and Eddie Lopat (born in 1918).

In 1964, when Ford pitched in his last World Series, the Yankees’ other main starters were Jim Bouton (born in 1939), Al Downing (born in 1941) and Mel Stottlemyre (also born in 1941).

Ford started 22 World Series games, a record. Only Mariano Rivera, a reliever, pitched in more Fall Classics (24).

Ford’s death came only a few weeks after that of another all-time World Series pitching star, Bob Gibson. Between the pair, they won 17 World Series games. Ford won ten of them, but also lost eight, compared to only two losses by Gibson. The true testimony to Ford’s quality in the World Series is his 2.71 ERA in 146 innings of work.

Ford and Gibson never faced off in a Series game. Ford started Game One of the 1964 Classic against Gibson’s Cardinals, but didn’t pitch again in that Series due to numbness in his hand. Gibson pitched in Games 2, 5, and 7.

In some ways, Ford was the anti-Gibson on the mound. Gibson was an intimidating athlete — a power pitcher who seemed to pour every fiber of himself into every pitch.

Ford was only 5-10 and weighed 178 pounds. He was a calm presence on the mound and didn’t overpower hitters. If he was intimidating, it was only because, as Brooks Robinson said, he never gave batters anything they could hit.

Walt Dropo, who beat out Ford for Rookie of the Year honors in 1950, called his rival a master chess player who used his brain to take the bat out of a hitter’s hands. Ford never started a hitter off with the same pitch and threw four pitches at different speeds with varying arm angles to every part of the plate, the slugger complained.

And late in his career, Ford mastered additional pitches — the scuffed ball and the mud ball. So he confessed in his autobiography, Slick: My Life in and Around Baseball.

Gibson was a workhorse. In his prime he pitched about 300 innings per season.

Casey Stengel, a manager ahead of time, did not work Ford that hard. Under Stengel, Ford typically pitched around 220 innings a season.

Stengel underused Ford in the World Series. Gibson started three games in each of his three World Series. Stengel gave Ford three starts in only one of the five seven-game Series in which the two were together.

Ford believed the Yankees would have won the 1960 World Series against Pittsburgh if Stengel had given him three starts instead of holding him back until Game 3. Ford was probably right. He gave up no runs in the 18 innings he did pitch in that Series. (Ford continued his stingy ways during the 1961 Series and ended up breaking Babe Ruth’s record for consecutive scoreless World Series innings with 33 2/3).

The Yankees’ usage of Ford changed when Ralph Houk became the manager in 1961. That year, Ford started 39 games and pitched 283 innings, a trend that continued until Ford wore out in mid-decade.

It’s no accident that Ford’s one Cy Young award and two 20 win seasons came under Houk. Had Stengel not been Ford’s manager, the lefthander’s career stats would be more gaudy. However, they are impressive enough as it is: 236 wins, 106 losses, and a 2.75 ERA that’s almost identical to his World Series mark.

Except for Clayton Kershaw, who is still active, Ford’s career ERA is the lowest of any starting pitcher whose career began after 1920. And his career winning percentage (.690) is the highest among all modern-day major league pitchers with at least 200 wins.

Off the field, Ford was famous for his drinking exploits with Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin, until the Yankees traded Martin for being a “bad influence” on the two stars. The trade did not slow Ford and Mantle down.

After both retired, they touted their drinking in a famous commercial for Miller Lite. Ford lamented that if that product had been around in their playing days, he and Mickey would have made the beer drinkers’ Hall of Fame.

The commercial drew criticism. Inability to take a joke isn’t a phenomenon unique to the 21st Century.

Ford later admitted that he and Mantle “overdid” the drinking. Ford reportedly quit drinking at some point during the last century.

Ford liked to say that the three ingredients that make a good pitcher are “arm, heart and head.” “Arm and heart are assets, head a necessity,” he would add. Ford had a good arm, a big heart, and a world class head for pitching.

He had one additional ingredient: athletic arrogance.

To give just one example, before the sixth game of the 1955 World Series, Ford appeared on the Ed Sullivan show. Sullivan asked Ford who was going to pitch Game 6, which the Yankees had to win to force a seventh game. Ford responded, “I am, and Tommy’s pitching the Seventh Game.” True to his word, Ford beat the Dodgers 5-1, on a four-hitter. Tommy Byrne lost Game 7 to Johnny Podres.

But Ford made it a point to never show up opponents. He always headed directly to the dugout after a win, and never displayed emotion on the mound, positive or negative. According to his SABR biography, umpires generally considered Ford one of the nicest players in the game.

Ford could also be modest. In 2001, he co-wrote a book about great Yankee players. He selected Lefty Gomez (the man who gave Ford the nickname “Whitey”) as the team’s all-time greatest left-handed pitcher.

Later, when asked why, Ford replied, “I lied.”

He did. Whitey Ford is the greatest Yankee pitcher of all time, period. RIP.

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