It’s a question that has been mired ever since Joe DiMaggio became the first to be considered “The Greatest Living Yankee.” It wasn’t the organization, nor the media, nor Major League Baseball who crowned him with the honor, but Joey D himself who demanded he be introduced that way whenever he appeared. The Bambino and Iron Horse probably laughed off their ghostly derrieres.
Since DiMaggio passed away in 1999, the honor has been passed down. The most recent recipient of the honor, passed this past year in Yogi Berra. Now the question arises as to whom will carry the torch.
Many will turn to Derek Jeter. However, it may be someone who threw his last pitch 50 years ago this season.
It’s easy to anoint Derek Jeter as the greatest living Yankee. He was one of just a few captains in the history of the organization. He has more hits than any other Bronx Bomber and that alone is a terrific feat when you list names like Ruth, Gehrig, Berra, Mantle and DiMaggio. And of course, he was the centerpiece for five World Series and seven American League pennants.
Jeter’s time will come. Right now, you simply can’t overlook the man known as The Chairman of the Board.
50 years ago, Edward Charles Whitey Ford hung it up and retired. He is arguably the greatest Yankees pitcher ever to play the game. No one has more wins as a pitcher in the history of the pinstripes, as Ford’s 236 are tops. He was the ace of all Yankees aces.
Ford burst onto the scene with a phenomenal rookie campaign. The 21-year old went 9-1 with a 2.81 ERA and finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting. He would appear in his first World Series, going 8.2 innings allowing no earned runs while striking out seven en route to his first of 10 World Series victories, a Major League record that still stands today.
The following two seasons were lost to Ford as he served his country in the military. Already atop or near the top of most statistical categories in the Yankees all-time pitching department, you can only wonder where his numbers would have been had he been able to pitch his age-22 and 23 seasons.
Instead he returned to the Yankees at the age of 24 and began a streak of 13 consecutive double-digit win seasons. His first season back in 1953 saw the Yankees return to the World Series and win again.
Ford and the Yankees would appear in 11 World Series over his tenure as ace of the rotation. They won six of them, as Ford reeled off a 10-8 career record in the Fall Classic, with a lifetime 2.71 ERA. He earned the MVP Award of the 1961 World Series, hurling two shutouts and capping off one of the most magical seasons in Yankees history. He would see an unbelievable string of 33 consecutive shutout innings in World Series play. The Chairman seemed to bring it when he needed it most.
Whitey would lead baseball in wins three times, and capture the 1961 Cy Young Award. While Roger Maris was smashing home runs and Mickey Mantle was chasing the Triple Crown, Ford had the winningest season of his career, going 25-4. That was what Ford became known for… winning. His remarkable career winning percentage of .690 is second to only Spud Chandler in the 20th century. Ford, however, pitched more than double the amount of innings Chandler did and made nearly 300 more starts.
There are a lot of ways to look at it. Is Ford the best Yankee player alive? Maybe not. There are other Hall of Famers (or future Hall of Famers) out there that donned pinstripes that could be considered. No matter how exciting he was or how involved he still is Reggie Jackson simply wasn’t always a Yankee. He won just as many World Series with the As as he did in the Bronx and no matter how much Yankees fans love his boisterous persona and big swing, even he would concede the title of greatest living Yankee.
Jeter and Mo could definitely be considered. Part of the Core Four, no one in Yankees history matched what they did statistically in pinstripes. I have no issue with their age as both are neither even officially members of the AARP yet, because Mike Trout is already likely the greatest living California Angel of Los Angeles who plays in Anaheim.
Whitey simply was part of one of the greatest runs in Yankees history. From 1955 to 1964 they missed ONE World Series, and if you expand it to 1950 to the start of the ’65 season, they missed three. Ford played alongside not simply Yankees legends, but baseball’s all-time legends like The Mick, Maris, Berra, Elston Howard, Scooter and Martin.
Jeter’s day will come. But for now, on the 50th anniversary of the Yankees greatest pitcher’s final season, the rightful honor goes to The Chairman.