Cathedral a memorable site for Whitey

Cathedral a memorable site for Whitey

NEW YORK -- A wonderful sight prior to Game 4 of the 1999 World Series at Yankee Stadium was that of Yankees and Braves players, unprompted, standing on the dugouts' top steps to watch Whitey Ford throw out the ceremonial first pitch to fellow Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, a genuinely moving moment of spontaneity.

"Yogi and I have done that quite a few times in recent years," Ford said. "Those are really my favorite memories of this place."

By "this place," Ford meant the renovated Yankee Stadium that reopened in 1976 after a two-year overhaul. The change in design was enough to make Ford, like Berra, view the park differently from the one in which they spent their careers with the Yankees in the 1950s and '60s.

"I never played here," Ford said, "and the old stadium, well, that was where I used to work. It was a job site for me, but what we accomplished there meant a lot to our fans."

Ford, who will turn 80 in October, played on Yankees teams that won 11 pennants and six World Series in a 16-season career that stretched from 1950-67. With those squads, Ford won 10 World Series games, the most for any pitcher (his eight losses are also the most) and set Fall Classic records for games (22), innings (146), strikeouts (94) and consecutive scoreless innings (32). The last mark broke Babe Ruth's record of 29 with the Red Sox.

"I pitched two shutouts in 1960 and another in Game 1 in 1961, and people started talking about the record," Ford said. "I didn't know until then how great a pitcher Babe Ruth was. I had thought he was a lousy pitcher who they made into a hitter. I looked at the Baseball Encyclopedia one day and was stunned at what I found out. He was the best left-handed pitcher in the game when they moved him to the outfield so he could hit every day."

The consecutive innings record fell less than a month after Roger Maris hit 61 home runs, one more than Ruth had hit in 1927. As Ford famously said at the time, "It was a rough year for the Babe."

A special moment in the renovated stadium for Ford was Aug. 20, 2000, when the Yankees held Whitey Ford Day. He joked with principal owner George Steinbrenner about it finally being time that the Yankees honored a former player who was not Italian, since in other ceremonies around that time the club had feted Berra, Joe DiMaggio and Phil Rizzuto.

In acknowledging the applause from the crowd of 50,048 that sun-splashed Sunday, Ford first turned to the bleachers, for it was there that the legendary left-hander's relationship with the Bronx ballpark began 62 years earlier. Ford was nine years old in 1938 when he first entered the sanctuary that housed the heroes of his youth, and later became the stage for a memorable career that earned him a plaque in the Hall of Fame in 1974 alongside his long-time teammate and friend, Mickey Mantle.

"I sat in the bleachers a lot more than I did in the grandstand in those days," Ford said.

Farewell Yankee Stadium

There were bleacher seats all around the outfield in the stadium's old configuration. When Ford went there for the first time with one of his uncles from Astoria, Queens, he sat in the center-field bleachers and saw the No. 5 on the back of his idol, DiMaggio.

"I remember he went 1-for-6 with a home run and five 400-foot outs," Ford said. "Think about all the home runs that 'Death Valley' at Yankee Stadium [461 feet from the plate] cost Joe D."

Little Eddie Ford had to squint to see pitcher Lefty Gomez, catcher Bill Dickey and first baseman Lou Gehrig.

"There was no television in those days, so we didn't see ballplayers unless we went to the park," Ford said. "We knew all the players from the radio, but what a thrill to see them."

Ford, who pitched and played first base for several amateur teams in Queens, including one that went 36-0 in 1946, made it to the Bronx in a Yankees uniform in 1950, by which time he had acquired the nickname noting his light blond hair. Another nickname was affixed to him later by Mantle and second baseman Billy Martin, "Slick," which they actually called each other, but stuck to Ford especially because he was the "city slicker" of the trio.

His .690 winning percentage, based on a 236-106 record, is the best in history for a pitcher with 200 or more victories -- pretty neat for a guy who was a 20-game winner only twice. But Ford won 17, 18, 19 games year after year. His best season was 1961, when Ford was 25-4 with a 3.21 ERA and won the Cy Young Award, then given to only one pitcher in the Major Leagues each year.

An amazing aspect of Ford's career was that his ERA in any one season was never higher than 3.24, which it was in 1965 when he was 16-13 for a Yankees team that lost 85 games. He led the league in ERA twice and had a career mark of 2.75. Only three American League pitchers this year have an ERA that low, although Ford once commented on the handicap facing today's pitchers.

Holding a ball recently, Ford said, "The seams are very low. It feels really slippery. I don't think my ERA would be as low today."

Ford had the pugnacious style of a similarly built New York legend, film actor James Cagney, and was so rarely rattled that catcher Elston Howard took to calling him the "Chairman of the Board," yet one more nickname for Ford, this one being shared with another bantam who grew up across the Hudson River in New Jersey.

"I guess Ellie thought I was like Frank Sinatra," Ford said.

Well, Whitey was, in one major way -- when he stood on the mound at Yankee Stadium, he had the crowd in the palm of his hand.

Jack O'Connell is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.