Eventually Ford went from the No. 4 pitcher on a great staff to the universally acclaimed No. 1 pitcher of the Yankees. He became known as the "Chairman of the Board" for his ability to remain calm and in command during high-pressure situations. He was also known as "Slick," a nickname given to him, Billy Martin and Mickey Mantle by manager Casey Stengel, who called them Whiskey Slicks. Ford's guile was necessary because he did not have an overwhelming fastball, but being able to throw several other pitches very well gave him pinpoint control. Ford was an effective strikeout pitcher for his time, tying the then-AL record for six consecutive strikeouts in 1956, and again in 1958. Ford pitched 2 consecutive one-hit games in 1955 to tie a record held by several pitchers.
Ford in 1954.
In 1955, Ford led the American League in complete games and games won; in 1956 in earned run average and winning percentage; in 1958, in earned run average; and in both 1961 and 1963, in games won and winning percentage. Ford won the Cy Young Award in 1961; he likely would have won the 1963 AL Cy Young, but this was before the institution of a separate award for each league, and Ford could not match Sandy Koufax's numbers for the Los Angeles Dodgers of the National League. He would also have been a candidate in 1955, but this was before the award was created.
Some of Ford's totals were depressed by Yankees manager Casey Stengel who viewed Ford as his top pitching asset, and often reserved his ace left-hander for more formidable opponents such as the Tigers, Indians, and White Sox. When he became manager in 1961, Ralph Houk promised Ford he would pitch every fourth day, regardless of opponent; after exceeding 30 starts only once in his nine seasons under Stengel, Ford had 39 in 1961. His first 20-win season, a career-best 25-4 record, and the Cy Young Award ensued, but Ford's season was overshadowed by the home run battle between Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. As a left-hander, Ford was also deft at keeping runners at their base: He set a record in 1961 by pitching 243 consecutive innings without allowing a stolen base.
In May 1963, after pitching a shutout, Ford announced he had given up smoking. He said, "My doctor told me that whenever I think of smoking, I should think of a bus starting up and blowing the exhaust in my face."
Ford won 236 games for New York (career 236-106), still a franchise record. Red Ruffing, the previous Yankee record-holder, still leads all Yankee right-handed pitchers, with 231 of his 273 career wins coming with the Yankees. Other Yankee pitchers have had more career wins (for example, Roger Clemens notched his 300th career victory as a Yankee), but amassed them for multiple franchises. David Wells tied Whitey Ford for 13th place in victories by a left-hander on August 26, 2007.
Among pitchers with at least 300 career decisions, Ford ranks first with a winning percentage of .690, the all-time highest percentage in modern baseball history.
Ford's career winning percentage cannot be attributed just to being on a good team: The Yankees were 1,486-1,027 during his 16 years; without his 236-106, they had 1,250 wins and 921 losses, for a won-loss percentage of .576. Ford was thus 11.4 percentage points higher than his team's record, independent of his record.
Ford's 2.75 earned run average is the lowest among starting pitchers whose careers began after the advent of the Live Ball Era in 1920. Ford's worst-ever ERA was 3.24. Ford had 45 shutout victories in his career, including eight 1-0 wins.
Ford's status on the Yankees was underscored by the World Series. Ford was New York's Game One pitcher in 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1961, 1962, 1963, and 1964. He is the only pitcher to start four consecutive Game Ones, a streak he reached twice. In the 1960 World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Stengel altered this strategy by holding Ford back until game three, a decision that angered Ford. The Yankees' ace won both his starts in Games Three and Six with complete-game shutouts, but was then unavailable to relieve in the last game of a Yankees loss, Bill Mazeroski's walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth winning the game—and the Series—for the Pirates. Ford always felt that had he been able to appear in three of the games instead of just two, the Yankees would have won. Upper management may have agreed: Stengel was fired following the Series.
For his career, Ford had 10 World Series victories, more than any other pitcher. Ford also leads all starters in World Series losses (8) and starts (22), as well as innings, hits, walks, and strikeouts. In 1961 he broke Babe Ruth's World Series record of 29⅔ consecutive scoreless innings. (The record would eventually reach 33⅔. It is still a World Series record, although Mariano Rivera broke it as a postseason record in 2000.) Ford won the 1961 World Series MVP. In addition to Yankee Stadium, Ford also pitched World Series games in seven other stadiums:
Ford ended his career in declining health. In August 1966, he underwent surgery to correct a circulatory problem in his throwing shoulder. In May 1967, Ford lasted just one inning in what would be his final start, and he announced his retirement at the end of the month at age 38.
Ford wore number 19 in his rookie season. Following his return from the army in 1953, he wore number 16 for the remainder of his career.
After retiring, Ford admitted in interviews to having occasionally doctored baseballs. Examples were the "mudball," used at home in Yankee Stadium. Yankee groundskeepers would wet down an area near the catcher's box where the Yankee catcher Elston Howard was positioned; pretending to lose balance, Howard would put down his hand with the ball and coat one side of the ball with mud and throw it to Ford. Ford sometimes used the diamond in his wedding ring to gouge the ball, but he was eventually caught by an umpire and warned to stop. Howard sharpened a buckle on his shinguard and used it to scuff the ball.
Ford described his illicit behavior as concession to age: "I didn't begin cheating until late in my career, when I needed something to help me survive. I didn't cheat when I won the twenty-five games in 1961. I don't want anybody to get any ideas and take my Cy Young Award away. And I didn't cheat in 1963 when I won twenty-four games. Well, maybe a little."
Ford admitted to doctoring the ball in the 1961All StarGame at Candlestick Park to strike out Willie Mays. Ford and Mantle had accumulated $1200 ($9,261 today) in golf pro shop purchases as guests of Horace Stoneham at the Giants owner's country club. Stoneham promised to pay their tab if Ford could strike out Mays.
Whitey Ford in 2010.
In 1977, Ford was part of the broadcast team for the first game in Toronto Blue Jays history. In 2008, Ford threw the first pitch at the 2008 Major League Baseball All-Star Game. On September 21, 2008 Ford and Yogi Berra were guests of the broadcast team for the final game played at Yankee Stadium.
In 2002, Ford opened up "Whitey Ford's Cafe," a sports-themed restaurant and bar next to Roosevelt Field Mall in Garden City, New York. A replica of the Yankee Stadium facade trimmed both the exterior and the bar, whose stools displayed uniform numbers of Yankee luminaries; widescreen TVs were installed throughout. The main dining area housed a panoramic display of Yankee Stadium from the 1950s, specifically a Chicago White Sox–Yankee game with Ford pitching and Mickey Mantle in center field; the Yanks are up 2-0. Waiters and waitresses dressed in Yankees road uniforms, with Ford's retired No. 16 on the back. It lasted less than a year before it closed down.
1994, a road in Mississauga, Ontario (Canada) was named Ford Road in his honor. The north-central area of Mississauga is known informally as "the baseball zone", as several streets in the area are named for hall-of-fame baseball players.
^Berkow, Ira. "ON BASEBALL; Ford Highlight Film Started Early", The New York Times, August 17, 2000. Accessed November 3, 2007. "Vivid in my memory is Stengel's shrug, palms up at his sides, gesturing in response to the mixture of cheers for Ford and boos for his removal. It was a display of sympathy for the kid from Astoria, Queens, who just a few years earlier was playing in street stickball games, and now under a national spotlight and World Series pressure had pitched so beautifully."
^"They Came from Queens", Queens Tribune. Accessed November 4, 2007. "He once lived in Little Neck and attended Aviation High School."
^Ford, Whitey. Slick: My Life In And Around Baseball, New York, New York: William Morrow, 1987.