On the field and off, Whitey Ford was a portrait of confidence and success

March 22nd, 2021
Ford rose from the sandlots of Astoria, Queens, to become perhaps the greatest pitcher in Yankees history, his name still atop the franchise leaderboard for shutouts, innings pitched and victories. But above all, it was his charisma and confidence that endeared him to teammates and fans alike.  (Credit: MLB Photos)

A few days after Whitey Ford passed away last October, his life was celebrated at Saint Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Manhasset, Long Island, not far from the town of Lake Success, N.Y., where the Hall of Fame pitcher had lived for more than six decades. Ford’s former teammate and lifelong friend Bobby Richardson proudly eulogized the great left-hander, then returned to his third-row seat in the church on Northern Boulevard. As the service came to an end, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan started to lead the casket procession from the front of the church toward the exit at the rear. But when Dolan reached the pew where Richardson was seated, he stopped.

“Bobby,” said Dolan, a native of St. Louis, “was Whitey the one who gave up the grand slam against the Cardinals in the 1964 World Series?”

“No,” Richardson answered. “Whitey didn’t give up any home runs when it really mattered.”

The cardinal laughed as he continued up the aisle that October day. And although the exchange was brief, it summed up Edward Charles “Whitey” Ford as a pitcher, and as a Yankee.

While he was remarkably consistent during regular season play, Ford created a legacy on the mound that was built on being at his best in the biggest games. He won six championships and 11 American League pennants with the Yankees, and he still holds World Series records for wins, strikeouts and consecutive scoreless innings. On the all-time Yankees charts, he stands first in victories, innings pitched and shutouts. Ford’s .690 winning percentage remains unmatched among AL pitchers with at least 150 wins.

Away from baseball, Ford was a devoted family man to his wife, Joan, and to their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Whitey and Joan were married in 1951, and the couple had two sons and a daughter. Their youngest son, Thomas, died of a heart condition in 1999.

Of the many aspects of Ford’s life that Richardson reflected upon recently, family was the subject that elicited the most passion. Ford’s oldest son, Eddie, played for Richardson at the University of South Carolina, and during those three years, Richardson learned what type of father his friend was.

“Eddie was a wonderful switch-hitting shortstop for me,” Richardson said. “He was the No. 1 Draft pick of the Red Sox after his junior year, and he spent four seasons in their organization, quickly getting all the way up to Triple-A. But one day, he called his dad and told him that he didn’t want to continue playing baseball. It wasn’t for him. Whitey wanted him to be happy, and he didn’t push him to play baseball. He supported his son’s decision and actually helped set him up in business. Whitey was a really good father, and that story says a lot about him as a man.”

After a childhood spent on the sandlots of Astoria, Queens, Ford began to make a name for himself a few hours north of the Big Apple. In 1949, his third professional season, he dominated for the Class A Binghamton Triplets. Even then he was confident, lobbying team brass to bring him up to the big club after he posted a 16-5 record with a 1.61 ERA and 151 strikeouts in 168 innings. It was also while training with Binghamton prior to the 1947 season that Ford’s manager, Lefty Gomez, started calling him “Whitey” on account of his blond hair.

While the name eventually stuck, Ford wouldn’t get his chance to wear the pinstripes until 1950, and at the ripe old age of 21, he pitched like a seasoned veteran. He amassed a 9-1 record with a 2.81 ERA as a rookie that year, then began to write a postseason script that is still unequaled among all major league pitchers.

On the verge of sweeping the Phillies in the 1950 Fall Classic, Yankees manager Casey Stengel gave the ball to Ford in front of more than 68,000 fans at the old Yankee Stadium. Ford dazzled that Saturday afternoon, allowing just two unearned runs over 8 2/3 innings and helping the Yankees clinch their 13th World Series championship.

“He had ice water in his veins,” said former infielder Bobby Brown. “I was a few years older than Whitey, but he was calmer than me that day. He was more relaxed than everybody. He was totally in command from the first day he joined the Yankees as a rookie. You don’t see that very often. Well, you really don’t see that ever.”

Throughout his post-playing days, Ford added gravitas to any Yankee Stadium ceremony with his mere presence. He remained a respected and revered member of the Yankees family, connecting different generations of pinstriped heroes. “He was so supportive,” Pettitte said. “He gave me advice that nobody else would have been able to.” Ford’s words of wisdom — like his accomplishments on the mound — will resonate forever. (Credit: New York Yankees)

Ford spent the next two years in the Army during the Korean War. He was stationed at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey, and although he missed the adrenaline rush of pitching for the Yankees and competing at the major league level, he embraced his role in the military.

“After I finished basic training in Fort Monmouth, the general put me in charge of the baseball field, and he put me on the Signaleers baseball team,” Ford said during a visit to South Orange, New Jersey, in 2010, where he relived a few memorable games he pitched there for the Army squad. “I managed the grounds crew and made sure that the fields always looked nice. I would show up at 8 in the morning and make sure that the grass was cut and the dugouts were clean.

“When I pitched, 3,000 people would come out to watch us,” Ford recalled of facing local college nines, semipro clubs and American Legion teams. “The general liked that so much that he told the manager to have me pitch every game.”

Luckily for the Yankees and for Ford, Army officials soon lightened the load on the pitcher’s arm, and when Ford returned to the Yankees in 1953, he picked up right where he left off. He won 18 games, the first of 10 seasons in which he tallied at least 16 victories. That level of consistency paved the way to a 236-106 record in 16 big league seasons.

“Whitey’s record shows you what type of pitcher he was and how intelligent he was,” said another legendary Yankees left-hander, Ron Guidry. “He used to say that if you put him inside a paper bag, he couldn’t break out of it. He didn’t throw very hard, but boy could he outsmart hitters. He learned how to pitch with the stuff he had, and he wasn’t afraid of facing anyone. When you have that mentality, you throw your best pitches, and if you get beat, you move on. He was cut from a different cloth.”

The Yankees won their fifth straight pennant in 1953, and in a Game 4 start against the Dodgers at Ebbets Field, Ford had a rare bad October outing. But the crafty left-hander came back two days later in the deciding Game 6 and gave the Yankees seven innings of one-run ball, helping the organization clinch its record fifth consecutive World Series championship.

Ford’s unshakable confidence and his ability to rebound remained a part of his repertoire throughout his career.

“When I think about the best pitchers from our era -- Whitey, Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson -- I believe they all had at least one thing in common,” Richardson said. “There was just an air of confidence in those guys. They had a unique ability in knowing that they were the most important pitchers on their respective ballclubs, and they took the confidence that goes along with that out to the mound for every game.”

Pitcher Al Downing, who came up to the big leagues in the early ’60s and was in the Yankees’ rotation with Ford during the middle part of that decade, revered the Hall of Famer’s unflappable mentality.

“I was amazed by how composed Whitey was every time he went out to the mound,” Downing said. “He was in total control all of the time. I don’t know what opposing hitters thought, but as a pitcher out in the bullpen, I never got the impression that he was concerned with guys hitting him hard -- even when they did. I always thought that Elston Howard gave him the nickname ‘The Chairman of the Board’ because we all took notes on what he was doing.

“Let’s say Whitey gave up a few runs in one of the early innings of a game. Well, that didn’t bother him. He would rebound and put together a string of good innings. If a guy hit the ball into the 15th row, Whitey would just grab another baseball and strike out the side. If he really had a rare bad game, he would totally forget about it. He wouldn’t talk about it, and I don’t think he would even remember the details of it. That was a great lesson about how to deal with adversity, especially for a young guy coming up like me.”

As the 1950s rolled along, Ford and the Yankees continued to dominate. The team won the American League pennant in 1955, and after losing to Brooklyn in the Fall Classic, the Bombers exacted revenge in ’56, knocking off the Dodgers in seven games. Down two-games-to-none in that Series, it was Ford who then tossed a complete-game gem, shifting the momentum back to the Yankees.

During those magical years, Ford and fellow icon Mickey Mantle were inseparable, with star second baseman Billy Martin usually not far away. The Rat Pack of baseball observed no limitations, whether on the field or off. The stories of Ford and Mantle’s pranks and late-night antics are as legendary as The Mick’s majestic home runs and Whitey’s postseason prowess.

“A few times, we had almost 10 days in between clinching the pennant and starting the World Series,” Richardson said. “[General manager] George Weiss wanted to keep Mickey, Whitey and Billy intact during that downtime so that they would be ready for the World Series. He didn’t want them to be out every night until the sun came up. So, George hired a few detectives to follow them, but Whitey was far too smart. On one occasion, he figured out a way to trick the detective into following me and Tony Kubek to a YMCA, where we were playing Ping-Pong. When George got the report, he told the detective that it wasn’t what he was looking for.”

In 1962, Brooklyn native Joe Pepitone burst onto the scene with the Yankees. The brash and sometimes wild first baseman quickly became close with Mantle and Ford, and he also became a favorite victim of their pranks. He recently recalled the time that he and fellow rookie Phil Linz were in the team hotel in Detroit when the Rat Pack approached.

“They spotted us and said, ‘We really like you kids. We’re going to head over to this great bar that we know. Why don’t you guys meet us there? When you get there, just tell the bartender that Whitey and Mickey sent you.’” Pepitone said. “It cost me $30 in cab fare to get to this place, which was just about all of my meal money for that road trip. When we got out of the cab, we realized that we weren’t in the best neighborhood. We walked in and saw a guy passed out at the bar. It was a really seedy place, and everyone in there was drunk. I introduced myself to the bartender and told him that we were meeting Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford there. The bartender had no idea who I was or who they were. He said, ‘Listen kid, you and your friend better get your butts out of here before you get killed.’ We got out of there in a hurry, and Whitey and Mickey got a good laugh out of it the next day.”

That same season, Pepitone got a firsthand taste of the tactics that Ford deployed on the mound.

“I thought I knew everything back then, but Whitey put me in my place a few times,” Pepitone said. “He had one pitch that he called a ‘dirt ball.’ When he would reach down to get the rosin, he would scrape the ball in the dirt. Sometimes a big clump of dirt would stick to the ball. He threw the ball to me at first base to try to pick a runner off, and when I caught the ball, dirt went flying all over the place. So, I turned around and told the umpire that there was dirt on the ball. I said, ‘Whitey Ford can’t pitch with this ball. It’s got dirt all over it.’ Well, Whitey called me to the mound, and said, ‘If you ever do that again, you’ll find your butt back in the minors.’”

Ford (Top, second from R) received baseball’s highest honor in 1974, being inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Aug. 12 alongside his longtime teammate Mantle (Top L). Nine days earlier, on Old-Timers’ Day, the Yankees retired Ford’s No. 16. (Credit: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

In 1960, Stengel’s final season as the team’s manager, the Yankees took on the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series. The conservative skipper chose not to start Ford in Game 1, thus limiting his ace to just two potential starts in the World Series. Ford started Game 3 and twirled a four-hit shutout. The Chairman of the Board took the hill again in Game 6 and tossed yet another shutout. But despite getting two gems from Ford, the Yankees lost the Series on Bill Mazeroski’s game-winning home run in Game 7.

When Ralph Houk took over in 1961, Ford’s desire to pitch more often became a reality. Now taking the mound every fourth day, Ford didn’t let his manager down. With the world focused on the greatest home run chase to date, in which Yankees right fielder Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s seemingly unreachable single-season record with 61 long balls and Mantle hit a career-high 54, Ford was at his absolute best. He led the league with 25 wins (losing just four decisions), 39 starts and 283 innings.

“We had a reunion for that team 30 years later in Atlantic City” Richardson said. “We had a gala with thousands of people, and all everyone was talking about was the home runs that Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle hit. But there were also three catchers on that team who combined to hit more than 61 home runs, and we had a pitcher who won 25 games. I remember going up to my room after that banquet and thinking that no one talked about those accomplishments, but Whitey didn’t even care that he wasn’t being celebrated. All that mattered to Whitey was that we won the World Series, but in reality, without him, we very well may not have been champions that season.”

To Richardson’s point, Ford’s 3.21 regular-season ERA in 1961 was impressive, but as he had done so many times in the previous decade, he upped his game to even greater heights in the World Series. Houk tabbed his ace to start Game 1 against the Cincinnati Reds, and Ford threw a third consecutive shutout in World Series play. Dating back to the previous Fall Classic, he had pitched 27 straight innings without allowing a run, and, like Maris, Ford suddenly found himself on the precipice of breaking an “unbreakable” record held by Ruth. Before he established himself as the Sultan of Swat in New York, Ruth, while pitching for the Red Sox, set a World Series record with 29 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings.

In Game 4 of the ’61 World Series, Ford extended his streak to 32 scoreless innings -- a record that would ultimately reach 33 innings in 1962. Ford was named 1961 World Series MVP after the Yankees defeated the Reds in five games, and a month later, when he was named the winner of baseball’s Cy Young Award -- separate awards for each league were not introduced until 1967 -- he proved to be as gracious as he was triumphant that season.

“Whitey was the kind of person who appreciated the help he got,” Richardson said. “Luis Arroyo was brought in to finish a good number of ballgames that Whitey started that season. Whitey knew how much that helped him, because he didn’t have to pitch nine innings every time he took the mound. When Whitey found out that he won the Cy Young Award, he reached out to Luis and paid his way up to the banquet in New York. Whitey told Luis that he wouldn’t have won the Cy Young Award without him.”

Ford won 17 games in 1962, and he followed that with a complete-game victory in Game 1 of the World Series against the San Francisco Giants. Although Ford took a no-decision in Game 4 of that Series and a loss in Game 6, the Yankees won the title in seven games -- the sixth and final championship of Ford’s career.

Ford nearly matched his career high in wins with 24 in 1963. He not only led the league in that category, but he also paced the AL in innings pitched (269 1/3) and starts (37). Ford and the Yankees would return to the Fall Classic that year, but Koufax and the Los Angeles Dodgers proved to be insurmountable. Ford went toe-to-toe with the Dodgers’ ace twice and lost both times.

Although he was unable to outpitch Koufax in ’63, Ford certainly earned the admiration of his fellow pitching luminary.

“I remember well a dinner we shared with him and his wonderful wife, Joan, in New York after we faced each other twice in the 1963 World Series,” Koufax said. “It is a wonderful memory. Whitey was a good friend, who was giving, warm and very personable. And he really had an outstanding sense of humor. I will always miss him.”

Ford put together two more great seasons, winning 17 games in 1964 and 16 in ‘65 despite undergoing surgery to repair a blocked artery in his arm prior to the ’65 campaign. He made his last World Series start in a losing effort against the St. Louis Cardinals in ‘64, finishing his career with a 10-8 record in the Fall Classic, with a 2.71 ERA and 94 strikeouts in 22 starts.

“From my experiences, every hitter you face in the World Series is dangerous,” said fellow October pitching hero Andy Pettitte. “You make a bad pitch in October, and they hit it into the seats. All of that makes what Whitey did in the World Series that much more impressive. So many pitchers not only struggle with the pressure of those big games but also with the increased level of competition. He consistently rose to the occasion, right from the beginning, and he rarely had a start where he didn’t give his team a chance to win.”

Ford dealt with arm troubles during his last two big-league seasons, making just 16 combined starts, and with the Yankees in a state of transition, he retired in 1967. When it was all said and done, Ford was not only the Yankees’ all-time wins leader with 236, but he also tossed a remarkable 156 complete games, was a 10-time All-Star and posted a 2.75 ERA in 498 career games. In 1974, Ford and Mantle were inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on the same day, and the Yankees retired the Chairman of the Board’s No. 16 that same year.

Ford’s accomplishments will live on forever, but for his teammates, the intangibles are most memorable.

“He was such a fierce competitor,” Downing said. “He wanted to be the first player on the field after we batted, so he would leave his glove on the top step of the dugout. He couldn’t wait to get after it, and that set the tone for the whole team.”

“Whitey was the perfect teammate,” Richardson said. “He was an encourager. If you were down, Whitey knew exactly what to say to get you back up. He had a bigger impact on other players than most people ever realized.”

During and following a stint as Yankees pitching coach and in between decades of success in the business world, Ford was a regular at Old-Timers’ Day at the old Yankee Stadium and more recently at the team’s current home. His presence and many conversations with inquisitive Yankees helped influence generations of players.

“Old-Timers’ Day was a big deal to us, and Whitey’s locker was always right next to mine because he was the ace in his day, and I was in mine,” Guidry said. “He explained how he was because of who he was. Whitey took the pressure off of a lot of other pitchers. He pitched the big games all the time, and he always pitched against the other team’s best pitcher. He always looked at me as being the successor to what he did. He would always tell me that I was top dog, and that I have to make them beat me. He made me understand that if I went out and did what I was capable of, I was going to win a lot more ballgames than I’d lose.”

When Pettitte arrived in the Bronx nearly three decades after Ford retired, the young southpaw made a point to get to know the Yankees’ greatest pitcher.

“I was definitely nervous the first time I introduced myself to Whitey,” Pettitte said. “But he was so supportive right away. We became good friends, and he gave me advice that nobody else would have been able to. He talked to me about how to deal with the pressure of pitching in New York and in the postseason. He talked to me about being mentally tough. I never forgot those things.”

At the end of his life, Ford suffered from dementia, but his love for the Yankees and his prominent place in the team’s history never faded. His family reported that he was watching a Yankees postseason game at home in Lake Success when he passed away on Oct. 8, 2020, at age 91. Despite the health battles that he faced in recent years, Ford still found a way to impress those around him with the wit that made him so special.

“One of the last times I was with him was at Old-Timers’ Day,” Pepitone said. “I walked up to him in the dugout and said, ‘Hey, my main man, Whitey, how are you doing?’ He paused for a minute and said, ‘If you are who I think you are, then get the [bleep] out of here.’ We both started laughing, and that moment took me back to my rookie year. He was joking around right until the end and always making people around him feel comfortable.”

Just like when he was on the mound, Ford dealt with life’s challenges in a way that few others could. Through it all, he was always the Chairman of the Board.

Alfred Santasiere III is the editor-in-chief of Yankees Magazine. This story appears in the magazine’s Spring 2021 edition. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at www.yankees.com/publications.