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December 9, 2004

Blast From The Past--A $1000 Giant Mistake
by John Brattain

Would a thousand dollars rewrite baseball history?

Looking at history, one cannot help being amazed at how seemingly inconsequential occurrences can shape the future in ways that nobody would ever expect. The world today may well not have happened had it not been for what happened on October 31, 1517. It was that date when Catholic cleric, Martin Luther, enraged by the Vatican's selling of "indulgences" (a sort of "get out of Purgatory free" card), nailed 95 points of protest on a church door in Wittenberg. From that one act sprang the Protestant Reformation, which lead the way out of the Dark Ages to the Renaissance. From there, humanity ushered in the Industrial Revolution that lead up to the world of today.

The Yankees spent $1000 and possibly changed the course of both American and National League history. A young Eddie Ford had two choices before him. Should he sign with the New York Giants or the New York Yankees? If Ford signed with the National League Giants, he would have been given a bonus of $6000. If Ford inked a contract with the New York Yankees, his bonus would be $7000. The Giants would not budge on their offer so Ford became the property of the New York Yankees. Between the time Ford threw his first pitch of the 1950 season until he threw his final ball of the of the 1967 campaign the Yankees would win 12 pennants, the New York Giants would win three. Over that stretch the Bronx Bombers would cop eight world championships meanwhile the Giants would win one. Yes, the Yankees had Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and other greats dot their roster but championships are won and lost 60'6" from home plate. Over the course of Eddie "Whitey" Ford's career, the New York/San Francisco Giants would win nine World Series' games -- Ford would win 10.

It's amazing what you can buy for $1000 dollars.

Equally amazing was that Whitey Ford reached the big leagues at all. He didn't even look like a pitcher. Pitchers were supposed to be big men with scowling faces and blazing fastballs. Hitters were supposed to quake in fear as the snarling, unshaven Vic Raschi would challenge hitters with high heat. They were to be like Allie Reynolds who terrified batters with white hot fastballs that went from light to shadow in late afternoons at Yankee Stadium. Ford was all of 5'10 170 lb. and looked more choirboy than anything.

Several scouts looked in on a young Whitey Ford and focused on superficial things; he was too small, he lacked an overpowering fastball, he was not a prospect. In doing so they neglected the very things that separates the great pitchers from the merely good. Young Ford was not a thrower, but a pitcher. Ford knew the art behind the athleticism. He knew how to get hitters out. He hated to lose and had the guts of a burglar.

Ford enjoyed a stellar minor league career and he knew it too. As the Yankees were struggling to shake the Boston Red Sox down the stretch in 1949, Ford took it upon himself to call Yankees' manager Casey Stengel to offer his services. Stengel surprised, declined. However Stengel had a fondness for players with confidence in their abilities and so he was invited to Spring Training in 1950.

There was one thing though, that Ford had to learn before he enjoyed big league success.

This lesson was taught to Ford during the first Spring Training of the 1950's. His attitude in camp caused other players to nickname him "The Fresh Young Busher." Since Ford's approach to pitching was successful in the minor leagues, he felt it would in the majors too.

Not so.

Yankees pitching coach Jim Turner had asked crafty southpaw Eddie Lopat to tutor the brash youngster. Both Lopat and Ford were the same size and neither threw blazing heat. However Ford was a minor league success, whereas Lopat, who was 82-70 at that point of his career (51-49 over four years in Chicago on teams that did not finish above .500 once during his tenure there), was a major league success. Lopat knew how to get major league hitters out. Ford thought he knew and was not open to coaching.

A quick trip to Kansas City focused his mind on the idea that there were still things to be learned.

When called up later that season, Ford went 9-1.

Stengel handled young Ford carefully spotting him against weaker teams. Impressed with his savvy, Stengel decided to throw Ford into the heat of battle. In mid September, the Yankees were in first place..barely. The Detroit Tigers were a half game behind the Bronx Bombers, and were slated for a crucial mid-September showdown in Detroit. Stengel had now developed confidence in Ford. So despite being on the road, playing in a bandbox ballpark, the Yankee manager gave the rookie the ball to start game three of that series.

Ford did not disappoint.

In a tightly pitched ballgame, Ford held the Tigers offense in check, the score 1-1 heading into the top of the ninth. The Yankees' offense then exploded for seven runs. Detroit would hang tough, but the Yankees would go on to clinch the American League flag by three games over Detroit.

Two things now loomed in Ford's future, the World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies and military service. The Yankees raced ahead 3-0 in the Fall Classic. Stengel, mindful of Ford's upcoming hitch in the military, coupled with his superlative rookie season, gave him the start for Game Four. Ford threw eight and two-thirds innings of shutout ball. With two on and two out Ford got the final out on a pop fly to outfielder Gene Woodling.

Woodling dropped it.

That error and a hit lead to a couple of unearned runs, so Stengel brought out his favorite secret weapon: Allie Reynolds. Throwing into the stadium shadows Reynolds went called strike one, two, and three.

Suffice it to say, Stengel could hardly wait until Ford returned from the military.

From "The Fresh Young Busher" to "Chairman of the Board"

Whitey Ford's return to the Yankees in 1953 could not have come at a more opportune time. Staff ace Vic Raschi's arthritic knees had limited his turns in the rotation. Ford stepped right in and won 18 games as the Yankees again won the pennant. Stengel decided to pitch Ford in the fourth game of the World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers. He did not last long and was replaced in the second inning after giving up three runs in the first. Stengel again handed him the ball for Game Six and pitched extremely well and then relieved by Allie Reynolds late in the game to nail down the World Championship for the Yankees.

Ford pitched well in 1954 winning 16 games. However the Cleveland Indians won 111 games and the Yankees would not represent the American League in the World Series. Vic Raschi was dealt to the Cardinals that year and the mantle of staff ace now fell to Ford. In 1955, Ford started the season on fire winning six of his first seven starts, including three shutouts. Ford won 18 games that season as manager Stengel would hold out Ford to pitch against teams they were trying to outrace for the American League flag. The Yankees clinched the pennant in the season's final week. Just as in 1953, they would face the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Ford was shaky in the first game of the World Series at Yankee Stadium, but got the win, pitching eight innings. The Yankees won the second game and headed to Ebbets Field in Brooklyn where the Dodgers won all three games. The series shifted back to the Bronx in a must-win game for the Bronx Bombers. Ford was given the start and went the distance winning 5-1. It went for naught as Dodgers' southpaw Johnny Podres twirled a shutout sending Brooklyn into a frenzy. During the offseason the Yankees toured Japan. In a game against the Tokyo Giants--after a night of revelry--produced a play that would have been a classic baseball blooper. The Giants had a man on second and Ford wanted to try a pickoff play. Unfortunately Gil McDougald who was playing shortstop and Billy Martin who was at second base--still recovering from the previous evening's festivities--didn't see the signal. Ford whirled around and fired a strike to second base that bounced off the forehead of a large Japanese umpire (since no one was covering second). The umpire barely blinked. McDougald went to check on the umpire to see if he had been hurt. The umpire regarded McDougald impassively, never changing expression. Apprised of this, McDougald went to the mound to inform Ford, telling him: "Whitey, that's the [expletive]ing tip-off on you. When you can hit a guy dead center from sixty feet and you don't even leave a mark on him. Pal, can you imagine what it's like to play in the infield behind you?"

1956 brought 19 wins and another pennant for the Yankees. On September 16, in Chicago's Comiskey Park, the White Sox Billy Pierce faced off against Ford. After ten innings the game was knotted at 1-1. In the top of the eleventh Mickey Mantle stroked a solo home run and Ford came out to finish what he started. The final out of that game brought along with it the American League pennant. A young 22 year old Baltimore Orioles rookie foiled Ford's attempt at his first 20 win season, shutting out the Yankees 1-0 in Ford's final start of the regular season.

Along with the flag came yet another Fall Classic against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Ford got the start in Game One but tiny Ebbets Field was a graveyard for lefties of every stripe. After three innings, Ford had to call it a day. The series shifted back to the Bronx with the Yankees down 2-0. Yankee Stadium, unlike Ebbets Field, was a boon to southpaws and Ford was given the start in Game Three as Stengel hoped to stop the bleeding. In the first two games the Yankee bullpen had to pitch 14 innings. The Yankees needed Ford to go deep into the game or the pitching staff could be in serious jeopardy.

Ford went the distance giving the Yankees their first win, and the bullpen a much needed rest.

The Yankees' Don Larsen pitched a perfect game in Game Five of the series. In Game Seven, Yankee sophomore righthander Johnny Kucks tossed a shutout at Ebbets Field, giving Ford his third World Series ring.

The spring of 1957 was bitter for Ford. In an April game against the Washington Senators he injured his arm after warming up too quickly after a long sixth inning by the Yankee offense. His next start against the Red Sox caused the pain to reappear and an early May start against the White Sox did him in. The doctor prescribed rest. Ford would win just 11 games that season. The Yankees won the pennant and faced the Milwaukee Braves. Ford defeated Warren Spahn in Game one, and shut out in Game Five by Lew Burdette. The Yankees fell in seven games.

The clouds hovering over Ford cleared to partly sunny skies. The Yankees were eager to avenge themselves on the Braves, but had to reach the World Series first (and hoping the Braves would do likewise). Ford had a magical run in July throwing a trifecta of shutouts. On August 8, Ford threw his seventh shutout of the year against the Red Sox. A couple of days later, Stengel called him in to relieve and Ford reinjured his arm. His shutout against the Red Sox would be his fourteenth and final win of 1958. The Yankees again won the American League pennant and, again, faced the Milwaukee Braves in the World Series. The Yankees had their revenge in seven games but it was not Ford's finest hour. He did not win in three starts and posted a series ERA of 4.11.

Nothing went right for the Yankees in 1959. An epidemic of injuries swept the Yankees early in the season and the Bronx Bombers could not get on track. Ford managed to win 16 games, but that seemed irrelevant unless it was 16 wins in a pennant winning season. The following season Ford's injury bug returned for a time. However Ford's shoulder got better just in time to climax an awesome pennant drive as the Yankees won their final 15 games. Ford for his part won his final three starts and seemed primed for an awesome World Series. Casey Stengel had a decision to make. Ford was hot, but his injury woes over the last few seasons were a concern. In what might have been the pivotal decision in the World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Stengel decided to start, not Whitey Ford in Game One, but Art Ditmar. Ford was unbeatable at Yankee Stadium and they wanted to keep Ford in reserve until Game Three. That would mean Ford could only pitch two, not three games in the Fall Classic. Ford threw shutouts in Games Three and Six but the Yankees lost Game Seven on a ninth inning home run by Bill Mazeroski.

The March To Cooperstown

Changes swept the Yankee organization after the 1960 season. Gone was general manager George Weiss and field boss Casey Stengel was replaced by Ralph Houk. This would mark a change for Ford. Instead of being held out to face the toughest teams, Ford would now pitch every fourth day. That, combined with his best health in years produced an awesome season. Ford would go 25-4 easily winning the Cy Young Award. However it was the home run hitting exploits of Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle that garnered all the headlines.

The Yankees again won the pennant.

The regular season may have belonged to Maris and Mantle, but the Fall Classic belonged to Whitey Ford. Ford won two games and, as he did in 1960, and again did not surrender a single run. It was the second of Babe Ruth's records to fall in 1961. Maris beat the home run record, but Ford topped Ruth's record of consecutive shutout innings in the World Series. Ford later quipped that it was not a good year for Babe Ruth and commissioner Ford Frick had already used up his only asterisk on Roger Maris.

Injuries resurfaced in 1962 for Ford. After pitching seven no-hit innings against the Los Angeles Angels, Ford strained his arm and was out for a month. Still Ford finished 17-8. Ford would get three starts in the series against the San Francisco Giants winning one, losing one and getting a no decision. However Ralph Terry pitched a shutout in Game Seven and Whitey Ford would win his last World Championship. 1963 didn't start well as Ford went through Spring Training with a sore arm. Ford was now 34 and some might have wondered whether athletic age was catching up with him. These thoughts were not dispelled when he opened the campaign 0-2. Ford quickly rebounded winning ten of eleven, after his one loss in that run he rattled off twelve straight and then five of his last six, finishing the season 24-7. Along with that triumph came another pennant and an old-new foe in the Fall Classic, the Dodgers, the Los Angeles Dodgers. However he faced up against Sandy Koufax twice, losing twice as the Dodgers swept the series.

1964 was a roller coaster ride for the Yankees. The Bronx Bombers were holding their own until an August injury to Ford threw the pitching staff into disarray. However Ford came back firing on all cylinders and the Yankees rebounded to capture the pennant.

It would be Whitey Ford's last one.

Despite the strong finish, there was something very wrong with Whitey Ford. He pitched Game One of the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals and was hit hard.

He would never pitch in another World Series game.

Without Ford, the Yankees would lose the series in seven games.

Ford wasn't getting blood circulation to his left shoulder and often lost feeling in his fingers. He once had to use a small spray bottle full of warm water on his left hand so he could feel the ball. He was later disallowed from using it as an opposing manager complained he was doctoring the ball. Ford snapped that if he needed to cheat to beat the complaining manager's team, he'd retire. Ford would win 16 games in 1965 and just two in both 1966 and 1967 and would indeed do just that, retired.

The Giants could always take solace in the fact they saved $1000.

Driving a Ford

  • Whitey Ford would lead the American League in wins three times (1955, 1961 and 1963).
  • Whitey Ford was named to eight All Star Teams.
  • Whitey Ford won a pair of ERA crowns in 1956 and 1958.
  • Whitey Ford's records for World Series wins (10) and most consecutive shutout innings in World Series play still stand.
  • Ford's 236 wins as a Yankee are still the team record.
  • Ford's .690 career winning percentage is second highest in the 20th century behind another Yankee (Spud Chandler --.717)
  • Ford's .690 career winning percentage is tied for second all time in baseball history. Bob Caruthers also had a .690 winning percentage (218-99) in the 19th century.
  • Spud Chandler and Bob Caruthers however are not in the Hall of Fame.
  • Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle were inducted together into the Hall of Fame in 1974.
  • Ford also owns team records in both shutouts (45) and strike outs (1956).