Monday, February 1, 2010

16 Days Until Spring Training: Whitey Ford

The greatest Yankee pitcher of all-time grew up in Astoria, Queens just a few of miles from the Stadium in the Bronx. Edward Charles "Whitey" Ford went to Aviation High School in Sunnyside, Queens and after being signed by the Yankees in 1947, spent four years in their minor league system. He started out in class C ball in Butler, PA and worked his way up the ladder to B then A and eventually the AAA team in Kansas City for for the 1949 season.

The “Chairman of the Board” made his major league debut on July 1, 1950 and went on to win his first nine decisions en route to being named the Sporting News Rookie of the Year. In 1951 and 1952, Whitey left the team to serve in the Army during the Korean War and when he returned in 1953, joined a staff of Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, and Eddie Lopat.

Ford became the ace of the staff and in 1955 and went on to an 18-7 record while pitching 18 complete games with a 2.63 ERA. However, 1956 was an even better year – he was 19-6 with a 2.01 ERA. Whitey pitched over 200 innings in 11 of his 16 professional seasons and never had an ERA over 3.24. He won the 1961 Cy Young Award, made the All-Star team eight times in his career and was a six-time World Series Champion.

The Yankees won the pennant 11 times when he was a Yankee and Ford won a record ten World Series games in addition to holding almost every other World Series pitching record. In Ford’s eight World Series losses, the offense provided an average of just 2.25 runs and were shut out twice.

Whitey was a small guy - just 5'10" and 180 lbs - and didn’t throw very hard, but he controlled games with pin-point accuracy and his ability to stay calm under pressure. Ford was one of many pitchers of his time to doctor baseballs and, according to legend, used a spitball in the 1961 All-Star game to strike out Willie Mays.

That year, there were two All-Star games and the first was at Candlesick Park on July 11th. Mantle and Ford were out in San Francisco had ran up a $1200 tab (or $800, or $200 depending on who you want to believe) at a Bay Area country club under the account of Horace Stoneham, the owners of the SF Giants at the time. Ford wanted to repay Stoneham but was offered a bet instead. If Ford faced Willie Mays during the All-Star game and retired him, Stoneham would cancel the tab. However, if Mays got a hit Mantle and Ford owed double.

Mays had owned Whitey over the course of his career ("9 for 12" at that point, according to Ford in the book Baseball Like It Was) and at one point had seven consecutive hits against him. Mantle was reluctant to take the bet but Ford went through with it. Mays was batting clean up for the NL and was brought up in the first inning when Roberto Clemente rapped a double. Willie fell behind Whitey on two long foul balls, and struck out swinging, later recalling that it was the "craziest pitch I ever saw". That, of course was the spitball, a spin-less pitch that dove sharply when it neared the plate.

Late in his career, Ford began to lose his stuff and admitted after he retired that he doctored balls in order to gain an edge. In addition to tossing the ol' spitball, he claimed that he scuffed them up with his diamond wedding right or had catcher Elston Howard coat them with mud in an area behind the plate intentionally kept wet by the Yankee Stadium groundskeepers. Ford eventually retired in 1967 at the age of 38 after attempting a comeback to repair a circulatory problem in his shoulder.

Whitey spent his entire 16 year career in Pinstripes and compiled a career record of 236-106 with a ERA of 2.75. Those 236 wins for the Bombers ranks as the most in franchise history and his .690 winning percentage is the highest among all pitchers with at least 300 decisions. Ford was enshrined in Cooperstown in 1974 with his friend and teammate, Mickey Mantle.

That same year, the Yankees retired the number 16. Later, they dedicated a plaque in Monument Park to him which states he was “one of the greatest pitchers ever to step on a mound”. Eighty-one years old now, he's pictured below scooping dirt from the mound at the Old Stadium with Don Larsen in September of 2008. He and Yogi Berra represent a fleeting link with the great Yankee teams of the 50's and 60's and we are lucky to still have them around.

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