01 February 2021

Remembering Whitey Ford

 "No one likes to hear it, because it's dull, but the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same - pitching."  

--Earl Weaver, Manager, Baltimore Orioles (Baseball Hall of Fame, 1996)

Nineteen sixty-one was a great year for Major League Baseball.

It was baseball's first expansion since the American League entered the major leagues.  The Los Angeles Angels played their first season in the American League while the Washington Senators moved to Minnesota and the Twins played their first major league season.

The New York Yankees (109 wins) and Detroit Tigers (101 wins) put on an exciting race for the AL pennant with Detroit holding the lead for more than half of the season.   The Yankees fought back and eventually won the pennant on the momentum of a three-game sweep of Detroit during the first weekend of September at Yankee Stadium. 

On October 1st Yankee Roger Maris became the first person with sixty-one home runs in one season, dueling with a teammate, Mickey Mantle who hit 54. 

New York went on to win the World Series defeating the Cincinnati Reds four games to one.    

A bygone era

Major League Baseball players head to spring training this month hoping for a safe season inside a global pandemic. As teams gather in Florida and Arizona, we pause to remember Yankees’ Hall-of-Fame pitcher, Edward Charles (Whitey) Ford, who passed in October of last year at the age of 91.

Ford has been called the best starting pitcher in the long history of the New York Yankees; a six-time World Series champion; and one of the best left-handers of all time.  According to sportswriters who covered the team, Ford relied on pinpoint control, mound presence, and maybe a slight trick or two.  All within a slight five-foot-ten frame.

He finished his career with a record of 236-106 and a 2.75 ERA.  Contributing to Ford's stature were 10 All-Star teams, the Cy Young Award, and World Series MVP in 1961.  He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1974.  

Big day in Vehicle City

The news of Ford's passing brought to mind a once-in-a-lifetime meeting with the great pitcher in that magical summer of '61.  

Hall of Fame pitcher, Whitey Ford, New York Yankees.
(C) Associated Press

The unlikely encounter took place during a grand opening celebration of The Yankee Stadium Store (a discount chain) at the Northwest Shopping Center located at the corner of Clio and Pierson Roads in Flint, Michigan.  Whitey Ford was there along with All-Star teammate and catcher, Elston Howard, the first African American player on the Yankees roster. 

First baseman, Norm Cash, who would become the American League’s batting champion that year with a .361 average, and pitcher Frank Lary, a two-time All-Star, known as the “Yankee Killer” for his success against the Bronx Bombers represented Detroit.

Veteran Tigers’ broadcaster, Van Patrick, who was succeeded in the 1960s by George Kell and Ernie Harwell served as master of ceremonies.

In the presence of greatness

The special guests, standing on a constructed platform in front of the new Yankee Stadium Store, attracted quite a crowd, according to the book, "Remember Flint, Michigan."  The city and its surrounding areas, located just over an hour northwest of Detroit, was a solid fan base with the Tigers broadcasts available on WTRX Flint, WKMH Detroit, and eventually a long-run on WJR Detroit.

At twelve years of age and against great odds, my goal was to maneuver from the back to the front to get as many autographs as possible.  What I hadn’t counted on was everyone wanting to do the same thing. With a smaller frame, I worked my way forward reaching the platform, only to be crushed by the crowd.  

That was my first lesson about the perils of cutting in line.

On an unusually warm day and separated from my friends, I almost passed out. Whitey Ford noticed, came over to where I was leaning, and in an act of compassion lifted me onto the platform where I could breathe fresh air. 

There I was standing in the presence of Elston Howard, Norm Cash, Frank Lary, and Whitey Ford--each with their own career achievements.

The last thing I remember before leaving the platform was a someday Hall of Fame pitcher offering to autograph my baseball. Whitey Ford's signature faded but sixty years later the memory of his kindness has only deepened in my mind.    

___________________________


In 2020 it was reported that in one 42-day span alone, five Hall of Fame members passed away: New York Mets pitcher Tom Seaver; Lou Brock and ace pitcher Bob Gibson of the St. Louis Cardinals; Cincinnati Reds second baseman Joe Morgan; and New York Yankees left-hander Whitey Ford. Detroit Tigers slugger Al Kaline died in April and knuckleballer Phil Niekro passed at the end of December.  (The Wall Street Journal)  


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