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Whitey Ford, Yankees legend and Hall of Famer, dies at age 91

Yankees pitcher Whitey Ford on March of 1960.

Yankees pitcher Whitey Ford on March of 1960. Credit: AP

Whenever Whitey Ford strode to the mound during his lengthy Yankees career, he exuded a calm, cool cockiness no matter the stakes. The bigger the game, the better he performed, which made him not only the winningest pitcher in Yankees history but one of the most respected.

"He was amazing. He was so confident out there, and that rubbed off on the rest of us,’’ shortstop Tony Kubek wrote in his book "Sixty-One,’’ a chronicle of the powerful 1961 Yankees’ championship season. "[Catcher] Ellie Howard called him ‘The Chairman of the Board,’ and it was an apt nickname. Whitey was in control of every pitch and every situation.’’

Ford’s sixth sense about pitching stunned reserve shortstop Joe DeMaestri. "Whitey was incredible. He not only knew where his pitch was going, he knew where the guy was going to hit it,’’ DeMaestri told Kubek. "He’d tell you to move a couple of steps to your left and the guy would hit the ball right at you. I couldn’t believe it.’’

Ford’s best friend on the Yankees, centerfielder Mickey Mantle, said in Kubek’s book, "Line up all the pitchers in the world in front of me, and give me first choice, I’d pick Whitey.’’

Ford, who won 236 games during his 16 seasons with the Yankees and has the highest winning percentage in baseball history (.690) of any pitcher with more than 200 victories, has died at his home in Lake Success, Long Island. He was 91. The Yankees announced Ford's death on Twitter on Friday, with no other details made available at this time.

Declining health in recent years did not prevent Ford from being part of the baseball fraternity whenever he could. As the last remaining icon from the Yankees’ dynasty era, which encompassed much of the 20th century, Ford was on the field at Yankee Stadium for the 2016 Old-Timers’ Day, wearing his familiar No. 16 pinstriped jersey. Despite needing help to get to his seat, Ford took his place among living legends in Cooperstown for the Hall of Fame induction later that summer.

In honor of the final year at the old Yankee Stadium, Ford was one of four Yankees Hall of Famers who threw ceremonial first pitches at the 2008 All-Star Game in the Bronx. He was there for the last game at his old digs that September. He had first seen the place as a 9-year-old and later said he never dreamed he would pitch there, with Joe DiMaggio playing behind him in centerfield.

The 5-10 lefthander was a master craftsman, not a flamethrower. He used an assortment of pitches — an overhand curve might have been his best pitch — changed speeds, had good control and fielded his position well.

"It was like watching a pitching textbook in the flesh,’’ pitcher Ralph Terry once marveled.

Ford also had a sly pickoff move and, particularly late in his career, sometimes resorted to other forms of trickery. "Whitey doctored the ball,’’ Kubek said. ‘’But he didn’t do it because he had to so much as because he wanted to. It fit with his New York city-slicker image.’’

On one occasion, throwing an illegal spitball also fit with Ford’s image as a money pitcher. The day before the 1961 All-Star Game at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, Ford and Mantle played golf at a club where Giants owner Horace Stoneham was a member. They played with Stoneham’s son Peter, who told them to simply sign his father’s name for anything they might need. The fun-loving Yankees stars took that literally, signing for golf shoes, sweaters, balls and shirts, running up a $200 tab, extremely large for that era.

Ford saw Horace Stoneham later that night and offered to pay the bill, but the Giants’ owner made a deal instead: If Ford could retire San Francisco’s star centerfielder, Willie Mays, during the All-Star Game, the debt would be canceled. If Mays got a hit, the total would be doubled and Ford and Mantle would owe $400.

Mantle wanted no part of such an arrangement. ‘’He knew that Mays was like 9-for-12 off me lifetime, and he didn’t have any reason to think I was going to start getting Willie out, not especially in his own ballpark. But I talked him into it,’’ Ford said in the book "Voices From Cooperstown’’ by Anthony Connor.

Ford started the game, and Mays came to bat in the first inning. "Well, I got two strikes on him somehow, and now the money’s on the line because I might not get to throw to him again,’’ Ford told Connor. "So I did the only smart thing possible under the circumstance: I loaded the ball up real good . . . and then I threw Willie the biggest spitball you ever saw.’’

The ball darted and dropped so suddenly that Mays stood transfixed at the plate as the umpire signaled strike three. Ford tried to play it cool. Mantle didn't.

"To this day,’’ Ford said, "people are probably still wondering why Mickey came running in from centerfield now that the inning was over, clapping his hands over his head and jumping up in the air like we’d just won the World Series — and here it was only the end of the first inning in the All-Star Game . . . It was a money pitch, that’s what, and we’d just saved ourselves four hundred dollars.’’

In more traditional fashion, Ford was the Yankees’ money pitcher in key games throughout his career. Thriving in pressure situations, he helped the team win 11 American League pennants and six world championships during his 16-year New York tenure. He was a 10-time All-Star, won the Cy Young Award as the best pitcher in baseball in 1961 and won a major league-record 10 World Series contests.

In 1961, he set a still-standing Series record of 33 consecutive scoreless innings, breaking a record previously held by Babe Ruth.

Fittingly, Ford, who retired in May 1967, and Mantle, who retired after the 1968 season, were inducted into the Hall of Fame together in 1974.

The road to Cooperstown began in New York City. Edward Charles Ford was born on Oct. 21, 1928, in Manhattan and moved to Astoria, Queens, when he was 4. He was raised in Queens and lived his adult life on Nassau County’s North Shore.

Because his neighborhood high school, Bryant, did not have a baseball team, Ford commuted to Manhattan’s Aviation High, where he starred as a line drive-hitting first baseman. During his senior year of 1946, he attended a tryout at Yankee Stadium, where scout Paul Krichell taught him how to throw a curveball and suggested he try pitching.

Ford pitched briefly in high school before starring as a pitcher and hitter for the Thirty-Fourth Avenue Boys sandlot team that summer. In September, Krichell signed him for $7,000 and he began his three-year minor-league career in 1947 in Edenton, North Carolina. It was there that Lefty Gomez, a Hall of Fame pitcher who was managing in the Yankees’ farm system, gave Ford the nickname ‘’Whitey’’ for his light blond hair. The moniker didn’t stick until he was a big-leaguer for several years. In fact, Ford said he signed autographs ‘’Eddie Ford’’ early in his Yankees career.

"Eddie’’ Ford was an instant hit. As a midseason rookie call-up in 1950, he went 9-1 and helped theYankees edge the Detroit Tigers by three games for their second straight American League pennant under manager Casey Stengel. Ford won a game in the 1950 World Series as the Yankees swept the Whiz Kid Phillies in four games.

Military service kept Ford out of the majors in 1951 and ’52, but when he returned for the 1953 season, he proved he was a Cadillac, not an Edsel. He went 18-6 and established himself as the team’s ace, a role he played for more than a decade.

About the only honor that eluded him during the ’50s was winning 20 games in a season, as he won 18 twice and 19 once. But that changed when Ralph Houk replaced Stengel as manager after the 1960 season.

Stengel had preferred to use a five-man starting rotation, which limited Ford’s opportunities for victories. Houk, with input from pitching coach Johnny Sain, proposed a four-man rotation. Ford liked the idea and had his best season in 1961, posting a 25-4 record en route to winning his only Cy Young Award. He flourished in the four-man rotation for five seasons, including a 24-7 mark in 1963.

Ford developed a circulation problem from a clogged artery during the 1964 World Series and it plagued him in future seasons, even after surgery. He could not sweat on his left side and experienced numbness and pain when he pitched.

His last winning season was 1965 (16-13), bringing his record to 232-97 for his first 14 seasons.

He struggled through injuries in 1966 (2-5) and 1967 (2-4) before retiring in May 1967 at age 38. "I could’ve hung on through the year and tried to fool them,’’ Ford said in his autobiography "Slick,’’ written with Phil Pepe, "but what was the use? I couldn’t fool myself. I knew I couldn’t pitch anymore.’’

The Yankees no longer were a dynasty when Ford quit. When Mantle retired after the ’68 season, it truly was the end of an era.

"They always used to say, ‘As Mantle goes, so goes the Yankees.’ I guess I thought I was an inspirational leader and all that crap,’’ Mantle said in Kubek’s book. ‘’But we all knew that the real leader of the Yankees was Whitey.’’

Ford was famously a close friend of Mantle, whose monument at Yankee Stadium Ford unveiled during a ceremony a year after Mantle’s death. But Ford also was a friend of role player Billy Martin. He had strong relationships, on and off the field, with his catchers, Yogi Berra and Howard, and with other veterans such as first baseman Bill Skowron and Kubek. He was quick to smile and party with teammates on some nights, but he was all business the two nights before a scheduled start.

Though he never went to college, Ford was a shrewd investor in businesses, racehorses and real estate during and after his career. He dabbled in baseball after retiring, coaching for several seasons with the Yankees and serving as a spring training instructor. He was a popular guest speaker at New York City area functions for years, capitalizing on his fame and genial personality.

Ford fully enjoyed and appreciated his baseball life. "I loved what I did — I think I did it well, and I hope I have given back something to the game that has been so good to me,’’ he said in his autobiography. "The highlight, of course, was making the Hall of Fame. It was a day I will never forget, especially since I was able to go in together with my closest buddy, Mickey Mantle . . . Here I was, a kid off the streets of New York, with a plaque hanging in the Baseball Hall of Fame. And I knew that was something that could never be taken away from me. It would be there forever.’’

Chairman of the Board

- Yankees all-time leader in wins (236), innings (3,170 1.3), starts (438) and shutouts (45)

- .690 winning percentage the best in baseball history (minimum 200 wins)

- 10-time All-Star

- World Series records include most wins (10), most strikeouts (94) and consecutive scoreless innings (33)

- Six-time World Series champion

- 11-time AL pennant winner

- 1961 AL Cy Young Award winner

- Inducted into Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974

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