Yankees History: The cagey and cunning Whitey Ford on the mound
Ford made his debut with the Bombers on July 1, 1950, and he had a spectacular start. He won his first nine decisions before losing a game in relief. He finished 9-1 with a 2.81 ERA over 112 innings and threw two shutouts.
His impressive strong start out the gate was surprising to many baseball analysts since he was a relatively small man (he was 5’10” and weighed 178 pounds) compared to other starting pitchers.
Whitey received several lower-ballot MVP votes despite his short stint in 1950. He was voted the AL Rookie of the Year by the Sporting News and came in second to Walt Dropo for the same award given by the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA).
When he rejoined the Bombers in 1953 after his two-year tour of duty in the Army, the Yankee “Big Three” pitching staff was transformed into the “Big Four,” Whitey plus Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, and Eddie Lopat. A distinguished starting four I’d say.
Ford eventually went from the number four starter to the consensus number one hurler for the Yanks. He was donned the “Chairman of the Board” by his teammates because he had ice in his veins; he was able to remain composed and in command during the most stressful situations in a game. Casey Stengel also nicknamed him “Slick” as in Whisky Slick.
His relaxed demeanor and coolness on the mound served him well. He was able to mix his pitches and place them anywhere he wanted to around the plate, always keeping opposing batters guessing what the next pitch might be and where it might be thrown. Even without a powerful fastball, he was considered a cagey strikeout pitcher.
He tied the then-AL record for six consecutive strikeouts in a game in 1956 and 1958. Although he never threw a no-hitter, he did pitch two consecutive one-hit games in 1955 to tie a record held by a few other pitchers at that time.
As a left-hander with a deceptive pick-off move, Ford also was superb at keeping runners at their base. As fans well know, many games are won or lost based on the ability of pitchers to be able to hold opposing runners close to the bag. Pitchers who have a poor pick-off move allow base runners to take long leads, thereby giving them a valuable head start in their attempt to steal a base as well as run the bases.
Ford set a record in 1961 by throwing 243 consecutive innings without allowing a single stolen base. Truly remarkable! Along with effective breaking balls and pitch control, this is yet another indication of how Whitey successfully developed his skills on the ball field to increase the team’s chance of winning games.
Whitey played for the Yanks quite a while ago, and the game has certainly changed a lot since his playing days. Yet, his impressive performance on the mound still demonstrates that one does not have to have a powerful fastball even today to succeed in baseball.
There is absolutely no reason why a cunning pitcher like Whitey couldn’t perform as well – and avoid serious arm injuries requiring treatment and surgery – today. Scouts should be more open-minded when they evaluate pitching talent and not be obsessed with overall arm strength.
In every way, Ford had an extraordinary pitching career. He had a 236-106 record, still the most wins for a Yankees pitcher while playing for the Yanks. Among throwers with a minimum of 300 career decisions, Whitey ranks first with a winning percentage of .690, the all-time highest percentage in modern baseball history. He retired with a WAR of 53.6.
Whitey’s lifetime ERA, 2.75, is the second-lowest among starting pitchers who played in the live-ball era (beginning in 1920). (Only Clayton Kershaw’s current 2.44 ERA is better than Ford’s.) The Chairman of the Board also had 45 shutout wins in his career, including eight 1-0 wins. He also played in 10 All-Star games during his tenure.
He was considered a gifted fielder, and he possessed a .961 fielding percentage. He was a quick and graceful fielder, rarely made a mental error, and threw accurately to all bases.
In 1955 he led the AL in complete games and games won, and in 1956 he had the best ERA and winning percentage. In both 1961 and 1963, he was the league leader in games won and winning percentage.
Whitey won the Cy Young Award in 1961, and he very likely would have won again in 1963, but this was before MLB established a separate award for each league. (A spectacular Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers received the Cy Young Award that year.) He also would have been a very strong candidate in 1955, however, this was before the Cy Young was awarded.