The night before his induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974, Whitey Ford went up to his hotel room early. Even the man they called "The Chairman of the Board," who had leaned on his famous cool and his easy swagger to thrive in the cauldron of the World Series and win 236 games during his pitching career, got nervous.
As Ford would tell it years later to Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson, he was fretting over his speech the next day. It needed work. There was no time for a night out in Cooperstown, even if the whole celebratory weekend in central New York centered on him, Mickey Mantle and the other inductees.
Mantle had other plans. Mantle, his kids and members of Ford's family went in search of fun. On the first floor of the famed Otesaga Resort Hotel, they found a room with a billiards table. No one was inside, but the door was locked. Mantle and the group went outside, and The Mick boosted one of the kids through an open window. The kid dropped into the room and unlocked the door.
"So there's Whitey, up in his room sweating his speech," Idelson says, recounting the tale Ford told him. "Mickey's playing pool. Mickey got two hours of sleep."
Ford told Idelson: "Mickey's speech was great. Mine was terrible. And he didn't even use notes!"
The legendary lefty has always loved a good yarn like that, even at his own expense. Quips and banter were an integral part of Ford's arsenal in pinstripes. Not as much as a good fastball and curve, certainly. But enough that several of his former teammates still believe that Ford's humor and flair for needling had a role in molding those Yankees teams of the 1950s and 1960s into a much-loved dynasty.
With that in mind, and with Ford's 90th birthday having just passed -- he was born Oct. 21, 1928 -- it seemed the right time to go searching for tales about the Yankees' all-time leader in wins, innings pitched and shutouts. Former teammates, folks in baseball who know him, even opponents, provided an entertaining snapshot of the talented kid from Queens who grew up to become one of the greatest Yankees of them all.
He was "an artist, as far as his pitching," says Hall of Famer Joe Torre, but Ford was more than just a .690 winning percentage and a record streak in the World Series. Ford was a study in poise on the mound. A competitor. A teammate. A friend. A man who liked to have a good time.
"Whitey, you never saw him in a bad mood," says Roy White, whose 15-year career in pinstripes was getting started around the time that Ford's 16-year run was nearing its end. "He always had a smile on his face. Good at a joke, a funny guy."
"He always had confidence," says Bobby Richardson, the second baseman for three of Ford's six World Series championship runs. "I think he had that as a little boy. I think he grew up with that."
"I love him," adds Joe Pepitone, a teammate of Ford's from 1962 to '67. "He made me feel comfortable."
Edward Charles Ford, who attended a tryout hoping to be signed as a first baseman, is probably the best Yankees pitcher who ever lived. And if he's not the greatest living Yankee, too, he's certainly at the very core of any debate on the matter.
Ford pitched his entire career for the Yankees, beginning in 1950 and, after two years of military service, going from 1953 to 1967. In addition to holding the franchise records for wins, innings (3,1701⁄3) and shutouts (45), Ford is tied with Andy Pettitte for most starts (438). He has won the most World Series games (10) in Major League history. He pitched in 11 Fall Classics, which is also tops, and he holds World Series records for career strikeouts (94) and innings (146), too. Only Mariano Rivera pitched in more World Series games (24) than Ford (22).
In 1961, a year best remembered for the pursuit of another Babe Ruth record, Ford topped The Babe's famous pitching mark of 292⁄3 consecutive scoreless innings in the World Series, a standard Ruth had set 43 years earlier. Before the streak ended in 1962, Ford had pushed the record to 332⁄3 innings.
Ford won the 1961 Cy Young Award, back when it was given to just a single pitcher instead of one from each league. He led the American League in wins three times, ERA twice. He was 236-106 with a 2.75 ERA in his 16 seasons and was the MVP of the 1961 World Series, in which he went 2-0, including a shutout, and threw 14 scoreless frames.
"He had this knack for always missing the sweet spot of the bat," says Al Downing, a mainstay in the Yankees' rotation throughout much of the 1960s. "They'd think they had him squared up. Then they'd be thinking about what happened."
"The career," as 1956 World Series hero Don Larsen puts it, "speaks for itself."
So do the stories about the man. Ford was vital in helping foster what Richardson calls a "spirit" among those Yankees. It was all business on the ballfield, but they kept each other loose elsewhere. That element always seemed to boost their play.
Downing remembers his priority boarding the team bus: find Ford and Mantle. "They'd be ribbing each other," Downing says. "You'd never hear superstars doing that, but they did it all the time.
"They didn't let things get tense. You didn't need a team meeting. It showed that if these guys can relax, we can relax."
Ford could turn the skewer even on a legend like Yogi Berra. Richardson recalls how he and Mantle told the catcher they didn't need him to call Ford's pitches -- Mantle could handle it from center field.
They tried it one day, and it worked. Mantle stood for a fastball, bent over for a curve. Ford won. "You're not that smart, Yogi," Richardson remembers them telling Berra. Of course, the two knew better than that, and the gag was a one-time thing.
Pepitone famously made a costly error in the 1963 World Series, losing the baseball in the sea of white shirts worn by fans in the stands. Afterward, media swarmed around Pepitone in the clubhouse. The first baseman, only 22 at the time, was "tearing up," as he tells it now, until Ford approached.
"You really screwed that game up, didn't you, kid?" Ford cracked.
Sharp-edged? Perhaps. But to Pepitone, it helped. While Mantle was warmer to younger players than Ford, Pepitone says, Ford had a way of letting you in, too. A barb meant something: You belonged.
"It actually made me feel better," Pepitone recalls. "That was Whitey. It meant a lot to me. Instead of being sad, he was having fun."
Still, Pepitone knew he had to be focused when Ford was on the mound. "I didn't look at girls in the stands like I usually did," Pepitone says. "I didn't know there was anyone in the stands when Whitey was pitching."
Years after both their careers ended, Pepitone had a 60th birthday party, and Ford and his wife, Joanie, were among the 200 or so guests. At one point, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani arrived with an entourage of large, tough-looking men in suits, obviously security and law-enforcement types. Ford quipped to Pepitone: "I knew they were going to catch up with you one of these days," Pepitone recalls, laughing.
People were going up on stage to say nice things about Pepitone at the party, and Ford took his turn. The pitcher pulled a baseball out of his pocket and threw it at Pepitone, who caught it.
"That's the ball you missed in the '63 World Series!" Ford jibed. "That's the only reason I came here!"
Through the years, especially after he felt established in his career, Pepitone went right back at Ford. Once, Ford gave Pepitone a set of his old golf clubs -- they both played left-handed. Pepitone said they were too short.
"What am I going to do with these? Play putt-putt?" Pepitone quipped. But he kept the clubs. He still has them in a golf bag that has Ford's name on it. Yet later, when Ford asked Pepitone about the clubs, Pepitone responded that he didn't have them anymore. "I sold them for $10,000," he teased.
"You so-and-so!" Ford replied, but in language a tad more colorful. They had a good laugh.
"We're both from New York; had the same attitudes," Pepitone says. "He had a dry sense of humor, and I was a little bit crazy."
Ford was an expert at making light of his own foibles, too. Late in his career, he was pitching in a 'B' game in Spring Training, working his way back from an injury. White recalls a friend of his from the Minor Leagues, Ian Dixon, was playing third base in the game, and Dixon had to contend with multiple hard-hit line drives.
White says: "Whitey told him later, 'I'm sorry you had to risk your life out there -- they weren't fooled by my curveball.'"
To opponents, Ford might have had an advantage just by showing up, thanks to his reputation and résumé. It's clear by the way they talk about him that what they thought of him lingers today.
Ford was wrapping up his 10th and final All-Star campaign when Tim McCarver faced him in the 1964 World Series, and the former Cardinals catcher recalls being wowed even as St. Louis beat Ford in Game 1.
"He had an elegance about him on the mound, a regal presence," says McCarver. "That made an impression, believe me."
Torre can still recall a Spring Training home run he hit off Ford when he was just a 20-year-old catcher with the Braves. Torre claims it was wind-blown, but that doesn't lessen the thrill, even as the decades have passed.
"I wish I had a painting of it," Torre says. "I hit it off Whitey Ford, to right-center, and as I got halfway to first, I could see Mickey Mantle watching it go out. You can't buy those memories."
Jim Kaat, the former pitcher and current MLB Network analyst who won 283 games in his 25-year playing career, beat Ford for his first Major League win on April 27, 1960. Fifty years later, Kaat says, he and Ford were golfing at the same club, and the two posed for a photo that Kaat still treasures.
He got something even better from Ford back when they were both pitching. A few years into his career, Kaat was warming up for a start against Ford at old Metropolitan Stadium in Minnesota. The visiting bullpen was nearby, and Kaat says he could hear Ford's fastball spinning.
"We didn't have radar guns back then; we didn't care about that," Kaat says. "We wanted movement." Kaat asked through the fence separating the bullpens if Ford would show him how he threw his fastball.
Ford did. Kaat tilted his grip to the left slightly, like Ford, and, "My fastball started sinking," Kaat says. "I threw my fastball that way the rest of my career. After he showed me his grip, I had more late movement. Late bite. I was a ground-ball pitcher, and this really helped me.
"He could've told me to take a hike."
Mostly, when people talk about Ford, they've got funny stories. Former Yankees athletic trainer Gene Monahan says Ford told him a golfing tale where Ford was playing a club hotshot and demanded something to make the match more even. The opponent suggested strokes and said Ford, being a pitcher, could throw the ball once, too.
But when Ford was ready to use his throw, he didn't pick up his own ball: He threw his opponent's ball into a water hazard.
Kaat tells one where he was presenting Ford with an award at a dinner, so he asked Ford what his greatest thrill was, figuring here comes the scoop on some big World Series moment.
Ford brought up a good day facing Ted Williams. "Then he said, 'I went out and celebrated all night!'" Kaat recalls. "Whitey took his job seriously, but he never took himself too seriously." Richardson coached Ford's son, Eddie, a terrific shortstop, at the University of South Carolina. When the Ford family came down to watch Eddie play, Richardson had a standing offer from his old teammate, especially if Richardson's squad was in a slump.
"He'd say, 'Want me to take them out, loosen them up?'" Richardson says with a laugh. "I'd say, 'Oh, no, Whitey.'"
Torre enjoys retelling this anecdote from Ford: The pitcher was swapping stories in Cooperstown with other Hall of Famers. Reggie Jackson asked Ford, "Whitey, you think I'd be able to hit you?"
"Hit me?" Ford responded, the way Torre tells it. "Ted Williams hit .230 against me. What chance would you have?"
"Then Whitey said to me he had no idea what Ted Williams hit against him," Torre says, laughing. "He made it up. You don't lose that competitiveness just because you don't play anymore. Whitey, that's who he is."
This is also who Ford is: For years, the pitcher was part of a baseball fantasy camp, and Monahan and his then-assistant, Steve Donohue, were the athletic trainers. Ford was a constant presence, sitting in a golf cart, a can of Pepsi in hand. But he didn't just show up. He got involved, knew the campers and stored up anecdotes about them to riff on at the end-of-camp banquet, Monahan says. In 1994, there were so many injuries that Ford gave Monahan and Donohue the camp MVP trophy.
"I've got it on my shelf in my office. I look at it every day," Monahan says. "I love it.
"I have some special things," adds the man who spent 48 years in the Yankees organization. "That sits right out front. That meant a lot to us."
You could say the same thing about Ford to the Yankees.
Happy 90th, Whitey.
"Keep going," says Larsen, who himself is 89. "Why not?"