Obituary: Whitey Ford (1928-2020)


RIP to Whitey Ford, a Hall of Famer, a Cy Young Award winner, 10-time All-Star, and the greatest Yankees pitcher ever — just to name a few of his accomplishments. He died on October 8 at his home in Lake Success, N.Y., on Long Island. He was 91 years old. According to the release issued by the New York Yankees, Ford died while surrounded by his family and, fittingly, watching the Yankees play the Tampa Bay Rays in the playoffs. Ford pitched for the Yankees from 1950 until 1967.

“Whitey’s name and accomplishments are forever stitched into the fabric of baseball’s rich history,” Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner said in a statement. “He was a treasure, and one of the greatest of Yankees to ever wear the pinstripes. Beyond the accolades that earned him his rightful spot within the walls of the Hall of Fame, in so many ways he encapsulated the spirit of the Yankees teams he played for and represented for nearly two decades.”

Edward Charles Ford was born in New York City on October 21, 1928. The nickname of “Whitey” came from his first minor-league manager Lefty Gomez, because of his light blond hair. There was also a well-known entertainer named Benjamin Francis “Whitey” Ford, aka “The Duke of Paducah.” So if you ever look through old newspaper archives and find stories about Whitey Ford appearing on the Grand Ole Opry, it’s not the pitcher.

Before the world knew him as Whitey Ford, Brooklyn knew him as Edward Ford. He went to high school at the Manhattan School of Aviation, or Aviation Tech High School. Lou Limmer, who played briefly for the Philadelphia Athletics, also attended high school there a few years before Ford. The young lefty was also a part of the Brooklyn Eagle All-Stars, a group of 20 local teenagers who challenged the world in 1946. Technically, they challenged the rest of the United States and Hawaii, which was a territory at the time. The Eagles, managed by Leo Durocher, faced off against the “World” All-Stars, managed by George Sisler, at Ebbets Field on August 7, 8 and 9, 1946. Brooklyn defeated the World All-Stars, and the kids went on to play a variety of exhibition games, both with the Eagles and other teams. Ford, for example, was also a Brooklyn Dodger Junior.

The 1946 Brooklyn Eagles team. Edward Ford, as he was known then, is circled in the photo. Source: The Post Star, August 30, 1946.

The Brooklyn Dodgers had plenty of chances to scout young Ford. Branch Rickey was one of the powers behind the Brooklyn Against the World games, and the Eagles trained at Ebbets Field with Dodger players and coaches. Still, it was the Yankees that signed him, and it was a perfect fit. He grew up a fan and lived close to Yankee Stadium. He would pitch there soon enough, but first Ford had to make it through the minors, starting from the ground up.

Originally signed to the Class-A Binghamton Triplets for 1947, Ford was cut at the last minute by manager Gomez, who reassigned the 18-year-old to the Class-C Butler Yankees. He was 13-4 in his first season and then won 16 games in each of the next two seasons, moving up the ladder from Class-B Norfolk in 1948 to Binghamton in 1949. Ford’s 1.61 ERA for Binghamton was tops in the Eastern League. If the Triplets hadn’t made it to the playoffs, Ford might have joined the Yankees that year. As it was, his much anticipated debut had to wait.

Ford started 1950 with the Kansas City Blues of the American Association. After 12 starts, 8 complete games and a 6-3 record, the 21-year-old was brought up to join the Yankees. He made his debut on July 1, 1950, relieving starter Tommy Byrne after the Boston Red Sox battered him for 8 runs in 1-1/3 innings. Ford pitched 4-2/3 innings and gave up 5 runs himself, with 6 walks. The Yanks moved him into the starting rotation, and it took a while for his brilliance to really show itself. He won his first major-league game against the White Sox on July 17 but was moved back to the bullpen when those same White Sox knocked him out of the first inning on July 30.

It was a 3-game stretch that seemed to cement Ford’s spot in the Yankees pitching rotation. He threw his first career shutout against Washington on August 15, a 9-0 three-hitter. He beat the Philadelphia A’s on the 20th by a score of 5-2. Five days later, he held the St. Louis Browns to 4 hits in a 10-0 win. That’s three starts, 27 innings, 13 hits allowed, 1 earned run allowed and 13 strikeouts. Ford kept starting, and he kept winning, too. After 9 straight wins to open his career, his first loss came in relief, when he blew a lead against the A’s on September 27. Ford fashioned a 9-1 record and 2.81 ERA in 20 games and 12 starts. Despite his relatively short time in the majors (he threw 112 innings), Ford finished second in the Rookie of the Year vote, behind Boston’s Walt Dropo.

Source: Baseball Hall of Fame.

Tommy Henrich, who was a Yankee outfielder in 1950 and a coach thereafter, later recalled a game in which Ford was shelled by Detroit. After the game, pitcher Ed Lopat took Ford aside and give him a lesson on each Tiger batter. “Next day he gave Whitey an exam,” he said. “Whitey repeated word for word what he had been told without a miss. I felt then he was going to be great.”

The Yankees won 98 games and the AL pennant in 1950, and they rolled over the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series with a four-game sweep. Ford started Game Four on October 7, becoming the youngest pitcher to start a Series game at the age of 21. He was an error away from a shutout, too. Taking a 5-0 lead into the ninth inning, he allowed a couple of baserunners but retired Dick Sisler and Granny Hamner. Then Andy Seminick launched a fly ball to left field that Gene Woodling lost in the sun. Two unearned runs scored, and when Mike Goliat singled to bring the tying run to the plate, Allie Reynolds came in to strike out Stan Lopata and end the Series. That was the first of Ford’s six World Series championships.

Yankees fans must have been eagerly anticipating what Ford could do in a full season. Unfortunately, they would have to wait a couple of years, as he was drafted into the armed forces. Manager Casey Stengel denied that he used a Ouija board during the Yankees’ last two championship runs, but he admitted in the 1951 training camp that he’d like one. “Maybe it’ll tell me what I’m supposed to do without Whitey Ford, Bobby Brown and Tommy Henrich.”

New York did just fine, winning two more World Series in Ford’s absence. After all, they still had Berra and Rizzuto and a kid named Mantle who turned out alright.

Ford was discharged from the Army in November of 1952. That probably helped him tremendously, as many ballplayers who jumped directly from the military back to baseball were out of playing shape and struggled. Ford had an entire offseason to get back into baseball condition.

Ford picked up pretty much right where he left off, winning his first seven decisions in 1953. He threw a 1-hit shutout against Cleveland on May 12, and that one hit was an infield roller by opposing pitcher Early Wynn. He didn’t lose a game until June 16, when the Browns stopped his winning streak by a score of 3-1. It was his 23rd career start and his first losing effort. He won 18 games against 6 losses with an even 3.00 ERA. The only time he really struggled was in the World Series against Brooklyn. He started Game Four and lasted an inning, giving up 3 runs thanks to a Jackie Robinson RBI single and a 2-run double by Duke Snider. He took the loss in that one, but he recovered to pitch a strong Game Six, allowing 1 run in 7 innings while fanning 7 Dodgers. He left the game with a 3-1 lead, but Carl Furillo hit a 2-run homer off reliever Allie Reynolds to tie the game. New York won the game — and the Series — when Billy Martin singled in the winning run in the bottom of the ninth inning.

Ford won 16 games in 1954 and was given the chance to start his first All-Star Game, when his manager Stengel wanted to counteract the National League’s lefty bats of Snider, Stan Musial and Ted Kluszewski. Ford threw 3 scoreless innings, allowing only a single by Musial and a walk to Roy Campanella. The NL pulled out a 10-9 win, doing all their damage after Ford was gone.

Ford with manager Casey Stengel. Stengel thought of Ford as his “Banty Rooster.” Source: Baseball Hall of Fame.

Between 1953 and 1965, Ford averaged 17 wins a season, including two 20-win seasons, a 19-win season and two 18-win seasons. It would be easy to point out that he was pitching for the mighty Yankees, but Ford was making the rest of the American League (and frequently the National League) look helpless. He won ERA titles in 1956 (2.47) and 1958 (2.01) and led the AL in shutouts in 1958 (7) and 1960 (4). He threw two one-hitters in six days in September 1955, and yet he still refused to acknowledge he was in the realm of “great” pitchers.

“I won’t consider myself a great pitcher until I have a season without a rut,” he declared. He went 18-7 with a 2.63 ERA and 137 strikeouts in 1955, but there were stretches where he went weeks without a win. That qualified as a rut for him.

Not all of Ford’s seasons were spectacular. In 1957, he was limited to just over 120 innings due to arm and shoulder problems, though he still turned in an 11-5 record. He was also one of the Yankees involved in the infamous Copacabana incident, where he and five teammates, as well as a few of their wives, attended a show by Sammy Davis Jr. There were numerous versions of what happened, but they all ended up with one Edwin Jones lying on the floor with a broken nose. Allegedly it was a punch from Hank Bauer that floored him. Bauer denied it and said that teammates Berra and Johnny Kucks got him out of the club before trouble started. “I don’t even know who picked up the check,” he told a reporter.

“Whitey picked it up,” his wife added.

Ford, it should be noted, greatly enjoyed the New York City nightlife, particularly with teammates Mantle and Billy Martin. And he may have missed the odd team train or plane ride because of it. According to his SABR biography, though, he never went out on the night before a start.

Ford also routinely held out for a better contract practically every spring. The contract disputes may have been lengthy at times, but they were never bitter, according to his general manager, George Weiss. “He’s one of those typically fresh New York kids who aggravate you out of sheer contrariness. We’ve never had a serious dispute over salary. I think he holds out to the bitter end just for kicks.”

Of all of Ford’s excellent seasons, his Cy Young year of 1961 probably ranks as his best. His 24 wins were tops in baseball, and he only lost four games for a league-leading .862 winning percentage. He started 39 games and threw a career-high 283 innings. He also struck out more than 200 hitters — 209 to be exact — for the only time in his career. He continued to dominate in the postseason, recording two wins against the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series with 14 scoreless innings. He held the Reds to 6 hits and 1 walk while fanning 7 batters. He was named the World Series MVP Award for his dominance. He also broke Babe Ruth’s record of 29-2/3 consecutive scoreless innings in the World Series — 1961 was a bad year for Ruth’s records. Ford made it to 33-2/3 innings before allowing a run in the 1962 World Series, and that record stands to this day.

Phil Rizzuto, who played with Ford and called many of his games as a broadcaster, noted that Ford’s accomplishments came on three pitches — fastball, curveball and changeup (and reportedly some illegal pitches later in his career). He regarded Ford as the best pitcher he’d ever seen. “Ford is the best control pitcher in baseball. He can put the ball wherever he pleases,” Rizzuto said.

Ford with batterymate Yogi Berra. Source: Baseball Hall of Fame.

Ford turned 34 years old in 1963 but enjoyed a 24-7 record and a 2.74 ERA. He led the AL in wins and winning percentage (.774) as well as innings pitched (269-1/3). He maintained his form for a couple more strong seasons, winning 17 games in 1964 and 16 games in ’65. The tide was starting to turn on the Yankee Dynasty, though. After back-to-back World Series wins in 1961 and 1962, the Yankees were swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers in ’63. The anticipated Sandy Koufax/Whitey Ford pitching duel of Game One didn’t materialize, as Ford lasted just 5 innings and gave up 5 runs, including a three-run blast by Johnny Roseboro. Their rematch in Game 4 was a much better performance, but Koufax prevailed again, 2-1. The Yankees lost the ’64 World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals. Ford was roughed up in a Game One loss and hurt his arm, taking him out of action for the rest of the Series. The Yankees were a sub-.500 team in 1965 and would remain in a slump until the “Bronx Zoo” team of the late 1970s. It has been dubbed derisively as the “Horace Clarke Era.”

Ford started the 1966 campaign pitching brilliantly, but he was the victim of some hard-luck losses. Just like that, though, the arm was gone. He lasted 2 innings in a game against the Kansas City A’s on May 13 and then 1 inning against the Angels on May 24. He said that after just a few batters, his left hand would get numb. After one 2-inning relief stint in the month of June, Ford started a game against Washington on July 2. It was the worst start of his career. He gave up 15 hits in 6 innings and allowed 10 runs on 4 homers. Due to some sloppy defense, 7 of those runs were unearned, but Ford looked like a mortal man and not the Yankees ace for the better part of the last two decades. After one more start, he worked out of the bullpen for the rest of the season. He was good in the role and ended up with a 2.47 ERA in 73 innings, but the idea of Whitey Ford as a middle reliever just didn’t sit right.

Late in 1966, Ford underwent surgery to fix a circulatory blockage in his left shoulder. Doctors removed part of a vein from his leg and used it to bypass part of a blocked vein in his shoulder. His initial prognosis was that the surgery was a success.

“[M]y old golf game has come back. When I was having the trouble, my scores were pretty good. I wasn’t hitting the ball very hard, but I hit it straight. Now I’m hitting hard again and spraying the ball all over the place, just like old times,” he said with a grin.

Ford mounted a comeback in 1967, and if he had a good team behind him, he might have stuck around all year and earned Comeback Player of the Year. In 7 starts, he worked 44 innings and had a 1.64 ERA and a 1.114 WHIP. However, his record was 2-4, and he was diagnosed with a bone spur in his left elbow. His career ended in Detroit on May 21, 1967. He lasted just one inning and gave up a run in an eventual 9-4 loss.

When he announced his retirement, he thanked the Yankee organization and all his managers and added, “I came here in 1950 wearing $50 suits, and I’m leaving wearing $200 suits. So I guess I’m doing alright.”

When asked for a comment, Ford’s old manager Casey Stengel described him as “quiet, egotistical and witty.” “He was my Banty Rooster,” Stengel explained. “He’d stick out his chest like this and walk out on the mound against any of these big hitters. They talk about the fall of the Yankees. Well, the Yankees would have fallen a lot sooner if it wasn’t for my Banty Rooster. When the Yankees lost Reynolds, [Vic] Raschi and Lopat, it was Mr. Ford who kept them from diving.”

In 16 seasons, Ford had a won-loss record of 235-106 for a .690 winning percentage — the fourth-best all-time and second to Clayton Kershaw among lefties. He had a 2.75 ERA and struck out 1,956 batters. He also completed 156 games and threw 45 shutouts. He is worth, per Baseball Reference, 57.1 Wins Above Replacement.

Ford was a standout in the World Series. He appeared in a total of 11 of them, and his Yankees teams won six — 1950, 1953, 1956, 1958, 1961 and 1962. Along with the consecutive scoreless inning record that he holds, he also is the World Series leader for career wins (10), innings pitched (146), games started (22) and strikeouts (94). His postseason pitching record is 10-8 and a 2.71 ERA, with 7 complete games and 3 shutouts.

Ford had a couple of coaching stints with the Yankees and did some broadcasting. It seems like he mostly just got to enjoy being a retired Whitey Ford, with residences in Long Island and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He also operated a charity, Whitey Ford Children’s Foundation. He appeared at Yankees’ Old-Timers Days and Hall of Fame ceremonies after he was inducted in 1974 — on his second ballot. Seriously. While it’s inexcusable to make a pitcher like Whitey Ford wait two years, he was inducted into the Hall the same year as his former roommate and drinking buddy, Mickey Mantle. That must have made for a memorable celebration or two in Cooperstown.

A couple Whitey Ford stories, to close this out:

When asked if he had any good Yogi Berra stories, he told a 2003 audience about the last old-timer’s game they attended. “We were out on the field for about an hour-long ceremony, where they were giving a summary of the players. There were a lot of players and it went on for a long time. Anyway, on the scoreboard there was a list of guys who had passed away over the last year. I was standing next to Yogi. He looked up at it and then turned to me and said, ‘Boy. I hope I never see my name up there.’ Another guy standing next to me asked, ‘Did I just hear him say that?’ I said, ‘Yep.'”

Ford was also asked about the HBO movie 61* and said it was about 90 percent accurate. “But the guy who played Yogi was too good-looking,” he added.

The last story comes way back at the start of his career, when the Yankees were taking on the Phillies in the 1950 World Series. Ford, at the time, was the hotshot rookie who was about to pitch in Game Four. He was standing by the batting cage when Dizzy Dean, then retired, walked up to him.

“Hiya, Whitey,” Dean said.

“Hiya, Diz,” Ford replied. “These Phillies are so easy that I now can understand how you could win so many games in the National League.”

It was one of the few times in his life Dean was speechless.

For more information: ESPN

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