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Saving Chairman Whitey

by Jason Brannon

Casey Stengel and Jim Turner, the pitching coach, brought me along very slowly. My first seven starts were against second-division clubs. I won all of the decisions. Finally they gave me a start against a first-division club, Detroit.
— Whitey Ford in Sweet Seasons: Recollections of the 1955-64 New York Yankees (Dom Forker, 1990)

Books with “Recollections” in the title are a fact-checker’s delight. Quotation marks are a kind of fact-free fun zone, where memories and spin and ego all get jumbled together like so much jambalaya. Only the words quoted have to be accurate, not the ideas contained therein (unless you’re Bob Woodward, in which case you get to make up the quotes, too).

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of baseball books which contain little but recollections. The classic of the genre is still The Glory of Their Times, but since that book was published a veritable cottage industry has grown up around tape-recorded interviews of retired baseball players. These books can be great–fascinating, moving, even poetic. What they are not, strictly speaking, is non-fiction. Which is fine. Anyone who doesn’t know by now that the reminiscences of old ballplayers do not always meet strict standards of absolute truth is probably the kind of person who buys bottled water, or thinks that if you cover your entire body with gold paint you’ll suffocate (unless you leave a bare patch at the small of the back).

But I digress. What Whitey Ford said about his first season under the tutelage of Messrs. Stengel and Turner is very nearly true. In 1950, the rookie left-hander did make his first seven starts against “second-division” teams (back when there were only eight teams per league, the top four in the standings were the “first division,” the bottom four the “second division”). And the Yankees did win all seven of those games (though in two of them Whitey did not earn the decision). In his eighth start, Whitey did finally pitch against a good club (but it was Cleveland, not Detroit). But ignore my parenthetical quibbling. In twenty years, I’m sure my fond remembrances of playing third base for Bob Brown Builders (our T-shirts were baby-blue) won’t be nearly as spot-on. And, tragically, there will be no inter-web site for future smartasses to check my blatherings for total accuracy.

Went 9-1 as a rookie in 1950, then spent two years in army; .690 career winning pct. Is best of 20th century . . . and Stengel supposedly “saved” him for the good teams.
–Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Lineups (2003)

It’s often said that Casey Stengel “saved” Ford, his best pitcher, for the better teams in the American League. But would it have killed Rob to have actually checked it? This has the faint smell of myth about it (doesn’t it?), probably because of our experience watching modern baseball, where the starters pitch every fifth game like clockwork, and the relievers whine when they’re taken out of their hyper-specialized “role,” as though there’s a difference between pitching in the seventh inning or the eighth.

So did Stengel set aside Whitey for the better teams, or is this another one of Rob Neyer’s well-documented lies, like, “Pete LaCock did a couple years in the joint for ‘statch,” or “The Holocaust never happened”? Well, let me save you a lot of time and eye strain, dear reader: It’s true! Hey, I was surprised, too. Now go back to whatever you were doing.

(For those of you willing to keep reading, though, there’s a Whitey Ford Fun Fact at the end!)

Ford pitched for Casey for nine seasons and started more than 30 games in a season just once, which even by today’s standards doesn’t seem impressive. Why so few? Casey didn’t like to waste his best pitcher against the Washington Senators of the world. In Whitey’s years with Casey, he started 81 games against the two best American League teams in each season (not including the Yankees, who of course were usually the best), and just 58 against the worst two (I’m looking in your direction, Kansas City Athletics). That’s a huge difference, especially considering how easy he had it in his rookie season.

The Yankees fired Casey after the 1960 World Series, and new manager Ralph Houk started using Whitey in something like a regular rotation for the first time in his career. The immediate effect of this was that Ford’s starts shot way up (the new 162-game schedule probably added one or two starts a year, too). In 1961, Houk’s first year as manager, Whitey paced the AL with 39 starts, and he averaged 37 from 1961 through 1965. Whitey was now being used every four or five days, whether the Bombers were playing the Go-Go White Sox or the Abominable A’s. He was starting so often there just wasn’t room to “save” him for the better clubs. Some more stats:

Whitey with Casey (1950, 1953-1960):

  • Yankees had .621 win pct.
  • Rest of league had .483 win pct.
  • Whitey’s opponents had .499 win pct.

Whitey after Casey (1961-1967):

  • Yankees had .555 win pct.
  • Rest of league had .494 win pct.
  • Whitey’s opponents had .492 win pct.

So, should any of this change our evaluation of Whitey Ford? It should and it shouldn’t. On the one hand, in nine seasons with Casey, Whitey faced much tougher opponents than his fellow Yankee hurlers. The teams he pitched against were, as a group, average, which is something we can say about few, if any, other Yankee pitchers.

On the other hand, there were — and still are — tremendous advantages in playing for the perennial AL champs. While Ford’s 20th-century best .690 winning percentage (Pedro and Tim Hudson are currently ahead of him, but neither has yet reached his decline stage) was not helped by his manager’s choice of opponents, it was certainly helped by his teammates. Whitey probably received as much run support in his career, relative to his league, as any pitcher in history. He also never had to face his own teammates, never had to try to sneak one past Mickey or Yogi.

Whitey was also helped by pitching in Yankee Stadium, a very good park for a lefty pitcher. But I don’t want to take too much away from his accomplishments. Even with all the advantages afforded a Yankee pitcher (minus one big one), Whitey Ford far outpaced his own team’s winning percentage, back when a pitcher’s winning percentage meant something. Considering he played for the Yankees, it’s all the more impressive.

(Oh, and that Whitey Ford Fun Fact I promised . . . Do you know why they call him “Whitey”? You’ll never guess! It’s on account of his shiny white teeth that he liked to show!)

Jason Brannon is the author of “The Bear Report,” a semi-monthly digest of made-up bear news that will soon be syndicated by Knight-Ridder Press.