By Glen Sparks
The New York Times ran an article about Whitey Ford in its Sept. 24 edition, in the wake of Yogi Berra’s death. Who now, writer George Vescey asked, is the greatest living Yankee ballplayer?
Vescey then proceeds to run through this exercise. It is an admittedly morbid one, he writes. After all, the unofficial title only passes from one player to the next after someone’s death. But, it still stands up as an interesting parlor game for baseball fans.
Yes, of course, Babe Ruth held the crown until his untimely passing, from cancer and excess, in 1948 at the age of 53.
Did Mickey Mantle ever claim the tile? Vescey doubts it. Mantle died in 1995 at age 63, from the same two things that killed the Babe. Joe DiMaggio, the regal center-fielder, lived until 1999. So, then—following the Yankee Clipper’s death–the GLYB handle went to Yogi Berra, the three-time MVP and 10-time World Series winner (as a player), maybe the greatest catcher of them all.
Berra died Sept. 22 at the age of 90. Now, Vescey writes, Ford deserves the title of Greatest Living Yankee Ballplayer. He deserves it even over Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Reggie Jackson and Alex Rodriguez, among others.
Edward Charles Ford, 86 years old, never intimidated anyone with his imposing stature. He stood 5-foot-10 in his prime and weighed 175 pounds. He looked like a regular guy. He had blond hair and a ready smile.
Ford compiled a 236-106 won-loss record over his 16-year career, all of it spent with the Yankees. His .690 won-loss percentage ranks him first all-time for post-1900 pitchers with at least 200 wins. He enjoyed seasons of 19-6 (1956), 25-4 (1961, his Cy Young-winning season) and 24-7 (1963).
The left-hander retired with a nifty 2.75 ERA. He did it with a curveball, guile and grace under pressure. “I never threw the spitter, well maybe once or twice when I really needed to get a guy out real bad.” Yankee Elston Howard nicknamed him the Chairman of the Board.
Born in New York City on Oct. 21, 1928, Whitey grew up in Astoria Queens. He took an hour-long bus ride to attend high school at the Manhattan School of Aviation Trades, not because he wanted to fix aircraft engines for a living, but because local Bryant High didn’t field a baseball team.
The Yankees signed Ford for $7,000 in 1947 and assigned him to the Binghamton (N.Y.) Triplets of the Eastern League. The Yankees called him up in 1950, and he went 9-1 with a 2.81 ERA. Following his two years of military service, Ford compiled an 18-6 won-loss mark and 3.00 ERA. Whitey remained in the New York rotation through the 1965 season and retired early in the 1967 campaign.
Ford won more games than anyone in World Series history (10) and lost more Series games than anyone in history. At one point, he accumulated 33 2/3 innings of scoreless innings. He broke the record of 29.2 innings set by Babe Ruth, the pitcher.
In Game 1 of the 1955 World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers, Ford threw eight innings and gave up five runs. Only three of those runs were earned, however, and he picked up the win in a 6-5 Yankee victory.
Manager Casey Stengel put Ford out there for Game Six of the ’55 Series at Yankee Stadium. Brooklyn was now up three games to two. Would the Dodgers celebrate on this day, or could Ford force a Game Seven?
Late-arriving Yankee fans missed much of the fun in Game Six, played on Oct. 3. The Bronx Bombers scored all five of their runs in the first inning off Dodger starter Karl Spooner, who managed to get just one batter out before manager Walt Alston sent him to the showers.
Phil Rizzuto led off the game by walking. Spooner struck out Billy Martin, but walked Gil McDougald. Berra and Hank Bauer followed with RBI singles. Moose Skowron put the game away with a three-run homer. The Yanks held a 5-0 lead after bringing just six men to the plate. Russ Meyer replaced Spooner.
The Yankees didn’t score any more runs the rest of the way. Not that it mattered. Brooklyn managed a lone run, in the top of the fourth. Carl Furillo knocked a single that scored Pee Wee Reese. Ford shut down the Dodgers. He went the whole way in the 5-1 victory. Ford gave up just four hits, walked four and struck out eight.
The Yankees had tied up the Series. The Dodgers had to be muttering to themselves. Not again. Game Seven would be played the next day at Yankee Stadium. Were we headed for one more Yankee championship, or would this finally be the year that the Dodgers win it all?