NEW YORK — Whitey Ford, the street-smart New Yorker who had the best winning percentage of any Major League Baseball pitcher in the 20th century and helped the Yankees win six World Series championships in the 1950s and '60s, has died. He was 91.
A family member told The Associated Press on Friday that Ford, who had Alzheimer's disease, died at his Long Island home Thursday night.
Nicknamed "The Chairman of the Board," Ford was a wily and reliable left-hander who spent his entire MLB career (1950-67) with the Yankees, winning 236 games and losing just 106, a winning percentage of .690. He helped symbolize the almost robotic efficiency of the Yankees in the mid-20th century: Only twice from Ford's rookie year to 1964 did they fail to make the postseason.
"Whitey earned his status as the ace of some of the most memorable teams in our sport's rich history," MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said. "Beyond the Chairman of the Board's excellence on the mound, he was a distinguished ambassador for our national pastime throughout his life."
Ford's death is the latest this year of a number of National Baseball Hall of Famers, with the other losses including Al Kaline, Tom Seaver, Lou Brock and Bob Gibson. Ford's death occurred in October — the month he was born and the one when he for so long soared on baseball's biggest stage, with the news breaking hours before his Yankees played the Tampa Bay Rays in a decisive Game 5 of an American League Division Series.
"He would have been the starting pitcher in this game for the Yankees in years past," former teammate and World Series MVP Bobby Richardson told AP.
Edward Charles Ford was born on the East Side of Manhattan, about 100 blocks south of Yankee Stadium. He grew up playing sandlot ball in Astoria, Queens, a section of the city that produced major leaguers Tony Cuccinello and Sam Mele and singer Tony Bennett. The blond-haired Ford was nicknamed "Whitey" while still in the minor leagues.
The World Series record book is crowded with Ford's accomplishments. His string of 33 consecutive scoreless innings from 1960 to '62 broke a record of 29 2/3 innings set by Babe Ruth. Ford still holds pitching records for World Series games and starts (22), innings (146), wins (10) and strikeouts (94).
Ford was in his mid-20s when he became the go-to guy in Casey Stengel's rotation, the pitcher the manager said he would always turn to if he absolutely needed to win one game. Ford was Stengel's choice to pitch World Series openers eight times, another record.
Ford's best seasons were 1961 and 1963, part of a stretch of five straight AL pennants for the Yankees, when new manager Ralph Houk began using a four-man rotation instead of five. Ford led the league in victories with 25 in 1961, won the Cy Young Award and was the World Series MVP after winning two more games against the Cincinnati Reds. In 1963, he went 24-7 — eight of those triumphs were in June — to lead the league in wins again. He also led the AL in ERA in 1956 (2.47) and 1958 (2.01) and was a six-time All-Star.
Ford did have his World Series disappointments. He spoke bitterly of the 1960 Fall Classic, when he shut out the Pittsburgh Pirates twice but was used by Stengel in Game 3 and Game 6 and so was unavailable for the finale, won 10-9 by the Pirates on Bill Mazeroski's home run in the bottom of the ninth. In 1963, Ford was outmatched twice by Sandy Koufax as the Los Angeles Dodgers swept the Yankees.
Unlike Koufax, Ford was not an overpowering pitcher. Instead he depended on guile and guts, rarely giving hitters the same look on consecutive pitches. He'd throw overhand sometimes, three-quarters other times, mixing curves and sliders in with his fastball and changeup.
Ford would also acknowledge using some special methods to add movement to his pitches, including saliva, mud and dirt and cutting the ball with a ring.
"If there are some pitchers doing it and getting away with it, that's fine by me," Ford told sports writer Phil Pepe in 1987. "If it were me and I needed to cheat to be able to throw the good stuff that would keep me in the major leagues at a salary of about $800,000 a year, I'd do whatever I had to do"
After his retirement, Ford briefly worked as a broadcaster and opened a restaurant in Garden City, "Whitey Ford's Cafe," that closed within a year. In 2001, actor Anthony Michael Hall played Ford in the Billy Crystal-directed HBO movie "61*," about the 1961 season and the quest of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris to break Ruth's single-year home run record.
Ford and Mantle were cultural opposites, an odd couple who became inseparable off the field — Ford the fast-talking city kid, Mantle the shy country boy from Oklahoma. They enjoyed the attraction of New York nightlife along with rowdy, wise-cracking infielder Billy Martin, and Stengel called the trio "whiskey slick." Mantle shortened that to just "Slick" for Ford, who proudly used the nickname as the title of his 1987 autobiography, co-written by Pepe. Ford in turn coined one of baseball's most famous nicknames, "Charlie Hustle," for Pete Rose.
Typical of their adventures was an episode during a trip to Japan where they hooked up with a 400-pound sumo wrestler who was accompanied by a translator. Through the evening, the wrestler never spoke, just smiling and nodding.
Then it occurred to Martin that it might be fun to sling some insults at the wrestler. Their new friend continued to nod and smile. When the outing was over, Martin said good night in Japanese and the wrestler nodded and said "Thank you very much for a nice evening" in perfect English.
It was a lesson in international diplomacy.
After Martin was traded in the aftermath of a 1957 brawl at the Copacabana night club, Ford and Mantle remained Yankees dynasty centerpieces and were elected together to the Hall of Fame in 1974.
Ford often called his election the highlight of his career, made more meaningful because he was inducted with Mantle, who died in 1995.
"It never was anything I imagined was possible or anything I dared dream about when I was a kid growing up on the sidewalks of New York," he wrote in his autobiography. "I never really thought I would make it as a kid because I always was too small."
However, the Yankees signed Ford in 1947, and three years later, he was called up in midseason. At just 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, Ford was viewed as a marginal prospect, but he won nine straight games and nailed down the 1950 World Series sweep of the Philadelphia Phillies by winning the fourth game, coming within one out of a complete game.
After two years away for military service during the Korean War, Ford returned to the Yankees in 1953, and along with Mantle he helped form the core of a team that won 10 pennants and five World Series in the next dozen years. Ford won 18 games in his first season back and never won fewer than 11 for 13 straight seasons.
Mantle summed it up: "He was the best pitcher I ever saw and the greatest competitor. Whitey won seven out of every 10 decisions, and nobody in the history of baseball has ever done better than that."