Whitey Ford (1928-2020)

Friday, October 09 2020 @ 12:51 PM EDT

Contributed by: Magpie

Yet another Hall of Famer has passed on.  This has been a bad year for pretty well everyone, and it's been especially terrible for some of the most legendary baseball players of all time and Whitey Ford was as unusual a legend as one could ask for.

He certainly didn't look like much. He was an undersized left-hander with a good fastball and a very good curve ball. It is extremely difficult, at this remove, both to explain how dominant Ford was in his prime - which lasted for fifteen years - and to account for just why he was so great.

Well, he was pitching for the New York Yankees, when they were the most dominant team in the game's history, the team that won 11 pennants in his first 13 seasons. Which is true. But Ford was way, way better than the team he played for. He was a starting pitcher in an age when starting pitchers were expected to finish what they started. Ford started 438 games in his career and got the decision in 326 of them. And as a starter he went 227-99, which is a .696 winning percentage.

Needless to say, not even the Yankees played .696 ball during Ford's career.  They didn't play .696 ball in any one of those seasons. Ford was just really, really good at winning that day's game. He was much better at winning the game than the great team he played for. It was pretty much the theme of his entire career.

           Ford               Yankees Other Games
1950    9    1    .900        89    55    .618 1953    18    6    .750        81    46    .638
1954    16    8    .667        87    43    .669
1955    18    7    .720        78    51    .605
1956    19    6    .760        78    51    .605
1957    11    5    .688        87    51    .630
1958    14    7    .667        78    55    .586
1959    16   10    .615        63    65    .492
1960    12    9    .571        85    48    .639
1961    25    4    .862        84    49    .632
1962    17    8    .680        79    58    .577
1963    24    7    .774        80    50    .615
1964    17    6    .739        82    57    .590
1965    16   13    .552        61    72    .459
1966    2    5    .286        68    84    .447
1967    2    4    .333        70    86    .449
How did he do it? It's one thing for a great pitcher to rise above the level of a poor team, or an average team. Whitey Ford rose well above the level of a great team, a team that played .591 baseball over the course of his career. And there's more - for the bulk of Ford's career, his manager used him erratically. Casey Stengel made sure that Ford made as many starts as possible against the best teams in the AL any particular year, against the teams the Yankees actually needed to beat. Sometimes that meant coming back with two days rest. Sometimes it meant sitting a couple of extra days so he could be matched up against Cleveland or Chicago or whoever Stengel was worried about that year. Ford spent 9 seasons pitching for Stengel, and started 237 games for him. This was the day of the four man rotation, when a starter could be expected to make the majority of his starts on three, and sometimes four days rest. But Ford started 18 games on short rest, 44 times on 3 days rest, 102 times on 4 days rest, 37 times on 5 days rest, and 36 times on 6 days (or more rest.) He was the team's ace for almost this entire period, remember. Ford went 133-59 2.70 for Stengel (ERA+ of 137) - and he never started more than 30 games in any of those seasons.

Ford didn't get to work in a standard and fixed rotation, and fatten up his record with regular outings against the league's also-rans until he was 32 years old, when Ralph Houk replaced Stengel in 1961. Houk used Ford just like every other manager in baseball used his ace. In Ford's four full seasons with Houk at the helm, he started 149 games. Just 3 of those starts came on short rest. The vast majority, 96 of them, came on the standard 3 days rest. He made 32 starts on 4 days rest, 7 on 5 days rest, and 11 starts on long rest. As is well known, Ford stomped all over the AL during those four seasons, going 83-25, 2.76 (ERA+ 132) even if he wasn't quite as good as he'd been in his prime.

How did he do it? He was just a little LH with a good fastball and a really good curve. He didn't blow anyone away, like Ron Guidry or Billy Wagner, another couple of undersized left-handers. He was absolutely impossible to run against, but the running game wasn't much of a factor in his day anyway. He was an accomplished cheater, it's well known, but that's something he turned to in his old age for the most part.

How did he do it? I just don't know. His game was balanced and complete. He never led the league in Ks or in Ks per 9 IP - but he was in the Top 10 in both categories many, many times. He never gave up the fewest hits or walks per 9 IP - but again, he was among the leaders year after year. (He did the league once in Hits & Walks per 9)  He never beat himself. He gave nothing away. He was about as efficient as a baseball player could be. Which is what he was like on the mound. In an age of big and elaborate windups - there were lots of double-pumps and windmills - Ford was brisk, streamlined, economical. An emotionless, mechanical, cold-blooded killer. He came to beat you. He beat you. And then he walked off the mound.

And then the party was on, of course. Oh yes.