Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 11, 2020

Whitey Ford Would Not Be Happy

Eras pass. Memories fade. These are the inexorable realities of time’s unyielding march. Yet in sports, as in life, history matters. It is why the subject has produced an assortment of aphorisms. We are told of the heavy price of failing to learn from history, and that military strategists generally fail to do so. Sports teams may focus on the present, sometimes to the extreme of dismissing past accomplishment as so much old news. And of course, player movement among franchises is now the norm, with the occasional athlete who wears a single uniform throughout his or her career the rare and notable exception. But for fans, many of whom remain faithful to a team for life, the previous chapters of their favorite squad’s story are integral components of their allegiance. It is a certainty that puts the lie to the old Seinfeld joke about rooting for laundry, and it’s why the lifting of the Commissioner’s Trophy by the Cubs in 2016 or the Red Sox in 2004 were both about so much more than a single championship season.

The importance of history was top of mind this week for fans of the New York Yankees, when in the space of twenty-four hours came word of the death of Whitey Ford, followed by the ending of the team’s 2020 season, as every campaign has for more than a decade, short of the World Series.

The future Hall of Famer was introduced as Eddie Ford on July 1, 1950, when he first pitched in a Yankees uniform. The 21-year-old was called upon for long relief when New York starter Tommy Byrne was shelled by the Boston Red Sox, recording just four outs. Ford didn’t fare a lot better through 4 2/3 innings of work, but soon enough he began to perfect his craft. He recorded his first major league victory a little over two weeks later, starting against the White Sox at the old Stadium, and ran off nine straight wins that year before finally taking a loss. He also secured his first World Series victory, throwing 8 2/3 innings of shutout ball against the Phillies in Game 4 of the Yankees’ sweep, before an error allowed Philadelphia to plate two unearned runs.

Two years of military service followed, but when Ford returned in 1953, he quickly became the foundation on which the Yankees starting rotation was built. By then he was also firmly and forever established as Whitey, a nickname first bestowed on the sandy-haired left-hander while in the minors. In a career that lasted until 1967, he set numerous team records, several of which still stand, including career wins with 236 and shutouts with 45. As good as he was during the regular season, like many of the Yankees of that time Ford seemed built for the World Series. More than half a century after he last threw a pitch in the Fall Classic, Ford is still the pitcher with the most career Series wins (10) and strikeouts (94), and his 33 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings in World Series games remains unmatched. For New York fans the most important number associated with Ford is six, for the number of titles won while he was on the roster.

His family reported that Ford, who would have turned 92 later this month, passed away with the Yankees’ Division Series game against the Tampa Bay Rays on the television in his room. In that case, at least his old team won the final game Whitey ever saw. But one night later the Yankees wasted a fine pitching effort on short rest by Gerrit Cole, losing the decisive Game 5 when, for the second season in a row, closer Aroldis Chapman surrendered a series-clinching home run.

By the standards of many franchises, New York has been quite successful since winning the team’s twenty-seventh championship in 2009. No club won more games in the ten-year period from 2010 through 2019, and in seven of those years the Yankees qualified for the playoffs. But anyone with an appreciation of history knows that expectations in the Bronx are different. Just like 2020’s, each of those trips to the postseason tournament ended prior to the World Series. This from a franchise that when it advanced to the 105th Series in 2009 was the American League’s representative for an astonishing 40th time.

It’s tempting to cite the difficulty of building a dynasty as the Great Game is currently structured, given the tilt toward parity brought on by revenue sharing and the randomness generated by the multiple levels of short series that now comprise the playoffs. That view is supported by the truth that no team has won back-to-back titles since the Yankees captured three in a row and four in five years between 1996 and 2000. But it is also true that during New York’s prolonged absence seven teams have made multiple trips to the Series, and two of those clubs – the Dodgers and Astros – are still playing this year. Even the small market Kansas City Royals have appeared twice in the final round of baseball’s postseason since the last time the Yankees participated.

Winter has once again come early to the Bronx, and with it a host of questions. This New York squad was deep in talent on paper, but underperformed on the field, finishing the absurdly short season seven games adrift of Tampa Bay in the AL East before its ALDS collapse. Sportswriters in Gotham are already speculating on what moves GM Brian Cashman and manager Aaron Boone will make in the offseason. But the first question should be whether those two are the ones to be making them.

Over the years Cashman has often not gotten the credit he deserved as a general manager. But both this season and last he stood pat at the trade deadline, declaring the demands of other teams for parts the Yankees clearly needed to be too high. The obvious question is, how did that work out? As for Boone, his moves during the ALDS, from his ham-handed handling of the pitching arrangement in Game 2 to asking Chapman for a seven-out close in Game 5, were shockingly bad.

History matters, and the history of the Yankees is about winning and competing for titles. The team’s fans understand that, and Whitey Ford proved throughout his career that he certainly did. Whether Hal Steinbrenner, Brian Cashman, and Aaron Boone still do is very much an open question.

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