Name: Russell William “Russ” Ford
Position: Starting pitcher
Born: April 25, 1883 (Brandon, Manitoba, Canada)
Yankees Years: 1909-13
Primary Number: N/A
Yankees Statistics: 143 games, 129 GS, 74-56, 1112.2 innings, 2.54 ERA, 2.78 FIP, 553 K, 100 CG, 10 shutouts, 127 ERA+, 27.3 rWAR, 17.0 fWAR
The years before Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and the first dynasty are a bit lost to Yankees history. For a franchise that has won as many championships as they have, and prides themselves on that fact, it makes a bit of sense that the years before any of those championships are often forgotten about. However, the early days of the Yankees weren’t all bad, and there were some great players in that time. One of them was Russ Ford, who used some trickery to post some impressive seasons as the rest of the team around him was cratering.
Canadian Born, Midwestern Raised
Born in 1883 to Walter and Ida Ford — the latter of whom was a second cousin of soon-to-be U.S. president Grover Cleveland — Russ Ford was born in Manitoba, Canada. In his childhood, the Ford family — which also featured Russ’ older brother and fellow future big league pitcher Gene — emigrated to the United States and eventually settled in Minneapolis.
While there, he caught the eyes of some teams, and began to pitch in the minor leagues after his schooling. Ford started off his baseball career with the Springfield Senators in 1905. He played the next couple season with them, the Cedar Rapids Rabbits, and the Atlanta Crackers. It was with Atlanta in 1908 where he figured something out that would forever change him as a pitcher.
One day in Atlanta in 1908, Ford was warming up before the game on what had been a rainy day. He was a little bit wild, and one pitch got away from the catcher and struck an upright on the stands which they had been throwing under. After the ball was returned to him, Ford started to notice some odd movement on his next couple throws. He examined the ball and noticed that it had been scuffed up a bit where it had hit the upright. He then started to grip the ball opposite the scuff, and suddenly began to see some severe movement, as he had discovered what was set to take him to the big leagues.
The then-New York Highlanders picked up Ford after the 1908 season, and he ended up making the roster out of spring training for 1909. Tabbed for his MLB debut in the 11th game of the season, Ford ate some innings after Highlanders starter Jack Quinn got knocked out early by the Red Sox. Ford went four innings that day, allowing six runs. Shortly after that, he was assigned to the minor leagues, joining the Jersey City Skeeters.
In Jersey City, Ford continued to experiment on scuffing the ball, using bottle caps, before settling on an piece of emery paper, which he concealed in his glove. While using that, he often tried to make it appear that he was using a spitball, which was still legal at the time. Whatever he was doing seemed to work, as he struck out 189 batters in Jersey City that season, allowing him to again make the Highlanders in 1910.
With his emery pitch, Ford hit the ground running when he returned to the big leagues in 1910. After coming out of the bullpen once, he was given his first major league start on April 21st. Tasked holding down that year’s World Series champions, the Philadelphia Athletics, Ford fanned nine batters en route to a complete-game shutout victory. Of Ford’s first nine MLB starts, only one didn’t end in a Yankees win, as he racked up 51 strikeouts across them.
Arguably the most impressive outs of Ford’s rookie season came on July 19th. Facing off against the St. Louis Browns, Ford’s defense behind him let the pitcher down, as an error allowed St. Louis to score a run in the top of the first. After that, Ford was dominant, at one point retiring 19 hitters in a row. As the offense took and grew a lead, Ford continued his dominance, and still had allowed no hits as the game moved to the ninth inning.
After issuing a walk and then getting the first out of the inning, Ford allowed a blooper hit by Danny Hoffman that was headed towards shortstop. However, Highlanders shortstop Roxey Roach misjudged the fly ball, allowing it to gently drop in for a Browns hit. Ford got out of the inning after that, finishing with a one-hitter, but came incredibly close to a no-no, which would’ve been the first in Highlanders/Yankees franchise history.
In total, Ford finished his rookie season with a 26-6 record, a 1.65 ERA (160 ERA+), a 1.87 FIP, 209 strikeouts, and would’ve led the league with just 5.8 H/9, had that been a stat calculated at the time. MLB awards didn’t exist back then, but Ford would’ve been in strong consideration for several of them. He almost certainly would’ve been a Rookie of the Year lock, and a very strong Cy Young Award case was possible as well (in addition to some MVP votes). His 26 victories that season also set an AL rookie record, which still stands and will likely never be broken.
Beyond all that, Ford also helped the Highlanders to a 88-63 record in 1910, 14 more wins than they had recorded the season before. Neither they nor the crosstown Giants made the World Series that year, but with both teams finishing above .500, they agreed to play each other in a best-of-seven series, meeting for the first time ever, and playing in a first ever “Subway Series” of sorts. The Giants took the series 4-1, but Ford was chosen to go head-to-head with future Hall of Famer Christy Matthewson in the first game of the series. The legend outdueled him that day, as the Giants won the opener 5-1.
Continued Dominance and a Fall Off
With batters still struggling to figure out what his emery ball pitches were doing, Ford put up another impressive season in 1911, even as the Highlanders took a dip in the standings. He struck out 158 batters that season, as he put up a 2.27 ERA (158 ERA+) that season. He won 22 games and was selected as a pitcher for an All-Star benefit game held in memory of Cleveland’s Addie Joss, who had died at age 31 earlier that year.
That year, Ford did get a bit of award love, finish in 18th place in voting for the AL’s inaugural Chalmers Award, an early precursor to the MVP. Ty Cobb won the honor, while Ford was the fifth highest vote-getter among pitchers, signaling that he again would’ve finished high had there been a Cy Young Award equivalent in that era.*
*Young himself finally retired that same season after 511 career victories.
While Ford continued to be an above-average pitcher from New York, he never quite matched the dominance of the 1910 and ‘11 seasons. According to Baseball Reference WAR, he was the Highlanders’ second-best player in 1912, but he was dinged with a league-high 21 losses, as the team went 50-102, which is the worst winning percentage in franchise history. Ford’s 3.55 ERA was still above average (103 ERA+), but other pitchers had picked up on the emery ball tactics, and they were no longer quite as uniquely unhittable.
In 1913, the team made a change official, as the franchise officially changed their name from the Highlanders to the familiar New York Yankees. As that was happening, Ford again had a solid season, but also dealt with arm fatigue throughout the year. He was limited to 237 innings, which was a career low to that point, not taking his single appearance in 1909 into consideration. He also only struck out 72 batters that year, just over a third of what he had accumulated in his incredible 1910. Those factors likely led to his Yankee departure shortly after that.
Federal League Years and Post-Baseball Life
After those two down seasons, the Yankees’ contract offer for 1914 included a pay cut, which Ford did not take too kindly. Luckily for him, there was a new option. An attempt at a third major league was tried in 1914 — the Federal League. The new league chose not to honor the reserve clauses and attempted to poach away many players from AL and NL teams. Not wanting to stick with the Yankees after the pay cut, Ford agreed to jump to the Federal League and joined the Buffalo Buffeds.
Probably due in part to the dilution of talent with a third major league, Ford looked somewhat like his Yankee peak. He led the FL in several different stats in 1914, putting up a 21-6 record, with a 1.82 ERA (180 ERA+), 2.60 FIP, and a 0.934 WHIP, helping Buffalo to a fourth-place finish in the league’s inaugural season. Ford ended the campaign in style by allowing just five hits in a 16-inning shutout victory over the Pittsburgh Rebels.
In his final start in 1914, Russ Ford had perhaps the greatest performance by any Buffalo major-league player, throwing a masterful 16-inning shutout to win his 21st game of the Federal League season. New @SABRGames story: https://t.co/VKHodf8TJS #SABR @BuffaloBisons pic.twitter.com/AF36nWLwUg— SABR (@sabr) August 11, 2020
By 1915, the AL and NL had both started to outlaw the emery ball, and the Federal League soon followed suit. A combination of that and injury issues combined to doom Ford to the worst season of his career. He threw just 127.1 innings, as his ERA ballooned to 4.52. He wouldn’t even last the season, as Buffalo opted to release him in August.
The Federal League would close up shop after the 1915 season, and this time, there wasn’t an AL/NL alternative to pick Ford up when neither major league wanted him. He did play another couple seasons in the minors attempting to get back, spending time with the Denver Bears and the Toledo Iron Men. However, he still wasn’t at his best there, and his playing career would end after the 1917 season. After his playing career, Ford would move near to his wife’s hometown in North Carolina, where he would eventually pass away in 1960 at 76 years of age. Years later, the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame honored the Manitoba-born Ford by inducting him in 1989.
Russ Ford’s prime may have been brief and, well, aided for a foreign substance. However for two years, he was absolutely incredible and a shining light for a Highlanders/Yankees franchise that still hadn’t quite found their footing at the top of the standings.
Staff Rank: 80
Community Rank: 98
Stats Rank: 63
2013 Rank: 69
Morgan, T. Kent, Jones, David. SABR
Belleville, Gary. SABR
B-R Bullpen (Russ Ford)
B-R Bullpen (Federal League)