Ford’s pitching skill was everlasting
On May 30, 1967, a noon press conference was held at Yankee Stadium in which the 38-year-old Ford announcement his retirement. The sturdy 5-foot-10 southpaw, whose 236 victories remain the most in franchise history, explained he was leaving the game because of a persistent bone spur in his left elbow.
“I’m positive I’m doing the right thing. But I wish I could have played a few more years to be part of the rebuilding program,” Ford, holding back tears, told the assembled media. “The things I’m going to miss most are the players, the games and the road trips.”
The witty lefty added: “I came here in 1950 wearing $50 suits and I’m leaving wearing $200 suits. So I guess I’m doing all right.”
Then, after a pause, the fun-loving Ford added with a smile, “I got them for $80.”
Ford’s final big league action took place nine days earlier, on May 21, when, at Detroit, he started, gave up one run in one inning of work, then left complaining of pain in his left elbow. In that, his 16th and final big league season, Ford, who had been hampered by arm trouble the past few years, finished with a 2-4 record in seven games started, a 1.64 ERA, and 21 strikeouts in 44 innings pitched.
In what turned out to be Ford’s final appearance on a big league mound, he tossed a perfect inning on the annual Mayor’s Trophy game against the Mets on May 27, 1968. The exhibition, which the two franchises began playing in 1963, drew 35,198 fans to Shea Stadium in the 4-3 Mets victory. The crowd contributed nearly $100,000 to the cause of sandlot baseball.
Ford, who pitched the sixth inning – striking out Ed Charles before getting Tommie Agee and Don Bosch on grounders – addressed this particular outing in his 1987 autobiography, “Slick: My Life In and Around Baseball,” written with Phil Pepe.
“I had started pitching batting practice in Spring Training in 1968, and my elbow felt good. I came so close to saying I should try pitching again, but I didn’t do it. I would only have been kidding myself,” Ford wrote in his book. “During the season, I would pitch batting practice a lot, especially on the road, because we didn’t carry a batting-practice pitcher with us on road trips and the other coaches were older. So I was the one who would usually go out there and throw.
A few months later, on July 25, Ford again toed the rubber when the Yankees played an exhibition against their Triple-A affiliate Syracuse Chiefs. Prior to the game, Houk announced that his pitchers would be Ford, outfielder Rocky Colavito and utility infielder Gene Michael.
Colavito, a longtime American League slugger, had signed as a free agent with the Yankees only a week earlier. A high school pitching star, he had tossed four minor league innings in 1951 and three scoreless frames for the 1958 Indians.
“Colavito and Michael have good arms and I’m going to let them have a fling,” manager Houk explained. “Michael pitched in the Arizona Instructional League last winter when he was with the Dodgers. He had a 3-0 record. He’s been thinking about pitching.”
“We might come back with a whole new pitching staff,” the always boyish and brash Ford quipped when he heard the news.
Ford picked up the win with his three scoreless innings – a one hit, one walk, five strikeout performance – while Colavito collected three hits and pitched two frames, and Michael went two.
“As we watched Whitey Ford in his brief stint as a hurler for the Yankees in the exhibition game, the one-time great hurler seemed to possess all the skill and mound finesse that he used to show,” wrote Watertown Daily Times Sports Editor Jack Case. “There were fans sitting near us in the crowded stands who were heard to remark that Ford looked good enough to take over as a regular reliever for the Bombers. During the three innings he worked, Whitey showed plenty of skill and some of his old time form in slipping strikes past batters.”
Ford, according to The New York Times in August 1968, scoffed at the idea that the Yankees should reactive him and sell him to a pennant contender as a relief pitcher despite his four scoreless exhibition innings – one against the Mets, three against Syracuse.
Longtime teammate Mickey Mantle, who was inducted with Ford into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974, once remarked, “I don’t care what the situation was, how high the stakes were – the bases could be loaded and the pennant riding on every pitch - it never bothered Whitey. He pitched his game. Cool. Crafty. Nerves of steel.”
Bill Francis is the senior research and writing specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum