Remembering Whitey Ford, the Chairman of the Board (1928-2020)

He was born in Manhattan and raised in Queens, but it was in the Bronx where Edward Charles Ford made his name — “Whitey,” just one of several colorful nicknames — as the most successful pitcher in Yankees history. Amid the team’s longest run of American League dominance, the street-wise, fair-haired southpaw set several franchise records during his 1950-67 run, and carved a spot among the league’s elite, making 10 All-Star teams, leading the American League in pitching triple crown categories five times, and winning a Cy Young award. A near-ubiquitous presence in October, he also set numerous World Series records that still stand and are probably unbreakable given the expansion of the postseason field; he pitched in 11 World Series, six on the winning side, and his count would have been even higher if not for a two-year military stint. In 1974, he was elected to the Hall of Fame alongside teammate and longtime friend Mickey Mantle.

Ford died on October 8 at his home in Long Island. He was 91 years old, and had been suffering the effect of Alzheimer’s disease in recent years. He was the second-oldest surviving Hall of Famer at the time of his death, with Tommy Lasorda the oldest. He’s the fifth Hall of Famer to pass away in 2020, after Al Kaline, Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, and Bob Gibson, and as I write this, news of the death of a sixth, Joe Morgan, has just been reported. It’s been a very tough year for baseball legends.

Standing just 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, Ford measures up physically as the shortest of the post-World War II pitchers elected to the Hall, but what he lacked in brawn, he made up for in brains. The prototypical crafty lefty, Ford “delivered his assortment of breaking stuff (including a devastating spitball, enemy batters claimed) and inside fastballs with commanding intelligence,” wrote Roger Angell in a 1989 New Yorker piece. “He was brusque and imperturbable on the mound — the Chairman of the Board — and light-hearted in the clubhouse. Say ‘Whitey Ford‘ to a fan over forty-five and east of Altoona, and the sun will come out.”

“He never throws a pitch without a purpose,” said pitching coach Johnny Sain in 1961, Ford’s Cy Young-winning season and his biggest one statistically. “He’s always bearing down, never careless.”

“Whitey, you never saw him in a bad mood,” said former teammate Roy White on the occasion of Ford’s 90th birthday. “He always had a smile on his face. Good at a joke, a funny guy.”

Ford won 236 games in the majors, against just 106 losses; his .690 winning percentage is the highest for any pitcher with at least 300 decisions (Clayton Kershaw is at .697 through 251 decisions). Obviously, such a stat depends heavily upon the support of teammates, and for Ford that included a robust offense that provided him with support 13 percent above the park-adjusted league average during his career, and a defense that helped him post a 2.75 ERA, more than half a run lower than his 3.26 FIP; he could thank sluggers like Mantle, Roger Maris, and Yogi Berra for the former, and fielding wizards like Clete Boyer, Tony Kubek, and Gil McDougald for the latter. In that regard, he was the right man in the right place at the right time. In his biggest years, he led the AL in wins while posting eye-opening records like 25-4 (1961), 24-7 (’63), and 18-7 (’55). Only twice did he ever lose even 10 games in a season.

That’s not to say that Ford wasn’t skilled in preventing runs. His 133 ERA+ is in a virtual tie for 10th among pitchers with at least 3,000 innings:

Career Leaders in ERA+
Pitcher Years IP ERA ERA+
Lefty Grove 1925-1941 3940.2 3.06 148
Walter Johnson 1907-1927 5914.1 2.17 147
Roger Clemens 1984-2007 4916.2 3.12 143
Kid Nichols 1890-1906 5067.1 2.96 139
Cy Young 1890-1911 7356.0 2.63 138
Mordecai Brown 1903-1916 3172.1 2.06 138
Christy Mathewson 1900-1916 4788.2 2.13 136
Pete Alexander 1911-1930 5190.0 2.56 135
Randy Johnson 1988-2009 4135.1 3.29 135
John Clarkson 1882-1894 4536.1 2.81 133
Whitey Ford 1950-1967 3170.1 2.75 133
Greg Maddux 1986-2008 5008.1 3.16 132
Carl Hubbell 1928-1943 3590.1 2.98 130
Amos Rusie 1889-1901 3778.2 3.07 129
Stan Coveleski 1912-1928 3082.0 2.89 127
Bob Gibson 1959-1975 3884.1 2.91 127
Tom Seaver 1967-1986 4783.0 2.86 127
Kevin Brown 1986-2005 3256.1 3.28 127
Curt Schilling 1988-2007 3261.0 3.46 127
Tim Keefe 1880-1893 5049.2 2.63 126
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

While Ford never led the AL in strikeouts, he placed among the AL’s top 10 10 times; likewise with regards to the fielding-independent rate stats, he placed among the AL’s top 10 in strikeouts per nine innings seven times, in walks per nine six times, and in home runs per nine nine times, with half a dozen top-five finishes in those three categories. He does not fare particularly well in JAWS, or the Baseball-Reference version of WAR due to its defensive adjustments, but he’s 21st among post World War II pitchers by FanGraphs’ RA9-WAR, ranked between John Smoltz and Justin Verlander.

In the World Series, Ford holds the career records for starts (22), innings (146), wins (10), losses (eight), walks (34), and strikeouts (94). His three shutouts are second only to Christy Mathewson’s four, while his streak of 33.2 consecutive scoreless innings from 1960-62 is tops; he broke Babe Ruth’s record of 29.2 during the 1961 World Series, in which he shut out the Reds twice and was named MVP. Of the record, he told reporters, “I had thought [Ruth] was a lousy pitcher who they made into a hitter. I looked at the Baseball Encyclopedia one day and was stunned at what I found out.”

Unfortunately for Ford, his best World Series didn’t always align with his teammates’ best performances; the Yankees lost three of the five World Series in which he posted ERAs of 2.12 or lower, and won four of six when his ERA was 4.11 or higher. He went 2-0 with a 2.12 ERA in a losing cause against the Dodgers in 1955, 1-1 with a 1.12 ERA in defeat against the Braves in ’57, and 2-0 with 18 scoreless innings in falling to the Pirates in 1960.

Ford was born in New York City on October 21, 1928, the only child of father Jim, who worked at Consolidated Edison and played on the company baseball team, and mother Edna, who was a bookkeeper for an A&P grocery store. The family lived in Manhattan until their son was five years old, at which point they moved to Astoria, Queens. Ford grew up a Yankees fan, idolizing Joe DiMaggio, his future teammate. He played stickball and sandlot ball, recounting to Angell stories of getting to bat fifty times in a day while playing until dark after organized YMCA or PAL games with a team called the Thirty-Fourth Avenue Boys.

Ford chose his high school, Manhattan School of Aviation, not because he wanted to be an aviation mechanic but because it had a baseball team, where his local high school did not; he took hour-long bus rides each way. Despite standing only 5-foot-9 at the time, he played mostly first base until his junior year, when he began pitching. At a Yankees tryout camp in April 1946, legendary scout Paul Krichell — famous for signing Hall of Famers Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, and Phil Rizzuto, among others — noticed Ford’s strong arm and minimal stature and taught him how to throw a curveball. He continued to pitch during his senior year of high school, and in the summer helped the Thirty-Fourth Avenue Boys win the Queens-Nassau League. He caught the eye of scouts from the Yankees, Dodgers, Giants, and Red Sox by pitching an 11-inning 1-0 shutout in the championship game played at the Polo Grounds. A bidding war ensued, with the Yankees signing Ford for a $7,000 bonus.

Ford began his professional career in 1947, initially under the auspices of former Yankees great (and future Hall of Famer) Lefty Gomez, then manager of the Class A Binghamton Triplets of the Eastern League; he’s the one who bestowed the nickname “Whitey,” though it didn’t fully take until a few years later. Ford was eventually sent to the Butler (Pennsylvania) Yankees of the Class C Middle Atlantic League, where he went 13-4 with a 3.84 ERA. He improved to 16-8 with a 2.58 ERA for the Norfolk Tars of the Class B Piedmont League the next year, and after missing the first six weeks of the 1949 season due to dysentery — which he contracted while playing winter ball in Mexico — he went 16-5 with league bests in ERA (1.61) and strikeouts (158) for the Triplets, who alas were no longer managed by Gomez.

In spring training with the defending champion Yankees in 1950, the cocky Ford earned another nickname, “The Fresh Young Busher,” and rejected the instructions of veteran Eddie Lopat, who had been assigned to mentor him. After spending half of the season with the team’s Triple-A Kansas City affiliate — not to be confused with the future Kansas City A’s, whom they would treat like an affiliate with a series of lopsided trades in the late 1950s and early ’60s — the 21-year-old Ford was called up to the majors. He debuted on July 1, 1950, throwing 4.2 innings of rough relief against the Red Sox and allowing five runs on seven hits and six walks; he later learned that Red Sox first base coach Earle Combs (a teammate of Ruth and Gehrig, and a future Hall of Famer himself) had been picking up his pitches, and worked to correct that. He made his first start five days later, notched his first win in his next turn on July 17 against the White Sox, and bounced back and forth between the bullpen and the rotation, in part because manager Casey Stengel at that point preferred to use him against second-division teams; that year’s AL race featured four teams with 92 or more wins and four with 67 or fewer.

Ford soon gained Stengel’s trust, and at one point completed seven out of eight starts — including one on September 16 against the Tigers, whom they overtook for first place — with two shutouts. He finished the year 9-1 with a 2.81 ERA in 112 innings, and drew the Game 4 start in the World Series against the Phillies. With a chance to complete a sweep, Ford turned in 8.2 innings before allowing two runs, both unearned. The Yankees won 5-2. “The Stengel towhead may be beardless,” wrote the New York Times‘ Arthur Daley, “but he has the brass of a burglar.”

Marveling at Ford’s poise and control, Stengel told UPI reporter Milton Richman, “You don’t find pitchers like him every day — and if you do, please let me know where they are.”

At 21 years and 351 days, Ford was the youngest pitcher to win a World Series clincher until the Royals Bret Saberhagen snuck past him in 1985. He finished second in that year’s AL Rookie of the Year voting behind the Red Sox’s Walt Dropo.

Alas, the draft-eligible Ford was told to report to basic training in November, and then was stationed at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, working as a radar operator and pitching for the baseball team; he quit the latter when the base commander expected him to pitch three times a week, though he did stay in shape by pitching for the Monmouth Beach Tavern softball team. He missed all of the 1951 and ’52 seasons while serving in the Army, during which the Yankees won back-to-back championships. When he returned in 1953, Stengel eased Ford back into duty, first using him out of the bullpen, but soon enough he was in the rotation. He threw a one-hit shutout against the Indians on May 12, and on July 3, pitched a two-hit shutout against the A’s, though that start was sandwiched around two starts in which he lasted an inning or less. He finished the season 18-6 with 3.00 ERA as the Yankees won the pennant going away, and started Game 4 of the World Series at Ebbets Field. The Dodgers chased Ford after a three-run first inning, but two days later, with a chance to clinch, he delivered seven innings of one-run ball in what turned out to be a 4-3 win.

Though they won 103 games in 1954, the Yankees’ string of five straight championships came to an end, as the 111-win Indians ran away with the pennant. Ford, who reported to camp out of shape, struggled early, getting hit for a 6.93 ERA through his first seven appearances and again struggling with tipping his pitches. He got it together in time to not only make his first All-Star team but start (the first of three times he’d have the honor), throwing three scoreless innings, and finished the season 16-8 with a 2.82 ERA. He helped the Yankees back to the World Series in 1955 while posting the league’s second-lowest ERA (2.63), and in September threw one-hitters in consecutive starts against the Senators and A’s, both broken up in the seventh inning. In the World Series against the Dodgers, he notched wins in both Game 1 — his first of a record eight such assignments — and 6, the latter a four-hit complete game, though Dem Bums prevailed in Game 7.

Ford began the 1956 season with six straight complete-game wins and an 0.83 ERA; a couple of minor injuries prevented him from reaching 20 wins for the first time (he finished 19-6) but he did lead the league with a 2.47 ERA. After getting knocked out after three innings in the World Series opener, he rebounded with a complete-game win in Game 3, a must-win as the Dodgers had taken the first two games. This time, the Yankees prevailed in seven.

By this time, Ford, Mantle, and Billy Martin gained a reputation for their enjoyment of the nightlife. Stengel called the trio “whiskey slick” while reprimanding them, and the nickname “Slick” stuck for Ford, so much so that it became the title of his 1987 autobiography. “They were both brash, outspoken guys, and I could stay in the background,” Mantle said of Ford and Martin at the 1974 induction. The trio’s time together ended in mid-1957, when Martin was traded to Kansas City in the aftermath of an infamous brawl at the Copacabana nightclub.

Despite shoulder problems that limited him to 24 appearances and 17 starts in 1957, and kept him off the All-Star team for the only time between 1954 and ’61, Ford remained the Yankees most reliable starter. From 1953-60, he averaged 205 innings and 16 wins a year, with a 2.70 ERA (136 ERA+). He was rarely ridden hard, topping 30 starts only in ’55. Stengel frequently saved him for the Yankees’ top competitors; per researcher Jason Brannon, under Stengel, Ford made 81 starts against the AL’s top two teams (besides the Yankees) in that span but just 58 against the bottom two. The strategy continued to work like a charm; Ford won another ERA title in 1958 (2.01), and the Yankees won pennants in ’57, ’58 and ’60, though only in the middle year of that trio did they win the World Series. Don’t blame Ford, who posted a 1.64 ERA in seven World Series starts across that stretch, including shutouts in Games 3 and 6 in 1960 agains the Pirates, both lopsided affairs.

Though Stengel had guided the Yankees to 10 pennants, seven championships, and an average of 96 wins in his 12 years at the helm, the Yankees parted ways with him out of concern for his advancing age. Said the manager, “I’ll never make the mistake of being 70 again.” First base coach and former backup catcher Ralph Houk took the reins, and asked Ford if he’d prefer to pitch every fourth day; frustrated by having never won 20 games, Ford agreed. On a 109-53 powerhouse that featured Maris and Mantle chasing Ruth’s single-season home run mark, the 32-year-old Ford led the league with 39 starts, 283 innings, and 25 wins, all career highs. He set a career best with 209 strikeouts as well, thanks in part to Sain, who suggested a slight alteration to the way he threw a slider, enabling him to rely upon it more.

Ford capped his season with 14 scoreless innings in the World Series against the Reds, via a series-opening two-hit shutout and five additional scoreless innings in Game 4; he broke Ruth’s record, but when he fouled a ball off his ankle, he was forced from the game. The Yankees won, clinched the Series the next day, and Ford was named MVP. Additionally, he beat out Warren Spahn for the Cy Young award, that at a time when the majors only gave out one (which would be the case until 1967).

Ford continued to thrive under the heavier workloads, averaging 37 starts, 257 innings, 19 wins, and a 2.60 ERA from 1962-64. His biggest year in that span was his 24-win season in 1963, when he threw a league-high 269.1 innings, though he also turned in a 2.13 ERA in 1964, good for third in the league in the year he made his final All-Star appearance. By this point, having lost a little velocity, he wasn’t above doctoring the ball, using a wedding ring with a piece of a rasp welded to it to create a gouge, or having catcher Elston Howard cut the ball on his shinguards, or loading up a little mud. In Ball Four, former teammates Jim Bouton and Fred Talbot discussed Ford’s detour into the dark arts, with the latter saying, “If [American League president Joe] Cronin’s name wasn’t stamped on the ball straight, he could make it drop.” Ford himself finally came clean in a 1977 book, Whitey and Mickey.

The Yankees continued to make their annual trips to the World Series, beating the Giants in seven games in 1962 (during which Ford pitched a 10-hit complete game in the opener for his 10th and final Series win), getting swept by the Dodgers in ’63 (Koufax outpitched him twice), and losing a seven-game classic to the Cardinals in ’64, the year that Berra managed the team, with the 35-year-old Ford adding the additional duties of pitching coach. Early in the year, Ford reeled off 10 straight wins, six via shutouts; the first one, on April 22 against the White Sox, was career win number 200. By midseason, he was hampered by a calcium deposit in his hip, and at one point went nearly six weeks between wins, but he was money down the stretch. On August 25, with the Yankees in third place, two games behind the White Sox and five behind the Orioles, he began an 8-2, 1.55 ERA skein, helping the team win a close three-way race.

Ford started Game 1 of the World Series opposite Gibson, but was touched for five runs and chased in the sixth inning. He didn’t pitch again due to numbness in his left hand, which turned out to be caused by a blockage in an artery in his left arm. The Yankees kept the problem a secret, citing the reinjury of his right heel as his reason for not pitching; he was a bystander for the remainder of the Series, and underwent surgery in November.

No longer the pitching coach as the Yankees replaced Berra with Cardinals manager Johnny Keane, Ford returned to a full workload in 1965. He struggled in colder weather, didn’t have complete feeling in his left arm, and couldn’t sweat on his left side due to his surgical procedure. Nonetheless, he went 16-13 with a 3.24 ERA for a team that sank to 77-85; nobody knew it at the time, but the Yankees would not reach the World Series again until 1976. The team continued to decline, and Ford, despite another surgery to correct his circulatory woes, was beset by elbow problems. The 127 innings he threw in 1966-67 were high quality (2.15 ERA, 151 ERA+), but when a bone spur suggested yet another trip to the operating table would be necessary, he instead announced his retirement on May 30, 1967. “I came here in 1950 wearing $50 suits and I’m leaving wearing $200 suits. So I guess I’m doing all right,” joked Ford as he held back tears.

Ford spent the rest of the 1967 season as a special assignment scout, and ’68 as Houk’s first-base coach. Pain-free while frequently throwing batting practice to Yankees hitters, he mulled a comeback, and even pitched a perfect inning against the Mets in the annual Mayor’s Trophy exhibition game on May 27, and three months later threw three scoreless innings and struck out five in an exhibition game against the Yankees’ Triple-A Syracuse affiliate (position players Rocky Colavito and Gene Michael also pitched). “I came so close to saying I should try pitching again, but I didn’t do it. I would only have been kidding myself,” Ford wrote later. He left the team at the end of the season to concentrate on outside business interests.

First eligible for the Hall of Fame in 1973, Ford landed on a ballot with Spahn, who had far superior career totals (363 wins, 2,583 strikeouts) and who had his eligibility delayed by brief cameos in Mexico and the minors. Spahn received 83.2% of the vote, with Ford receiving 67.1%. “The only thing I’m mad about,” he told reporters, “was that they called me at 8 o’clock in the morning to give me the bad news.” Though he worried that Mantle would steal votes from him the next year, the two ex-teammates and friends were elected and inducted side by side.

“I know it wouldn’t mean as much to me if Whitey wasn’t going in with me,” said Mantle in reaction to the news. Ford agreed that the wait was worth it.

In addition to his election, Ford became the first Yankees pitcher to have his jersey number (16) retired in 1974. He spent 1974-75 as the team’s pitching coach; though health issues forced him to stop, thereafter he was a perennial presence as a spring training instructor. He briefly dabbled in broadcasting with the expansion Toronto Blue Jays in 1977. The Yankees added a plaque in his honor in Monument Park in 1987.

Ford battled health issues in his later years, including multiple brain tumors, but he was often on hand at Yankee Stadium for ceremonial first pitches, the team hopeful his big-game mojo would rub off on those around him. As Stengel often said, “If you only had one game to win and your life depended on it, you’d want him to pitch.”

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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3 years ago

You might want to check your pitching dates for Coveleskie and Gibson.

3 years ago
Reply to  Jay Jaffe

There’s another date thing you should correct. When discussing Ford’s World Series performance you wrote:

“2-0 with 14 scoreless innings in falling to the Pirates in 1960. ”

As you point out later Ford pitched two complete game shutouts against the Bucs in 1960. The 14 scoreless innings were against the Reds in 1961.

Otherwise, excellent as always.