Whitey Ford, who pitched the Yankees to 11 American League pennants and six World Series championships in the 1950s and ’60s and who still holds the highest winning percentage (.690) among all modern-day major league pitchers with at least 200 wins, died Thursday night at his Long Island home. He was 91.
Nicknamed “the Chairman of the Board” by teammate Elston Howard for his calm demeanor in pressure situations, Ford spent his entire 16-year career with the Yankees. for whom he went 236-106. The Yankees signed the left-hander out of high school in 1947 for $7,000, outbidding the crosstown Giants and the Boston Red Sox.
Ford, who retired midway through the 1967 season due to a circulation problem in his pitching arm that surgeries failed to correct, was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974, his second year of eligibility. Waiting that extra year for his enshrinement after falling short by 29 votes allowed Ford to enter the Hall alongside former teammate, close friend and late-night running mate Mickey Mantle.
19Whitey Ford gets congratulated in 1950 after a six-hit shutout propelled the Yankees into first place
A 21-year-old Ford arrived in The Bronx in 1950, a year ahead of Mantle, and immediately made his mark. In July of that year, he joined a rotation loaded with veterans Vic Raschi, Eddie Lopat, Allie Reynolds and Tommy Byrne and went 9-1 with a 2.81 ERA while finishing second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. He started Game 4 of the World Series that October, recording a 5-2 victory over the Phillies to complete the sweep.
Ford spent the next two seasons in the Army, missing out on two world championships, but returned in 1953 to help the Yankees win their record fifth consecutive World Series. He went 18-6 that season, then averaged 15 wins a season over the next seven years.
While manager Casey Stengel was protective of his ace, never pitching Ford more than 255 innings at a time when staff aces routinely threw more than 275 innings per season, Ralph Houk, who succeeded Stengel in 1961, had no such qualms. The former Yankees catcher promised he would pitch his former teammate every fourth day — as was the custom at the time — and the lefty responded with the best season of his career. He went 25-4 and won his only Cy Young Award in 1961.
The aging Stengel, who was fired after the Yankees lost the 1960 World Series in seven games to Pittsburgh, may have sealed his own fate that October when he bypassed Ford as his starter in Game 1. The Yankees split the first two games at Forbes Field and Ford, whom Stengel held back to pitch the first game at Yankee Stadium, tossed a shutout in Game 3. The Yankees split the next two games and Ford again shut out the Pirates in Game 6. But he was a spectator in Game 7 as the Yankees fell, 10-9, on Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off home run in the ninth.
“It was the only time I ever got mad at Casey,” Ford said in his 1987 autobiography, “Slick,” written with Phil Pepe. “I felt I should have started that game so I could pitch three times if it was necessary. … Casey had this thing about saving me for Yankee Stadium to take advantage of the big area in left field and left-center, Death Valley to right-handed hitters. … I was so annoyed at Stengel, I wouldn’t talk to him on the plane ride back to New York.”
Stengel was fired days later and Ford always believed the Yankees would have won that World Series had he been allowed to start three games. He may have had a point.
When he retired, Ford held a fistful of Fall Classic records, including most games pitched (22), innings pitched (146), wins (10), and strikeouts (94). He also had a streak of 33 ²/₃ consecutive scoreless World Series innings.
The Yankees won the World Series in 1961 and 1962, but lost to the Dodgers and Cardinals, respectively, the next two Octobers before the bottom dropped out on the dynasty. But even during that 1965 season when the Yankees recorded their first losing season since 1925 and finished in sixth place in the 10-team American League, Ford went 16-13.
Battling arm injuries, Ford would go a combined 4-9 in 1966 and ‘67. He walked off the Tiger Stadium mound after the first inning during a May game that final season and kept right on going. Before he headed to the airport, he left a note in Houk’s locker: “Dear Ralph. I’ve had it. Call you when I get home. Whitey.”
Edward Charles Ford — his nickname was given to him by former big-league pitcher Lefty Gomez, his first minor league manager — was born in Manhattan on Oct. 21, 1928. An only child, he moved with his parents — his father worked for Con Edison — to 34th Avenue in Astoria, Queens, at the age of 4. Also growing up in that neighborhood, which Ford described as a mixture of second-generation Irish, Italian and Polish families, was a kid a few years older who liked to sing named Anthony Benedetto. He’d later make his name and fortune as Tony Bennett.
Ford attended the Manhattan School for Aviation Trades because Bryant, his local high school, didn’t have a baseball team and, having already established himself as a pretty fair first baseman, he wanted to play ball.
“There really was no earthly reason for me to be at Manhattan Aviation,” Ford said. “I wasn’t a good student and I wasn’t a very good mechanic. … I think the only reason I graduated was that I never missed a day of school and one of the reasons I didn’t miss school was that I wanted to remain eligible to play baseball.”
Ford said he always regretted never going to college and getting an education.
“I consider myself very lucky to have made my living in baseball,” said Ford, who didn’t really become a pitcher until after he failed to get a ball out of the infield while batting during a tryout at Yankee Stadium. A Yankee scout in attendance quickly — and presciently — asked Ford if he had ever pitched.
Ford and Mantle, who remained close friends until Mantle’s death in 1995, were in the middle of one of the most memorable off-field incidents in Yankee history. During the 1957 season, they were among a group of Yankees who went to the Copacabana nightclub in Midtown to celebrate Billy Martin’s birthday. A fight broke out among some of the Yankees and the members of a bowling team seated at a nearby table.
No charges were filed, although Ford said he, Martin and Mantle were each fined $1,000 by Yankees general manager George Weiss for their involvement in the incident. A month later, Martin — deemed a bad influence on his two infinitely more talented teammates — was traded to Kansas City.
In his autobiography, Ford revealed what had long been suspected, that he doctored baseballs to gain an advantage as his skills began to erode. He’d use spit and dirt or deface the balls with a specially designed ring, his belt buckle or a cooperative catcher’s shin guard
“I want to emphasize that I didn’t begin cheating until late in my career, when I needed something to help me survive,” he said. “I didn’t cheat when I won the 25 games in 1961. … And I didn’t cheat in 1963 when I won 21 games. Well, maybe just a little.”
Ford, whose No. 16 was retired by the Yankees in 1974, is survived by his wife, Joan, son, Edward, and daughter, Sally Ann. His younger son, Thomas, died of a heart condition in 1999.