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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #8 Whitey Ford

The Chairman of the Board led the Yankees to six World Series titles, becoming the greatest starting pitcher in franchise history.

Portrait of Ed Ford

Full Name: Edward Charles ”Whitey” Ford
Position: Starting Pitcher
Born: October 21, 1928 (Manhattan, NY)
Died: October 8, 2020 (Lake Success, NY)
Yankee Years: 1950, 1953-67
Primary number: 16
Yankee statistics: 438 GS, 236-106, 2.75 ERA, 3.26 FIP, 3,170.1 IP, 1,956 K, 75 ERA-, 88 FIP-, 57.0 rWAR, 54.9 fWAR

Biography

Among all the great starting pitchers whose careers have taken them through the Bronx, Whitey Ford stands alone atop the heap. Guidry, Pettitte, Ruffing, Gomez, Sabathia, and countless others, none achieved the level of sustained excellence that the Chairman of the Board brought to the Yankees teams of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Even playing the majority of his career among immortals like Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra, Ford was never overshadowed and often took center stage in the biggest moments of the season.

A crafty and cerebral pitcher, Ford carved out his spot in the inner circle of the greatest lefties to ever pitch on an MLB mound. He captured six World Series titles with the Yankees, making ten All-Star appearances and leading the league in wins three times and ERA twice. An illustrious 16-year career saw him finish as the franchise leader in games started, wins, shutouts, and innings pitched, culminating in the Yankees retiring his No. 16 and enshrinement in the Hall of Fame in 1974.

New York through and through

Yankee Baseball Stars Celebrating Win

Edward Charles Ford was born October 21, 1928, in Manhattan the only child to Jim Ford, an employee at Consolidated Edison, and Edna Ford, a bookkeeper for a local A&P grocery store. Baseball was in Ford’s blood from birth, his father a member the semipro Con Ed company team. Growing up playing baseball on the sandlots next to the Madison Square Garden Bowl or stickball using a Spalding rubber ball and broomstick against the wall of his apartment on 34th, Ford enjoyed the quintessential childhood of every New York kid who dreams of playing for the Yankees. It’s no wonder then that his favorite player was Joe DiMaggio, the young Ford’s morning routine started by checking the box score of the previous night’s game to see how many hits the Yankee Clipper got.

It was this early love of baseball that steered Ford to enroll in the Manhattan School of Aviation Trades. Despite an hour-long bus ride to and from school and a complete lack of interest in aviation or technical subjects, the school he chose had a baseball team, something his local high school could not offer. The team had to practice on a public playground beneath the Queensborough Bridge, and at one point the coach nixed batting practice for left-handed hitters on account of their limited supply of baseballs disappearing over the wall. Undeterred, Ford promised that he would retrieve every baseball he hit out of the park, and so batting practice privileges were restored for the young lefty.

Ford didn’t begin pitching until his junior year, playing mostly first base where he was a roughly .350 hitter. He won six straight games as his high school lost in the city vocational school championship game, but his performances emboldened him to attend a Yankees tryout camp at Yankee Stadium his senior year. Scout Paul Krichell was unconvinced that someone of Ford’s size could stick at first, but was impressed by his throwing arm and even taught the teenager a curveball, which Ford honed playing in the summer for the semipro Thirty-fourth Avenue Boys which he helped found at the age of 13. The team won the Queens-Nassau semipro league with a 36-0 record, Ford pitching every other game. In the New York Journal-American championship game at the Polo Grounds that September, Ford pitched a two-hitter across ten innings, slugging a double in the top of the tenth to break up the opposition’s no-hitter before scoring the winning run. He even struck out the side in the bottom half to earn the 1-0 victory with 18 strikeouts.

Signing for the hometown team

Portrait of Whitey Ford of the New York Yankees Photo by Keystone View Company/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Ford’s MVP showing in the championship game opened the eyes of several local scouts, the Red Sox opening the bidding by offering a $1,000 signing bonus. Not forgetting the local player he met months prior, Krichell offered $5,500, which was eventually upped to $7,000 and just like that, the hometown kid was a Yankee.

Assigned to the Binghamton Triplets in spring training, Ford got his first taste of pro ball playing under manager and legendary Yankees starter Lefty Gomez. Constantly forgetting his new player’s first name, Gomez took to calling Ford “Blondie” and “Whitey” on account of the latter’s shock of fair hair.

During the regular season, Ford pitched for the Yankees of Butler, PA in the Class-C Middle Atlantic League, where he went 13-4 with a 3.84 ERA in 24 starts. This earned him a promotion to the Norfolk Tars in the Class-B Piedmont League, where he improved to 16-8 with a 2.58 ERA, leading the league in complete games (16) and strikeouts (171). An ill-fated excursion to play winter ball in Mexico in 1948 led Ford to contract dysentery, from which he almost died and ended up losing 40 pounds. He returned stateside and lost consciousness while pitching a game in spring training 1949, ultimately spending 19 days in the hospital to recover, which delayed him from rejoining the team. Nonetheless, Ford led the Eastern League in ERA (1.61) and strikeouts (151) pitching for the Class-A Triplets.

Big league call-up

Halfway through the 1950 season, the Yankees were four games out of first, engaged in a tight divisional battle with Detroit, Boston, and Cleveland. Seeing Ford’s success on the farm, the team handed him his major league debut on July 1st, entering in relief of Tommy Byrne with one out in the second. He gave up five runs on seven hits and six walks, but teammate Eddie Lopat and pitching coach Jim Turner discovered he was tipping his pitches and corrected the issue.

The 21-year-old made his first start on July 6th against the Athletics at Yankee Stadium, surrendering four runs through seven in an eventual no-decision thanks to a Yogi Berra walk-off double. He earned his first win on July 17th, pitching into the eighth inning of a 4-3 victory over the White Sox. After a brief demotion to the bullpen, Ford returned to the rotation reinvigorated, twirling a three-hit, complete-game shutout over the Senators.

His first signature Yankees moment arrived on September 16th against the Tigers, who held a half-game lead in the division after splitting the first two games of the series. His complete-game heroics powered an 8-1 win, giving the Yankees a lead in the division that they would not relinquish. Ford would finish the 1950 season 9-1 with a 2.81 ERA, going the distance in 7 of his 12 starts, though he’d end as runner-up to Boston’s Walt Dropo for AL Rookie of the Year. Ford’s talent did not go unnoticed by the eventual winner.

“Right away, I could see this guy was going to be trouble. He was like a master chess player who used his brain to take the bat right out of my hands. You’d start thinking along with him, and then Whitey had you because he never started you off with the same pitch in any one sequence. He could start you with a fastball inside, a curveball outside, then reverse that, or even start you with a changeup. He played games with everybody, every hitter I ever talked to. He made them hit his pitch, and it was usually something they didn’t like.”

Coming up against the Phillies in the World Series, the Yankees won each of the first three games by one run. With a chance to seal a Fall Classic sweep, Ford was brilliant for 8.2 innings before losing the shutout bid on a fly ball that Gene Woodling lost in the sun.

This prompted Stengel to call on Allie Reynolds to a chorus of boos from the Yankee Stadium crowd. Nonetheless, Reynolds struck out pinch-hitter and potential tying run Stan Lopata to secure back-to-back titles for the Bombers.

Drafted into the Army

With the outbreak of the Korean War, Ford enlisted in the Army and reported for basic training on November 19, 1950. He was assigned to the Signal Corps at Fort Monmouth, but after twice falling off a telephone pole was reassigned to become a radar operator. During his two years at Fort Monmouth, Ford pitched for the base’s Signaleers baseball team. Having a World Series star pitch for the team was quite a draw, with as many as 4,000 local fans attending night games for $1 apiece. Seeing this, the fort’s commander demanded that Ford pitch every game — about three to four times per week.

During a 13-day furlough, Ford returned to New York to marry his girlfriend, Joan Foran, whom he had met at an ice cream parlor when he was 16 and she 13 after he family moved to an apartment building across the street from the Fords’ residence in Astoria. Stengel brought the entire Yankees team to attend the wedding, though Mickey Mantle was too shy to get off the bus. Ford boarded the bus to thank all for attending and met Mantle for the first time, after which they would become lifelong friends. Ford was even given leave to throw out the first pitch on Opening Day in 1951 in his army uniform.

Whitey Ford on Mound Throwing Baseball Photo by © Bettmann/CORBIS/Bettmann Archive

Making fast friends

By this point, the rookie southpaw had earned a reputation on the team for a personality that was equal parts cocky and lovable. In addition to the nickname “Whitey,” Ford was called “The Fresh Young Busher” by his veteran teammates and “The Yankee Quipper” for his quick wit and as homage to his idol DiMaggio, whom Ford got to play alongside in his rookie season, the penultimate season of the legend’s career.

Ford had also struck up a fast friendship with teammates Mantle and Billy Martin, and manager Casey Stengel took to calling the trio the “Three Musketeers” and “City Slick” for all of their late nights on the town (Ford would go on to names his autobiography Slick).

“In those early years it was three of us — me, Whitey and Billy Martin,” Mantle said, adding, “They were both brash, outspoken guys, and I could stay in the background.”

Baseball Players Celebrating Victory

The three revelers’ exploits became a thing of legend. It was remarkable that each could go about their business in such a professional manner on the field yet conduct themselves with such reckless abandon off it. This included the infamous 1957 Copacabana incident where Ford and a group of teammates celebrated Martin’s 29th birthday by attending a Sammy Davis Jr. performance at the nightclub. A fight with a local bowling team — said to have been started by Hank Bauer — also in attendance resulted in fines for all involved and Martin’s trade to Kansas City. One is left to wonder what greater feats each of the three men could have achieved if more for a straight-laced lifestyle.

“Hell, if I didn’t drink or smoke, I’d win 20 games every year. It’s easy when you don’t drink or smoke or horse around. It was righteous living, you know. Don’t drink everything in the bottle; leave some for the next guy.”

Rejoining team amidst a dynasty

When Ford returned from the service, the Yankees had won their third and fourth consecutive titles, and the 24-year-old lefty was itching to keep the streak alive. He rejoined a fearsome rotation of Reynolds, Lopat, and Vic Raschi, which would then go on to be known as the “Big Four.” He won seven of his first eight starts that year to start his big league career 16-0 and finished the season 18-6 with a 3.00 ERA, 11 complete games, and three shutouts as the Bombers cruised to another division crown. He made two appearances in the ensuing World Series against the Dodgers, getting tagged for three runs in the first inning of Game 4 before acquitting himself with seven innings of one-run ball in Game 6 as the Yankees won their fifth consecutive title on a walk-off Martin single to drive in Bauer.

Ford endured a rocky start to the 1954 campaign, losing four of his first six decisions, yet still earned his first All-Star selection, where he’d pitch three scoreless innings. As if spurred on by this, Ford closed out the second half 10-2 to finish the season 16-8 with a 2.82 ERA, though the team’s 103 wins were not enough to outlast the red-hot Cleveland club and their 111 wins, so thus the Yankees’ World Series streak was halted at five.

1955 saw Ford get off to a much better start, his 10-4 record and 2.69 ERA at the break earning him another All-Star nod. In the final month of the second half, Ford accomplished a feat the likes of which we will never see again. On September 2nd against the Senators, Ford carried a no-hitter into the seventh before a single scooted through Irv Noren’s legs. Washington would score two unearned runs, but the Yankees held onto a 4-2 victory giving Ford a one-hitter. Two days later, with the Yankees a half-game back of Cleveland, Stengel called on Ford to relieve Bob Turley with two men on in the eighth inning, and Ford delivered, retiring four in a row to nail down the 8-3 victory. With only two more days of rest under his belt, Ford made his regularly scheduled start against Kansas City, again taking a no-hitter into the seventh. A ground-rule double that dunked in in front of Bauer broke up the bid, but Ford would see out the contest as the Yankees won, 2-1, on a bases-loaded walk by Noren in the bottom of the ninth to give Ford consecutive complete-game one-hitters with a relief appearance sandwiched between.

That year’s World Series saw the famous Jackie Robinson steal of home in Game 1, though Ford and Berra always maintained that the throw beat him to the plate.

The Yankees would actually win that contest, 6-5, with Ford pitching eight innings, and he would reprise his role as season savior in Game 6, tossing a complete-game four-hitter, though there was nothing he could do to prevent the Dodgers from capturing their first title in Game 7.

1956 was Ford’s best-ever start to a season, going 6-0 with a 0.83 ERA across his first six starts. However, the mileage had already begun to pile up on the 27-year-old’s body, and he missed a week here, ten games there with back, hand, and shoulder ailments. By the final week of the regular season, Ford had a shot at his first 20-win campaign but was out-dueled by Charlie Beamon making his MLB debut and later declined the opportunity to start on the final day of the season to be better rested for the World Series.

The extra rest did Ford no good as the Yankees dropped the opener, 6-3, but he rebounded with a complete game in Game 3 won, 5-3, by Enos Slaughter’s three-run homer in the seventh.

Don Larsen’s perfect game in Game 5 fully turned the tide in the Bombers’ favor, and they would prevail over the Dodgers in seven games.

The injury issues persisted into 1957 with Ford missing almost two months to a lingering shoulder injury. He made just 17 starts totaling 129.1 innings, going 11-5 with a 2.57 ERA. In that year’s World Series, Ford out-dueled Warren Spahn, tossing a complete game in a 3-1 victory, but lost 1-0 to Lew Burdette in Game 5 as the Braves captured their second title in seven games.

Seemingly on pace for his first 20-win season, an elbow injury in the second half of 1958 cost him the opportunity, though he did finish 14-7 with a league-leading 2.01 ERA and seven shutouts in 219.1 innings. That October, they faced a rematch with the Braves, where Ford came up against Spahn in Games 1 and 4. A pair of Norm Siebern dropped misplayed flyballs in the first contest and a Spahn masterclass in Game 4 saddled Ford with a no-decision and a loss, but the Yankees would rally from down three games to one to steal the series in seven games.

The elbow issues did not go away, costing Ford a handful of starts, though he did finish 16-10 with a 3.04 ERA in 204 innings. This included the best start of Ford’s career — 14 shutout innings with 15 strikeouts in a 1-0 victory over the Senators. Unfortunately, the Yankees would miss the postseason, finishing 15 games back of the White Sox.

From heartbreak in 1960 to elation in 1961

Casey Stengel with Whitey Ford Before World Series Game

With the addition of Roger Maris from Kansas City, the Yankees had renewed hope of returning to the World Series. Unfortunately, the shoulder issues cropped up again, and Ford would finish the year 12-9 with a 3.08 ERA in 192.2 innings. Perhaps the time missed during the regular season contributed to Ford being fresher for the Fall Classic, because he turned in one of the greatest postseason pitching performances in history.

Curiously, Stengel chose not to start his ace in Game 1, preferring to use Ford in the cavernous comforts of Yankee Stadium as opposed to the hitter-friendly Forbes Field. The plan backfired, with starter Art Ditmar getting shelled for three runs in the first of an eventual 6-4 loss. Ford responded with a brilliant four-hit shutout in a 10-0 Game 3 victory followed by a seven-hit shutout in a 12-0 shellacking to force a Game 7. Having pitched the day before, Ford was unavailable and five Yankees pitchers surrendered ten runs, capped off by Bill Mazeroski’s title-winning walk-off home run.

Ford was furious at his manager and many have speculated that the specific handling of the team’s ace led to Stengel’s dismissal five days later.

“Whitey’s like Bob Gibson,” said Bobby Richardson, “They were different pitchers, of course, but both of them were captains of the team, so to speak. They’re the ones you pitched against the tough opponents. Stengel’s excuse was it’s a small ballpark in Pittsburgh. But Whitey pitched his two shutouts, and had he been able to go three, I’m sure it would have been a different ballgame.” “It was the only time I ever got mad at Casey,” Ford wrote, “I was so annoyed at Stengel, I wouldn’t talk to him on the plane ride back to New York.”

1961 brought a new manager and new fortunes for Ford. Ralph Houk, who had previously caught Ford before becoming a coach, offered him the opportunity to pitch every fourth day — as opposed to every fifth, sixth, or even seventh under Stengel, who liked to save him for games against the best teams. The ace happily responded by making 39 brilliant starts. He’d tally his first 20-win campaign, achieving the feat on August 10th, going 25-4 with a 3.21 ERA in 283 innings to capture his lone Cy Young Award.*

*Ford might have contended for others, but 1956 was the first year of the award and they didn’t introduce separate winners by league for another 11 years.

With his historic feat being overshadowed by the Maris-Mantle home run chase, the Yankees honored Ford’s achievement by hosting a Whitey Ford Day at the Stadium. During the festivities, relief ace Luis Arroyo — who preserved many of Ford’s victories coming on in relief in the seventh or eighth — emerged from a six-foot LifeSaver package mounted on a truck. Ever one to credit his teammates, Ford said of his magnificent campaign, “I’ll have a great season if Arroyo’s arm holds out. [He] deserves half my salary.”

In the World Series against the Reds that year, Ford completed his third consecutive shutout, allowing two hits and a walk in the Yankees’ 2-0 Game 1 victory.

The lefty would pitch another five scoreless in his start in Game 5 before a foul ball off his foot forced him from the contest, but by that point, the Babe’s record of consecutive scoreless innings in the World Series from 1918 had been broken. New York would win that game, 7-0, with Ford taking home the World Series MVP.

Later years and admission to ball-doctoring

A slight dip in form followed 1961, with Ford going 17-8 with a 2.90 ERA in 257.2 innings in 1962. He would earn his tenth and final World Series victory with another complete game over the Giants in Game 1, and though he didn’t have his best stuff in Games 4 and 6, the Yankees would capture back-to-back titles in seven games.

1962 World Series: New York Yankees v San Francisco Giants Photo by Herb Scharfman/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

Ford had his first run-in with circulatory issues in his pitching hand in 1963, but it didn’t prevent him from making a full season’s worth of starts. He’d compile his second and final 20-win season, finishing 24-7 with a 2.74 ERA in 269.1 innings, though the Yankees would get swept by the ascendant Sandy Koufax and his Dodgers in the World Series.

Deputized as pitching coach under new manager Berra, 1964 was Ford’s best season from a modern analytics standpoint. He achieved a career-high in fWAR (6.8) and FIP (2.45) on account of limiting hitters to just ten home runs across an absurd 244.2 innings. He finished 17-6 record with a 2.13 ERA, his eight shutouts tying the Yankee record for most in a season, all while dealing with hip and heel ailments. That October against the Cardinals, Ford was forced from Game 1 after losing all feeling in his pitching hand, leaving in the sixth inning with the score tied, 4-4, in what would be his final World Series appearance.

That offseason, he underwent shoulder surgery which severed several nerves in his left shoulder, restoring circulation to his pitching arm by keeping the capillaries permanently open. The procedure bought him a new lease on life, as despite continuing to pitch with reduced feeling in his left hand, he would make 36 starts going 16-13 with a 3.24 ERA in 244.1 innings. One of the side effects of the procedure was an increased sensitization to temperature — his hand would grow numb if it was cold, but the severing of the nerves meant he could not sweat on his left side, so he overheated more easily. Thus, temperate games in the 70s came to be known as “Whitey Ford weather.”

After the end of his career, Ford admitted to doctoring baseballs, though maintained it was something he resorted to only later in his career.

“Talk about adding a yard to your fastball. I didn’t begin cheating until late in my career, when I needed something to help me survive…I didn’t cheat when I won the 25 games in 1961. I don’t want anybody to get any ideas and take my Cy Young Award away. And I didn’t cheat in 1963 when I won 24 games. Well, maybe a little.”

Ford would use a variety of techniques to doctor the baseball, from a spitball to a mudball — surreptitiously applied by Elston Howard at home — to a specialized wedding ring with a rasp on one side.

“There was one time when Whitey was scuffing up the ball and the umpire came out, and he knew. I forget who it was, but he was one of those old-timer guys who’s not going to be a wise guy or a big shot — this is Whitey Ford, he’s one of the greats. A certain amount of respect is due. So he went to the mound and the conversation went, ‘Uh, Whitey, I see the ring there. I tell you what, what you need to do is call time out and go in and change your jock strap. And when you come back, don’t have the ring on.’”

Retirement and legacy

Ford’s arm only let him keep going for so long, and the state of the Yankees in the late ‘60s didn’t exactly encourage him to stick around. He retired after the 1967 season as the franchise record holder for pretty much every pitching category. His .690 winning percentage was the highest of any MLB starter in the 20th century, and he still holds the record for most World Series wins (10), starts (22), innings (146), strikeouts (94), and consecutive scoreless innings (33.2), breaking Babe Ruth’s record from 1918.

His dominance in the Fall Classic led batterymate Howard to coin the nickname “Chairman of the Board,” a sentiment which his teammates and managers echoed.

“Line up all the pitchers in the world in front of me, and give me first choice, and I’d pick Whitey,” Mantle said, “I don’t care what the situation was, how high the stakes were. The bases could be loaded and the pennant riding on every pitch, it never bothered Whitey. He pitched his game. Cool. Crafty. Nerves of steel.” “If you had one game to win and your life depended on it,” Stengel said. “You’d want [Ford] to pitch it.”

Ford became the first Yankees pitcher to earn a number retirement when they set aside No. 16 for good on August 3, 1974 (the same year he was elected to the Hall of Fame). They gave him a Monument Park plaque in 1987, and 13 years after that, they celebrated the 50th anniversary of the year he joined the Bombers with Whitey Ford Day on August 20, 2000.

Alongside Berra, Ford’s appearances at Yankee Stadium remained the high points of the annual Old-Timers’ Day festivities and other first pitch events.

Upon Berra’s passing in 2015, many suggested that Ford had inherited the mantle of “Greatest Living Yankee” and at the very least was the sole living link to those dynasty teams of yore. Ford passed away on October 8, 2020, at his home in Lake Success, NY at the age of 91 while watching the Yankees play in Game 4 of the ALDS.

“I’ve been a Yankee for 53 years,” said Ford in 2000, “and I’ll be a Yankee forever.”

Former New York Yankees’ pitcher Whitey Ford tips his hat to Photo by Ron Antonelli/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Staff rank: 8
Community rank: 9
Stats rank: 10
2013 rank: 8

References

Baseball Reference

FanGraphs

SABR, C. Paul Rogers III

BR Bullpen

Fischer, David, The New York Yankees of the 1950s: Mantle, Stengel, Berra, and a Decade of Dominance. Lyons Press, April 1, 2019.

Marzlock, Ron, “Whitey Ford went from Astoria to Cooperstown.” Queens Chronicle, October 3, 2019.

Markoe, Karen E., “Ford, Edward Charles (Whitey).” Encyclopedia.com.

Sandomir, Richard, “Two one-hitters with a twist of relief.” The New York Times, June 19, 2012.

Botte, Peter, “Book excerpt: The life and times of Whitey Ford.” New York Post, October 9, 2020.

Kepner, Tyler, “In a golden era for the Yankees, the mound belonged to Whitey Ford.” The New York Times, October 9, 2020.

Previously on the Top 100

9. Bill Dickey
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