Whitey Ford, RIP: The Chairman takes his leave

“A couple of New York kids who made good,” Sandy Koufax’s biographer said of Koufax (Brooklyn-born) and Whitey Ford (Manhattan-born, Queens-raised), here sharing a handshake before Game One of the 1963 World Series.

When Jane Leavy researched and interviewed for her splendid biography of Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, she discovered something about then-U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky. Pinsky had an animus against Koufax’s fellow Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford.

Ford, who died Thursday at 91, was Leavy’s girlhood hero. Pinsky’s poem “Night Game” addresses Ford and Koufax, who met twice in the 1963 World Series with Koufax beating Ford twice. But over a decade earlier, Pinsky as a boy waited at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey to get Ford’s autograph.

Ford then was an emerging Yankee hero, a second place 1950 American League Rookie of the Year finisher who’d rolled a 2.51 ERA after his June call-up and beat Hall of Famer Robin Roberts to finish the Yankees’ World Series sweep of the Philadelphia Phillies’ “Whiz Kids” pennant winner.

Now, Ford pitched for the Army Signal Corps to fulfill his military obligation of the time. When Pinsky finally got to face Ford and asked for the autograph, Ford replied, “Not now, kid.”

When Pinsky told the story to Leavy while talking about “Night Game,” she called Koufax the morning after. After a couple of moments’ silence on the other end of the line, she noted, Koufax asked her, “Do you think he’d like a ball?” Two weeks later, Pinsky received the ball, autographed by Koufax and accompanied by a small, handwritten note saying, only, “Whitey’s really a good guy.”

“Ford subsequently redeemed himself in Pinsky’s estimation,” Leavy wrote, “with a plaintive, if belated, explanation for his youthful rudeness: ‘Soldiers don’t give autographs.’ (And in mine by asking for a copy of Pinsky’s poem. ‘He wrote nice about Sandy?’ Whitey said. ‘I’d like to see that.’)”

This was the same Whitey Ford who had a classic reaction when Koufax, winner of a spanking new Corvette as the 1963 World Series’s Most Valuable Player, left the awards banquet to discover the car parked on the sidewalk . . .with a $15 parking ticket attached to the windshield. “Sandy has only two flaws,” Ford cracked. “He can’t hit, and he can’t park.”

That from the pitcher who once cost the Yankees a run in a World Series game when he tagged and left third base too soon on what should have been a sacrifice fly by his Hall of Fame battery mate Yogi Berra.

The Los Angeles Times‘s Hall of Fame sportswriter Jim Murray handed Ford his enduring nickname, when he wrote rooting for the 1950s Yankees was like rooting for U.S. Steel with Ford—whose eight World Series Game One starts is a major league record—the chairman of the board.

A compact lefthander at 5’10”, Ford was most renowned for two things. Thing One: the likewise compact delivery that relied as much on his brains as his repertoire, an assortment of off-speed pitches he threw all around the strike zone, since he couldn’t even throw the proverbial lamb chop past a snail. Batters hit .235 off him lifetime.

“If it takes 27 outs to win,” his longtime manager Casey Stengel once said of him, “who’s going to get them out more ways than Mr. Ford?”

“He was like a master chess player who used his brain to take the bat right out of my hands,” recalled one-time Boston Red Sox outfielder Walt Dropo. “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.”

Thing Two: Mr. Ford’s sense of humour. A man who spends the bulk of his career cleaning up after his Yankee bestie Mickey Mantle’s messes almost as often as he befuddles hitters and pitches in the World Series (his 33 consecutive scoreless World Series innings remains a record) needs a sense of humour. And maybe a healthy supply of anti-migraine medication.

Ford wasn’t exactly allergic to the night life in his native New York (he was Queens-born), but he wasn’t exactly allergic to knowing when to shut it down, either. “His fellow rogues, Mickey, Billy [Martin], and Toots [Shor, the legendary New York sports restauranteur], were all gone,” New York Daily News writer Bill Madden wrote in his 2003 book Pride of October: What It Was to Be Young and a Yankee, “but he had survived, still the same wisecracking, self-assured son of the city.”

Wisecracking and practical joking. When Yankee infielders Joe Pepitone and Phil Linz were still barely past rookie status, according to teammate Jim Bouton in Ball Four, Ford and Mantle told the pair they’d finally arrived and were ready to go out on the town with the big boys. In Detroit, Ford and Mantle instructed Pepitone and Linz to dress to kill, hail a cab, and head to the Flame where they were to ask for Mantle’s table.

Pepitone and Linz did as instructed. They dressed to kill. They hailed their cab. And discovered the hard way that the Flame—once a legendary Detroit jazz and rhythm and blues hot spot (among others, assorted future members of Motown’s legendary Funk Brothers house band had played the place)—was now a ramshackle wreck with the glass blown out and maybe two surviving toasted tables remaining.

Ford’s playful side extended to making sure the Yankee bullpen didn’t get bored when members weren’t called upon to warm up and get ready to go into a game. “I think it should be known,” Bouton wrote on 5 April, in the journals he kept to compose Ball Four, “that when Whitey Ford was pitching for the Yankees he set up a table with a checkered tablecloth in the bullpen. On the table there was an empty wine bottle with a candle in it. Also hero sandwiches. Whitey Ford had style.”

Ford was a thinking craftsman on the mound and a practical joking, fun-living fellow off it.

And influence. A month and a half later, Bouton had to record: “Hot flash! Whitey Ford’s Italian restaurant in the bullpen has a real rival in the Baltimore bullpen: wienie roasts.”

When Whitey and Joan Ford married in April 1951 in Long Island City’s St. Patrick Church, Stengel arranged a little surprise for the couple: he loaded the entire Yankee team, including Joe DiMaggio, onto a bus following an exhibition game to hit the church. One Yankee was too nervous to get off the bus, like his fellow rookies, so the newlywed Fords went out to greet him.

That’s how he met Mickey Mantle for the first time. The friendship that must have made Ford wonder often enough whether the devil was punking him started on a bus outside his wedding church. “Years later,” Ford said, “Mickey told me the highlight of that day for him was meeting Joan, not me.”

The ever-quick Ford got a measure of vengeance when his first grandchild was born. When his son-in-law phoned in the dead of night to announce the birth to Grandpa, Ford called Mantle—who went into the Hall of Fame with him in 1974—first thing in the morning. “You’re not going to believe this,” he said. “Last night for the first time in my life I slept with a grandmother.”

In Pride of October Madden wrote that Ford wasn’t always comfortable having been the sole survivor among the little night-owl group of himself, Mantle, and Martin. The only time Ford was ever uncomfortable with Stengel—who judiciously managed him as an every-fifth-day pitcher to save him for the bigger games of Yankee races and the Series—was when Casey neglected to align his 1960 Series rotation to let Ford pitch more than twice, which probably did cost them that Series as much as Bill Mazeroski’s winning home run.

Ford was also uncircumspect about his late-career ball doctorings. Admitting he turned to chicanery in a bid to hang on as long as he could until elbow and arm miseries forced him to call it a career in 1967, Ford swore he never did it during his Cy Young Award-winning 1961 or his likewise 20 game plus-winning 1963.

“Well,” he added puckishly, “maybe a little.”

“For a long time,” Bouton revealed, “Whitey got away with throwing a mud ball that was positively evil.” If the grounds crews wetted the infield or the mound a little too generously, or he and/or his late-career catcher Elston Howard could mix saliva and dirt surreptitiously, Ford would get a tiny mud load on balls. One-time Los Angeles Angels pitcher/flake Bo Belinsky once said, “If a mud ball was left for me on the mound, I had two outs waiting right there.”

“Ford could make a mud ball drop, sail, break in, break out, and sing ‘When Irish Eyes are Smiling’,” Bouton continued.

Eventually the opposition, particularly Bill Rigney, the manager of the Angels, got wise to him and he had to quit using the mudder.

Then he went to his wedding ring. He gouged such sharp edges into it that we used to kid him about having lost the diamond out of it. He’d scuff up the ball with the ring and make it do all the things the mud ball did, except maybe now the song was different. He got by with the ring for a couple of months . . .

After that, Ellie Howard sharpened up one of the buckles on his shin guard and everytime he threw the ball back to Whitey he’d rub it against the buckle. The buckle ball sang two arias from Aida.

Madden convinced Ford to show him around the Astoria, Queens neighbourhood where he grew up as the son of a Con Edison electrical worker. Ford pointed to a yellow-bricked apartment building where he’d lived ten years and adjacent to where his wife-to-be lived as a girl. “I was sixteen and she was twelve,” Ford said. “She had great legs. That’s what attracted me most about her. We moved three or four times when I was growing up there. I guess every time the rent was due.”

Some of Ford’s boyhood acquaintances and friends in that predominantly Irish, Italian, and Polish neighbourhood grew up to go into baseball as he did, including future coaches Tony and Al Cuccinello and future Minnesota Twins pennant-winning manager Sam Mele. So did a kid named Anthony Benedetto, whose family owned a nearby beauty salon.

“It wasn’t until he after he left the neighbourhood,” Ford said, “that he changed his name to Tony Bennett. Kind of like me, going from Eddie to Whitey, only I think his new name did a lot more for him than mine did for me.”

Baseball-Reference shows ten major league players (including two who eventually became managers) named Whitey. Be assured that if you just say “Whitey” in any gathering, they’ll remember Ford first. But neither they nor even longtime Yankee fans will remember him as quickly as his widow, two of his three children (his son, Thomas, died in 1999), and his grandchildren.

Once during an Old-Timers Day ceremony, Ford and Berra watched the Yankee Stadium video board display a tribute to Yankees past who had passed away that year. Yogi turned to Whitey and said, “Boy, I hope I never see my name up there!”

Ford can now tell Berra in the Elysian Fields, “Yogi, I never wanted to see your name up there, either!” Even at 91, Ford’s family and baseball fans alike weren’t quite ready to see his name up there, either.

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