NEW YORK — During an era when the Yankees won the World Series so routinely it was joked that rooting for them was like rooting for General Motors, their ace pitcher owned the most fitting nickname: “The Chairman of the Board.”
Whitey Ford, the street-smart New Yorker who had the best winning percentage of any pitcher in the 20th century and helped the Yankees become baseball’s perennial champions in the 1950s and ’60s, died Thursday night. He was 91.
The team said Friday the Hall of Famer died at his Long Island home in Lake Success, New York, while watching the Yankees in a playoff game. His wife of 69 years, Joan, and family members were with him.
Ford had suffered from the effects of Alzheimer’s disease in recent years. His death was the latest this year of a number of baseball greats – Al Kaline, Tom Seaver, Lou Brock and Bob Gibson.
On a franchise long defined by power hitters, Ford was considered its greatest starting pitcher. He posted the most wins in Yankees history and still owns the record for World Series victories.
Not big and not overpowering, the wily left-hander played in the majors from 1950-67, all with the Yankees, and teamed with the likes of Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra to win six championships.
“If you were a betting man, and if he was out there pitching for you, you’d figure it was your day,” former teammate and World Series MVP Bobby Richardson told The Associated Press on Friday.
Ford won 236 games and lost just 106, a winning percentage of .690. He would help symbolize the almost machinelike efficiency of the Yankees in the mid-20th century, when only twice between Ford’s rookie year and 1964 did they fail to make the World Series.
“This is one of the guys that’s a Mount Rushmore guy in the Yankee organization,” manager Aaron Boone said.
The blond-haired Ford was nicknamed “Whitey” while still in the minor leagues, and quickly reached the mound at Yankee Stadium.
His death occurred in a month when he for so long soared on baseball’s biggest stage, and hours before his former team played Tampa Bay in a decisive Game 5 of the AL Division Series. The Yankees planned a patch with Ford’s No. 16 on their uniforms.
“He would have been the starting pitcher in this game for the Yankees in years past,” Richardson said.
The World Series record book is crowded with Ford’s accomplishments. His string of 33 consecutive scoreless innings from 1960-62 broke a record of 29 2-3 innings set by Babe Ruth. Ford holds records for World Series wins (10), games and starts (22), innings pitched (146) and strikeouts (94).
“I saw him plenty from the other side,” said 93-year-old Carl Erskine, whose Brooklyn Dodgers often faced the Yankees in October. “Too bad for us, Whitey and those guys won most of the games.”
Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera, the only player unanimously elected to the Hall, set the postseason record for consecutive innings – a majority of them in the AL playoffs.
“Whitey earned his status as the ace of some of the most memorable teams in our sport’s rich history,” baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said. “Beyond the Chairman of the Board’s excellence on the mound, he was a distinguished ambassador for our national pastime throughout his life.”
Ford died on the 64th anniversary of the single greatest pitching performance in Yankees lore – Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. Larsen died on New Year’s Day this year.
Ford also made Oct. 8 a special day, surpassing Ruth’s mark for consecutive shutout innings on that date in the 1961 Series. Ford was the MVP of that Fall Classic, twice beating Cincinnati.
“Mickey was hurt and we had a lot of backups in there against the Reds,” teammate Tony Kubek told The Associated Press. “We won that because of Whitey’s pitching.”
Ford was in his mid-20s when he became the go-to guy in manager Casey Stengel’s rotation, the pitcher Stengel said he would always turn to if he absolutely needed to win one game. Ford was Stengel’s choice to pitch World Series openers eight times, another record.
Ford’s best seasons came in 1961 and 1963, in the midst of a stretch of five straight AL pennants for the Yankees, when new manager Ralph Houk began using a four-man rotation instead of five. Ford led the league in victories with 25 in 1961, won the Cy Young Award and starred in the World Series. In 1963, he went 24-7, again leading the league in wins. Eight of his victories that season came in June.
He also led the AL in earned run average in 1956 (2.47) and 1958 (2.01) and was an All-Star in eight seasons.
Ford did have his World Series disappointments. He spoke bitterly of the 1960 championship, when he shut out Pittsburgh twice but was used by Stengel in Game 3 and Game 6 and so was unavailable for the finale, won 10-9 by the Pirates on Bill Mazeroski’s home run in the bottom of the ninth. In 1963, Ford was outmatched twice by Sandy Koufax as the Los Angeles Dodgers swept the Yankees.
Ford was 10-8 with a 2.71 ERA overall in the World Series. His final appearance there came in the 1964 opener when he lost to the St. Louis Cardinals, who went on take the title behind Gibson.
Unlike Gibson and Koufax, Ford was not a power pitcher. Instead he depended on guile and guts, rarely giving hitters the same look on consecutive pitches. He’d throw overhand sometimes, three-quarters other times, mixing curves and sliders in with his fastball and changeup.
Ford would also acknowledge using some special methods to add movement to his pitches, including saliva, mud and dirt and cutting the ball with a ring.
“If there are some pitchers doing it and getting away with it, that’s fine by me,” Ford told sports writer Phil Pepe, in 1987. “If it were me and I needed to cheat to be able to throw the good stuff that would keep me in the major leagues at a salary of about $800,000 a year, I’d do whatever I had to do”
After his retirement, Ford briefly worked as a broadcaster and opened a restaurant in Garden City, “Whitey Ford’s Cafe,” that closed within a year. In 2001, actor Anthony Michael Hall played Ford in the Billy Crystal-directed HBO movie “61(asterisk),” about the 1961 season and the quest of Mantle and Roger Maris to break Ruth’s single-year home run record.
Ford and Mantle were cultural opposites, an odd couple who became inseparable off the field, Ford the fast-talking city kid, Mantle the shy country boy from Oklahoma. They enjoyed the attraction of New York nightlife along with rowdy, wise-cracking infielder Billy Martin and Stengel called the trio “whiskey slick.”
Mantle shortened that to just “Slick” for Ford, who proudly used the nickname as the title of his 1987 autobiography, co-written by Pepe. (Ford in turn would coin one of baseball’s most famous nicknames, “Charlie Hustle,” for Pete Rose).
Typical of their adventures was an episode during a trip to Japan where they hooked up with a 400-pound sumo wrestler, who was accompanied by a translator. Through the evening, the wrestler never spoke, just smiling and nodding.
Then it occurred to Martin that it might be fun to sling some insults at the wrestler. Their new friend continued to nod and smile. Then, when the evening was over Martin said good night in Japanese and the wrestler nodded and said, “Thank you very much for a nice evening,” in perfect English.
It was a lesson in international diplomacy.
Ford’s son, Eddie, played shortstop when Richardson was the head coach at the University of South Carolina.
“Sometimes if we were in a slump, Whitey would offer to come down and take the boys out and get them nice and relaxed,” Richardson remembered with a chuckle. “I was like, `Oh, Whitey, we can’t be having any of that.”‘
Kubek recalled in his rookie season in 1957, on the Yankees’ first trip to Chicago, he was invited go out with Ford, Mantle and Martin to a nightspot on rollicking Rush Street. After dinner, the three Yankees veterans all excused themselves from the table for various reasons.
“The maitre d’ comes over and hands me the bill. It was over $100. I was embarrassed, I had to tell him that I didn’t have the money,” Kubek said. “Then Whitey comes back and is laughing, he’d set the whole thing up.”
“He was like a little gremlin. He had a little Irish in him. He had a pixie-ish humor,” he said. “But on the mound, he was all business. And if you ever made an error behind him, he wouldn’t give you that look like some pitchers do. He’d just go out and get the next batter.”
After Martin was traded in the aftermath of a 1957 brawl at the Copacabana night club, Ford and Mantle remained centerpieces in the Yankees dynasty and were elected together to the Hall of Fame in 1974.
Ford often called his election the highlight of his career, made more meaningful because he was inducted with Mantle, who died in 1995.
“It never was anything I imagined was possible or anything I dared dream about when I was a kid growing up on the sidewalks of New York,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I never really thought I would make it as a kid because I always was too small.”
The Yankees retired his No. 16 the month Ford was inducted into the Hall. He wore No. 19 as a rookie, then changed it.
Edward Charles Ford was born on the East Side of Manhattan, about 100 blocks south of Yankee Stadium. H e grew up playing sandlot ball in Astoria, Queens, a section of the city that produced major leaguers Sam Mele and Tony Cuccinello and singer Tony Bennett.
The Yankees signed Ford in 1947 and three years later he was called up in midseason. At just 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, Ford was viewed as a marginal prospect. But he won nine straight games and nailed down the 1950 World Series sweep of Philadelphia by winning the fourth game, coming within one out of a complete game.
After two years away for military service during the Korean War – he remained stateside in the Army – Ford returned to the Yankees in 1953 and, along with Mantle became the core of a team that won 10 American League pennants and five World Series in the next 12 years. Ford won 18 games in his first season back and never won fewer than 11 for 13 straight seasons.
Mantle summed it up: “He was the best pitcher I ever saw and the greatest competitor. Whitey won seven out of every 10 decisions and nobody in the history of baseball has ever done better than that.”
Ford’s death leaves Bobby Brown, who won four Series titles with the Yankees in the 1940s and ’50s, as the last living link to prominent Yankees who played with both DiMaggio and Ford. Brown is 95.
In addition to his wife and son Eddie, Ford is survived by a daughter, Sally Ann; eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Ford’s other son, Thomas, died in 1999.