November 21, 2018

Whitey Ford, Chairman of the Board and the Greatest Living Yankee

October 21, 2018 by · 3 Comments 

There is something magical, lyrical even, about the man and his moniker.

Whitey Ford.

Chairman of the Board.

For longtime Yankees fans, the native New Yorker – Ford was born in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens and will turn 90 on Oct. 21 – is not only the “Greatest Living Yankee,” he is as synonymous with October baseball in the Bronx as red, white and blue bunting flapping from the famous facade in the fall breeze and dramatic, late-afternoon shadows extending across expansive Death Valley in left field.

Fifty-four years following his final pitch in a Fall Classic, Ford’s 10 World Series wins remains a record. In his prime he was quietly cocky, assuring teammates as he climbed the mound for big games, “Never fear. Whitey’s here.”

Mickey Mantle knew that no matter the situation and how high the stakes, even if the bases were loaded and the pennant riding on every pitch, “it never bothered Whitey. He pitched his game.”

Ford’s game was guile and guts. Like another future Yankees Hall of Famer, Catfish Hunter, Ford didn’t own an overpowering fastball; and like the Catfish, Whitey relied on intelligence, instincts and superb control. Ford’s first manager with the Yankees, Casey Stengel, called Whitey “Slick,” as in “Whiskey Slick,” but the nickname could also be applied to the little left-hander’s approach to pitching.

“You would be amazed,” Ford once said, “how many important outs you can get by working the count to where the hitter is sure you’re going to throw to his weakness and then throw to his power instead.”

Ford was the money pitcher for Yankees Dynasty III, which stretched from 1949-64. Called up to the big club in 1950, Whitey was a 21-year-old kid when he went 9-1 to help the Yanks claim the American League pennant. In his first World Series game, the confident Ford held Philadelphia’s famed “Whiz Kids” Phillies scoreless for 8 innings and earned the victory in an eventual 5-2 final to complete a four-game sweep.

Asked afterwards if he was nervous pitching his first Series game, Ford issued a jaunty grin. “I never get nervous,” he said.

At the time, Ford was the fourth starter in a fearsome rotation that included Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi and Eddie Lopat. In time, Whitey would emerge as the ace, not just of the Yankees but of all World Series pitchers of his era. Ford was a fixture of the Fall Classic, taking the mound in seven National League ballparks – Candlestick Park, Crosley Field, Dodger Stadium, Ebbets Field, Forbes Field, Milwaukee County Stadium, and Sportsman’s Park.

Yankees catcher Elston Howard nicknamed Ford the “Chairman of the Board” as testament to Whitey’s calmness and composure amid even the greatest pressure situations. In 1961, the celebrated Chairman broke Babe Ruth’s World Series record of 29 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings. Afterwards, Whitey winked and joked, “Maybe I’ll go after some of the Babe’s batting records.” Ford stretched his streak to 33 1/3 in 1962, a mark Mariano Rivera surpassed in postseason innings in 2000 but will likely never be broken as a World Series record.

For all of his hard living with Mantle and Billy Martin, Ford became hard-eyed on days he pitched. Games were grim stuff; his stomach would tighten and he sweated off some eight pounds per start.

“On the day I pitch, it’s me against the other guys,” he said. “Nothing is funny to me then.”

Blue-eyed and blonde haired – his minor league manager, former Yankees ace and future Hall of Famer Lefty Gomez, nicknamed him “Whitey” because of his platinum hair – Edward Charles Ford had a curled lower lip and sturdy left arm. He played first base on New York sandlot teams but switched to pitching because at 5-10 and 140 pounds he was too small to reach the big leagues as a corner infielder.

Ford eventually filled out into a 175-pound frame, but compared to strapping Bronx Bombers Mantle, Roger Maris, Howard, et al., Whitey was the little big man who toed the rubber every fourth or fifth day. Fans loved his chip-on-the-shoulder aggressiveness.

So, too, did the Yankees, who despite their pinstriped, corporate image, appreciated gritty, Gashouse Gang-style hardball. Whitey was a natural Gashouse type, a guy who would have fit right in with Dizzy and Daffy Dean, Pepper Martin, Leo the Lip Durocher, Ducky Medwick and the rest of the irreverent Redbirds of the Depression.

Ford later angered Dean when, following a World Series victory over yet another National League club, Whitey spotted Diz in the hotel lobby and breezily remarked, “Now I know how you won 30 games in that bush league.”

Like Diz’s Gashouse Gang Cardinals, Ford, a city kid schooled in Manhattan, was not afraid to play country hardball. Covering first base on a grounder hit by huge Luke Easter of the Indians, Ford hustled to reach the bag and was in an awkward position when he took the throw from second baseman Jerry Coleman. Easter’s collision with Whitey reverberated throughout the stadium, but Ford hauled himself up from the dirt, held the ball triumphantly aloft to show the umpires he had held onto it and then quickly fired to third ahead of Allie Clark, who was trying to take an extra base amid the confusion.

Confusion reigned among batters facing Ford. Ted Williams, the greatest hitter in Ford’s era, struggled to solve Whitey. Ford beguiled hitters with a lively fastball, good curve and solid changeup. His greatest weapon was his control; he put the ball where he wanted. He knew hitters as well as any pitcher in baseball and rarely made mistakes.

Longtime battery mate Yogi Berra said once, “Whitey Ford … could throw a strike, three and two, with any number of his pitches.” Berra could call for a change up, a fastball, a slider, anything on a three-and-two count and the Chairman could throw it overhand, three-quarters or side arm. Ford had three different arm angles that would confuse a batter and five different pitches. Hitters never knew what to expect.

Ford believed his greatest asset as a pitcher was knowing the batters. It was something he learned from Lopat, who knew every hitter’s weakness. Ford would watch batters from the bench, would talk to Yankees pitching coach Jim Turner, and talk with other pitchers. Ford would watch and learn, and in turn, watching Whitey work would become a thing of beauty.

Hitters who knew Ford were aware that he liked to get the first pitch in on them, so they would swing at his initial offering. Knowing this, Whitey would start them off with a good curve, something the hitter would go for but wasn’t too good of a pitch; a tantalizing curve that would be a little low and a little inside.

Ford would follow with a fastball that was inside and across the chest. Often ahead in the count 0-1, Whitey wasn’t seeking a strike on his next pitch and didn’t want the hitter to get around on his fastball so he would keep the pitch inside, close to the hitter.

With the count even at 1-1, the Chairman would try a changeup just to upset the hitter’s timing. Even it missed, the count was just 2-1. Knowing the batter wouldn’t expect it, Ford would come back with a fastball right down the middle of the plate. Brooklyn Dodgers announcer Vin Scully observed once that Ford’s fastball ran belt-high to the knees and ran away on some hitters and inside on others. Either way, Scully said, Ford’s fastball was “alive.”

With the count even again at two-and-two, Whitey would snap off a good curve, the Chairman putting everything he had behind the pitch.

Ford was confident in his ability to throw his curve in a tight spot. Not many pitchers have the confidence or skill do that. When they fall behind in the count, they heave fastballs across the plate. Minus the overpowering speed of some of his contemporaries – Bob Feller, Herb Score, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson – Ford pitched to spots.

He excelled in the essence of pitching: Keep batters off balance, keep them guessing. Owning an Empire State of mind, Ford was unflappable; on the game’s biggest stage he was tight-lipped and all concentration. He dealt pitches with the airy confidence of a Vegas Blackjack dealer who knows opponents are trying to the beat the house. In Ford’s case, it was the “House that Ruth Built” – Yankee Stadium with its imposing monuments in faraway center field; its tradition and the ghosts of the game’s greats.

Ford, Mantle, Maris and Berra formed the heart of the Yankees’ dynasty in the early ’60s. Whitey’s World Series records include being the only pitcher to start Game One four straight seasons, a feat he achieved twice (1955-58; 1961-64). Stengel’s curious decision to hold back Ford until Game 3 of the 1960 Series against underdog Pittsburgh likely cost the Yankees the title and definitely cost Stengel his job. Ford started Games 3 and 6 and blanked the Bucs both times.

Ford’s consecutive starts mark has been approached just once since, by another southpaw, Ken Holtzman, who started three straight World Series openers (1972-74) for the Oakland A’s.

Ford’s 236 victories remain a Yankees record; his .690 winning percentage is still the highest in modern history among hurlers with at least 300 decisions. Whitey’s 2.75 career earned run average is second only to Clayton Kershaw (2.39) among starting pitchers since 1920.

Ford not only faced Williams and the AL’s top hitters each summer, come October the Chairman of the Board battled the best batsmen of the National League – Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Willie McCovey, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, Lou Brock, Curt Flood, Orlando Cepeda, Eddie Mathews, Richie Ashburn, et al.

Even against this offensive armada, Whitey’s World Series ERA of 2.71 was lower than his regular season ERA. It needed to be, since Ford often dueled the top hurlers in the NL – Koufax, Warren Spahn, Juan Marichal, Don Newcombe, Lew Burdette, Sal Maglie.

Whitey won 25 games in his Cy Young season of 1961; 24 in ’63. He won 16 or more games an additional eight times and likely would have won 20 or more on several of those occasions had Stengel pitched him every fourth day and not used him primarily to face the Yankees’ most dangerous opponents. Even under such circumstances, Ford still led the league in ERA twice, including a 2.01 mark in 1958, and was sub 3.00 in 11 of his 16 seasons.

There is a wonderful symmetry about Ford’s career. He wore number 16 and pitched 16 seasons; his 25 wins and Cy Young season came in ’61, the inverse of his uniform number.

Like Frank Sinatra, the other man who bears the moniker of Chairman of the Board, Whitey is the quintessential New Yorker. He grew up in the shadow of Yankee Stadium; in peak performances he burned as brightly as Times Square.

“New York, New York” could be as much Ford’s anthem as Frank’s. The native New Yorker knew if he could make it here he could make it anywhere. The kid from Queens made it, becoming as much a marquee name as any on Broadway.

Like Sinatra, Ford was king of the hill, top of the heap. He personified the bright lights, big city success story. For that, Whitey Ford will forever be synonymous with October baseball in the Bronx.

Comments

3 Responses to “Whitey Ford, Chairman of the Board and the Greatest Living Yankee”
  1. Vinnie says:

    Two minor details. Whitey and Joe Gordon never played together. Second, he had a very hard time getting Mays out. You can look it up.

  2. Cliff Blau says:

    As you can see in this photo: https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/thousands-of-fans-watched-the-new-york-yankees-defeat-the-news-photo/146117849 the bunting didn’t hang from the facade, which is the outside of the building, but from the facing of the upper deck inside the park.

    Also, you refer to a third Yankees dynasty, but there’s only been one dynasty in baseball history, and that was the Yankees from 1921-1964. Dynasties last for generations, not a few years.

    In reference to that alleged double play against the Indians, it could only have come in 1950, since Allie Clark left the Tribe early in 1951 when Whitey was in the military. He pitched twice against Cleveland that year, and neither game featured such a double play.

    Lastly, Casey didn’t use Whitey primarily against the Yankees’ toughest opponents. He used him where he’d be most effective. He pitched often against the weak Washington Nationals, because their park had a distant LF fence, like Yankee Stadium.

  3. Ed Gruver says:

    “Facade” has been used numerous times, including by the New York Times, as another word for the frieze that crowned the upper deck in the original Yankee Stadium. There are countless photos of bunting hanging from the facade/frieze during World Series games, including this one from a 2009 article about the “distinctive facade” being recreated for the new stadium: https://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/15/sports/baseball/15facade.html

    The use of the word “dynasty” in sports history is vastly different than its usage in world history. There aren’t any Ming dynasties in sports, but the Oakland A’s and Cincinnati Reds of the 1970s are routinely referred to as dynasties by sports historians, as are the Yankees of the late 1990s. In the NFL, the Packers of the ’60s, Steelers of the ’70s, and 49ers of the ’80s are all commonly described as “dynasties.” As are the Celtics of the ’60s, Lakers of the ’80s and Bulls of the ’90s in the NBA, and the Canadiens of the ’70s, Islanders and Oilers of the ’80s in the NHL.

    In reference to Ford’s play on Cleveland’s Allie Clark at 3B, it occurred in an August 30, 1950 game matching Ford and Feller at Yankee Stadium.

    Through the years I’ve spoken withs several Yankees from the 1950s and 60s, including Mantle, and to a man they’ve spoken of Stengel spot-starting Ford against the Yankees’ top contenders. The same has been reported numerous times, including a Sports Illustrated article on Ford in 1956, which states that Stengel started Ford against the toughest pitchers and toughest clubs in key games the Yanks had to win. An example is that under Stengel, Ford faced the White Sox, a top rival of the Yankees in the ’50s, numerous times. Ford excelled at stopping the opponent’s running game, and that was crucial against Aparicio, Minoso and the White Sox.

    Lastly, you state that Ford pitched often against the Washington Nationals. I assume you mean the Senators, since the Nationals have been a National League franchise since their inaugural season in 1969 as the Montreal Expos and only came into existence as the re-named Nationals in 2005.

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