Whitey Ford has a rosy face, pale blue eyes, blond hair, blond eyebrows and blond lashes. Even the stubble of his beard is blond, hence his nickname. Despite these bland features, there are times when Ford looks like a tough. Standing on the mound, round-shouldered, arms hanging loose at his sides, Ford, as he stares at a batter, is cocky, insolent, wise and gutty—all qualities that help make him the best pitcher in baseball.
In the 10 years that he has been pitching for the New York Yankees, Ford has compiled the highest-winning percentage of any pitcher in history, .710. His lifetime earned-run average of 2.73 is lower than that of any active pitcher. But, in spite of this, Ford has never been able to achieve what baseball regards as the symbol of pitching success, 20 victories in one season. He won 19 games once, 18 games twice and 16 games twice, but never 20. "I never minded too much at first," says Ford, "but people kept bugging me every spring. 'When you going to win 20, when you going to win 20?' It began to get me down."
Ford has undoubtedly heard the question for the last time, for this year he is going to win his 20 games. He may even win 30. With the season barely half over, he has a remarkable record of 16-2.
Several things have contributed to Ford's success this year, but undoubtedly the most important was Manager Ralph Houk's decision to start him every four days during the first half of the season. Casey Stengel, who referred to Ford as "my professional," used to rest him generously between pitching assignments. Often Ford was held out of pitching rotation so that he would be ready for an important series. As a result, Ford just didn't pitch often enough to get a fair chance at 20 victories. In 1956, for instance, the year he won 19 games, Ford started only 30 times.
This year, through the All-Star Game (in which he pitched three innings, giving up one run), Ford had 21 starts. In June alone, he started eight games and won them all, something no American Leaguer has ever done before. Opponents are watching skeptically—and hopefully—for some sign that he has been overworked, but Ford says he has never felt better. Now, with the hottest summer weeks coming up, Manager Houk has announced Ford will start every five days, but even so, Ford will be pitching far more than in past years.
Another thing that has helped Ford is that his teammates are the Yankees, a double blessing, since he does not have to pitch against them. The Yankees provide Ford—and all their pitchers—with a cheerful working atmosphere, lots of runs and a tight defense. "I'm a ground-ball pitcher," says Ford. "It's very important to me to have a good infield. This one we have is the best I've seen since I came to the Yankees."
The Yankees' heavy hitting—by Maris, Mantle, Howard, Skowron and Berra—has helped Ford out of several jams this year. In Los Angeles in late June, Ford left the game after eight innings, losing 6-5. With two out in the ninth, Moose Skowron hit a three-run homer and Ford, in the showers, discovered he was a winner. In Yankee Stadium, against the Red Sox, Ford started a game by giving up two singles and a home run. He hung on, kept the Sox from scoring for the next five innings, and the big Yankee hitters more than made up for his lapse.
Of course, these instances are exceptional. Most of the time Ford does not need many runs. He is especially effective early in the game. In 17 of his first 21 starts this season he gave up two runs or less in the first six innings. By that time the Yankees had usually given him a lead. Then, whenever Ford started to tire, there was someone in the bullpen to relieve him. That someone has generally been Luis Arroyo.
Arroyo, called Yoyo by some, is a plump little 34-year-old left-hander who had an undistinguished career in the National League until the Yankees bought him last year. His best pitch is a screwball that causes batters to hit on the ground, a handy weapon in relief since it encourages inning-ending double plays. Arroyo has relieved Ford nine times this season, and all but once he has saved the victory. The one time Arroyo was ineffective, he was charged with the defeat himself, a reliever's fate.
Arroyo's locker in Yankee Stadium is, by accident, next to Ford's so that there is great merriment in that corner of the room whenever the two collaborate on a victory. "If I win 25," said Ford one night, "I'm going to hold out for $100,000 and split it with Luis." Arroyo said he'd settle for 60-40. After another Arroyo save, Ford announced that he was going to sponsor a special Luis Arroyo night at Yankee Stadium and shower him with gifts. When Arroyo relieved another Yankee left-hander, Bud Daley, Ford told Daley to keep his hands off "my relief pitcher." After Ford pitched two complete games in a row, Arroyo threatened to desert him for somebody else. "But I am just kidding," says Arroyo. "When I save a game for Whitey, he says 'nice going' and then he buys me a couple of beers."
Ford's dependency on Arroyo was never more obvious than in his 16th victory, the Red Sox game in which he gave up those three quick runs. At the start of the seventh inning Ford was leading 6-3 and seemed to have things well under control. But the Red Sox opened with two fast singles and Ralph Houk, after stalling around as long as possible, brought Arroyo into the game. Still not properly warmed up, Arroyo gave up a double, a walk and a forceout. The score was 6-5, and the tying run was on third with one out. Almost anything, a fly ball, a slow grounder, an error, could wipe out Ford's victory. But little Luis struck out the next batter and got the next to fly out. The Yankees hit two home runs to provide a cushion, and Whitey's win was safe.
When not pitching, Ford habitually assumes his role as the team comic. He kids his teammates a lot, but, as one of them points out, concentrates only on those who can take it. After the All-Star Game in San Francisco's gale-swept Candlestick Park he told a group of reporters: "There are dozens of you guys in here writing about the wind. Why not be different? Why not write about Kubek's error?" Tony Kubek, at the next locker, was equal to it. "I made the error under ideal conditions," he said. Ford also said that when he heard on the clubhouse radio that Berra was going in to catch Hoyt Wilhelm's elusive knuckle ball, he almost came out again so he could watch the fun. Before the game, leaning against the batting cage, Ford watched Stan Musial hit a few. "Silly stance," he commented, bringing a grin to Musial's face.
Earlier in the year the Yankees elected Ford their player representative. He immediately announced he would delegate authority. Mickey Mantle, he said, would head the bubble-gum committee, and Roger Maris would be in charge of grievances. Yogi Berra, of course, was appointed elder statesman, and Ford said he was considering promoting Major Ralph Houk to a five-star general. When one reporter suggested that Luis Arroyo be put in charge of relief, Ford gave the man a deadpan stare. "What are you, a wise guy?" he asked.
Like most pitchers who start to win big, Ford has been accused of throwing a spitter. "I not only think he throws one," says Jimmy Dykes, manager (perhaps pro tern) of the Cleveland Indians, "I know he throws one. Someone on his own team told me he does. He throws it with two strikes, the batter swings and misses, then the ball goes around the infield and comes back dry as the Sahara."
It is true that Ford sweats a lot. Sometimes he has to change shirts two or three times while pitching, and on occasion he has lost six or eight pounds during a game. It is also true that he flicks the sweat from his eyebrows, then tucks the glove under his left arm and rubs the ball down. Umpires, however, do not interfere, so presumably the maneuver is legal. Ford, naturally, denies he throws a spitter. "Don't need to," he says. "Got too much other stuff."
"That's what he's got, all right," says Elston Howard, one of three Yankee catchers. "He's got stuff, everything. And control? It's always right there."
Ford has three basic pitches—the fast bail, slider and curve, plus variations on each. "I just signal for a curve and let him decide what speed he wants to throw it at," says Howard. "He's got about three of them." It is Ford's slider that has turned him into a strikeout pitcher this year. (He's the league's best at this stage, ahead of such perennial leaders as Jim Bunning and Camilo Pascual.) In past years Ford could only throw the slider four times or so before feeling a pain in his arm. This spring Coach Johnny Sain advised Ford to make a slight change in the delivery of the pitch, and now Ford can throw the slider as much as he pleases.
When Ford warms up, 15 minutes before game time, he can usually tell how sharp he is. "Maybe five or six times a season you find out you haven't got much," he says. "Maybe the fast ball isn't moving. Then you fall back on the others and only show the fast ball."
Ford pitching is a pleasure for other pitchers to watch. "He never throws a pitch without a purpose," says Johnny Sain. "He's always bearing down, never careless." "You never see anything good to hit," says Brooks Robinson, Baltimore's fine third baseman. "At 2-0 or 3-1, he still comes in with a good pitch."
When runners get on base against Ford, he keeps them close to the bag with the smoothest pick-off motion in baseball. From his left-handed stretch, it is almost impossible to detect whether he is throwing to the plate or to first until the pitch—or pickoff—is thrown.
His move to second is also smooth. As he stands facing the plate, he gives a sign—one for Shortstop Tony Kubek, another for Second-Baseman Bobby Richardson—and starts counting. He then whirls and throws at the-bag just as Kubek or Richardson is arriving. He has picked several runners off second this year and Kubek insists that umpires, who in the American League stand on the outfield grass, have missed others.
If Ford on the mound is a tough, Ford returning to the dugout, win or lose, is a small boy being summoned to the woodshed. He walks with careful, tiny steps, his chin on his chest, his arms close to his sides. He walks so slowly that even the outfielders usually reach the dugout before him.
It takes him a long while to unwind from the tension of a game. He may sit around the clubhouse, sip a beer and perhaps take a pill from his vast collection of bottles. The pills are for his gout, which he contracted two years ago. It bothered him for some time, and affected his pitching, but now with the help of the pills and a low-purine diet, he suffers no effects.
It is about a 40-minute drive from Yankee Stadium to the Ford home in Lake Success, L.I. If he has pitched a night game, he will go to the refrigerator, take another beer and turn on the Late Late Show. It will be hours before he will sleep.
At home waiting for Ford—but asleep if it has been a night game—are his wife Joan and three blond children, two boys and a girl. On the Fourth of July, while Ford was beating Detroit at the Stadium, the kids entered some holiday running and swimming races at home. All three kids won prizes. This pleased Ford almost as much as his victory over Detroit. "Just a bunch of Thoroughbreds," he said.