Rizzuto & Ford — two very different legends, one big dynasty

Okay, I began talking about some of my favorite Yankees on Monday, even listing my top 5 from the “Classic Era” (1903-1961). So today, I’m continuing my explanation of my choices beginning with my number 5, actually a tie between Phil Rizzuto and Whitey Ford. I chose Rizzuto because he still is one of the best shortstops in Yankee history, his active time with the Yankees is really unsurpassed even to this day, and he was really a great guy who just loved to play ball. And I had to pick Ford because he’s really one of my favorite Yankee pitchers of all time, and he just loved to play this crazy game with passion and a whole lot of fun.

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Phil Rizzuto, about 1955
via npr.org

Phillip Rizzuto, often dubbed “Scooter”, a native New Yorker, born in Brooklyn in 1917 was part of the dynasty years that cemented the Yankee legacy beyond the “Golden Era” of the 20’s led by Ruth and Gehrig. A slight build for an infielder, Rizzuto bounced around the Yankees’ minor leagues in his early 20’s before getting that call to the big leagues in 1941. Rizzuto played his first game for the Yankees on April 14. That first year, the Yankees beat the Dodgers in the World Series, earning Rizzuto the first of his 7 Rings.

The following year, the shortstop even played in his first of 5 All-Star Games. But the Navy came calling, like it did for so many of the young players of that era, and a 25-year-old Rizzuto instead spent 3 years playing baseball for the Navy with fellow future Hall of Famers like the Dodgers Pee Wee Reese and the Yankees own Bill Dickey. After the War, Rizzuto was back in his old #10 pinstriped jersey ready to pick up better than where he left off.

Rizzuto was a master of the “small ball” batting, unlike some of his more power-hitting teammates. This attributed to his lifetime batting average of .273, 1588 career hits, and 563 RBIs. Now in the lead-off batting spot, 1950 was Rizzuto’s most outstanding year, earning him the MVP award. He led the league in plate appearances (735), 2nd in hits (200), and 3rd in doubles (36), though his performance against the Phillies in the Series was one of his weaker outings in his whole career. (The Yankees still went on to win the Series in a 4 game sweep.)

Rizzuto spent his career at shortstop, playing in 5 All-Star Games (1942, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953) and 9 World Series, earning 7 Rings in the process (1941, 1947, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953), all before that final game August 16, 1956. Thirteen seasons in 16 years, all with the Yankees, the 39-year-old, married to the love of his life Cora with 4 kids, continued staying involved with the Yankees and baseball in a different way.

Beginning in the 1957 season, Scooter Rizzuto was at the microphone calling the very games he had played just the previous year. But Rizzuto seemed to make himself very comfortable in the booth, able to watch some of the greatest plays to come in Yankees history (including the famed 1961 home run derby between Mantle and Maris). Rizzuto was a regular fixture at Yankee Stadium again until not being permitted to go to his former fellow teammate’s (Mantle) funeral in 1995, required instead to call a Red Sox game. He abruptly left in the middle of the game, unable to think about anything but his friend’s death, announcing his retirement shortly thereafter.

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Yankee Shortstops: Jeter & Rizzuto in 1999
via USAToday.com

He was persuaded to return to the booth for one more season, something I think modern-day Yankee fans would remember. Rizzuto was the one who called another young shortstop’s very first home run that year. When he retired from the Yankees for good after the 1996 season, Rizzuto had spent almost 60 years with the Yankees, 40 of those years in the broadcasting booth, the longest-running Yankees broadcaster ever.

Rizzuto’s #10 was retired by the Yankees in 1985, and after failing to make the Hall of Fame on the regular ballot (the highest he ever earned was 38% of the vote), the Veteran’s Committee easily granted him the honor in 1994. When asked why he didn’t get elected the normal way, his response was that his numbers “don’t shout; they kind of whisper.” Noted players and managers of the day and his peers felt the slight was unjustified, but Rizzuto had the last laugh as he left that legacy of whispering in Cooperstown for generations to take notice.

Rizzuto died in peacefully in his sleep in 2007 at the age of 89, after some recurring health issues and progressively declining health. His beloved wife Cora passed away just three years later. But in the hearts and minds of Yankees fans everywhere, Scooter lives on, forever memorialized in Monument Park and Cooperstown, and that high standard at shortstop only one other Yankee has ever surpassed.

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Whitey Ford, his rookie year, 1950
via nydailynews.com

Edward Ford, another New Yorker by birth (from Astoria, Queens), born in 1928, only became “Whitey” when he joined the Yankees minor leagues in 1947 and the guys figured his light blond hair needed to be recognized. Stepping into the bigs in the middle of 1950 (Rizzuto’s big year), Ford seemed to find his stride early, earning 9 wins just that year. And again, his early career was interrupted by military service, spending 1951 and 1952 in the Army during the Korean War. But when he rejoined the Yankees in 1953, the pitching staff suddenly congealed and the Yankees hit their stride for the rest of that decade, earning the other nickname “Chairman of the Board”.

While he didn’t really have a great fastball, Ford found his home in several other types of pitches to throw off his batters. That great 1961 season was good for Ford too, earning him his only Cy Young Award and the World Series MVP, something he certainly earned with a record of 25-4, leading the league during the regular season in games started (39), innings pitched (283), and batters faced (1159).

By the time Ford retired at the beginning of 1967, after what would be career-ending surgery at the end of 1966, his career stats certainly shouted — a 236-106 W-L record, 2.75 ERA, and 1956 total strikeouts. He was a ten-time All-Star (1954, 1955, 1956, 1958, 1959, twice in 1960, twice in 1961, 1964) and played in 11 World Series, winning 6 Rings (1950, 1953, 1956, 1958, 1961, 1962). Ford was inducted to Cooperstown on the second ballot with 77.81% of the vote in 1974. That same year, the Yankees also retired his #16, which he began wearing following his time in Korea.

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Legends at 2013 Old Timer’s Day: Berra & Ford
via newsday.com

To this day, Ford’s pitching record still stands in Yankee history. Ford and his wife Joan (married in 1951) had 3 children, and settled in his retirement in the middle of some flurry of accusations of “ball-doctoring”, a common practice among pitchers up until the days when they toss balls for even the slightest dirt mark (that’s how many people get free balls at games today). Ford admitted to some doctoring, especially later in his career, but clearly (looking at those later numbers), that didn’t work as well as he might have hoped admittedly so.

So Ford, now 85, is enjoying the retired life, appearing at special functions like the Old Timer’s Game, the last game at old Yankee Stadium (in 2008), and other functions requiring the great #16. He and Berra seem to be competing for the long-living Yankee, and both characters give Yankees fans to this day a lot of funny stories and excitement from Yankees history to carry us into the next dynasty.

Go Yankees!

2 thoughts on “Rizzuto & Ford — two very different legends, one big dynasty”

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