Whitey Ford, New York Yankees and Mazatlán Venados Legend

Whitey Ford with Mazatlán Venados*

Whitey Ford passed away at his Long Island home, Thursday evening, October 8, 2020, at 91. He would have turned 92 on October 21, 2020. His one Winter League season came in 1948-49, at age 20, for Mazatlán Venados (Deer) in Mexico’s “Liga de la Costa del Pacífico” (Pacific Coast League), a league in existence from 1945-46 through 1957-58. It then transitioned to the Sinaloa League, before its current designation: Mexican Pacific Winter League, 1970-71-present.

C. Paul Rogers III, author of Ford’s SABR bio, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/whitey-ford/,  noted that Clint Courtney, Ford’s 1948 teammate with the Norfolk Tars, “invited Whitey to play winter ball in Mexico with him.”  The 5’10” lefty, who weighed 170 pounds, made $200/month with the Tars. He needed extra money and ignored objections by the New York Yankees to stay home in the winter. This blog will focus on Whitey Ford’s 1948-49 winter season in Mexico; Mexico’s Pacific Coast (Winter) League’s role as being helpful to future big leaguers; and a place where veterans from the Negro Leagues could participate and enjoy the atmosphere.

Memo Luna’s Pitching versus Whitey Ford in Mexico and Spring Training

Eighteen-year old LHP Guillermo “Memo” Luna pitched for los Cañeros (Sugar Cane Growers) de Los Mochis, 1948-49. The first time they faced each other was in a Mazatlán-Los Mochis double header. Normally, teams played a four-game series with each other—Friday night, Saturday and a Sunday twin-bill. That particular Sunday, Los Mochis knocked Ford out of the opener, after three innings. But Ford volunteered to start the second game, and won a 1-0 duel. However, Memo Luna bested Ford, 1-0, the next time they faced each other. Luna finished his 1948-49 winter campaign with a 3-1 mark versus Ford. (Luna became Mexico’s first major league pitcher, with the 1954 St. Louis Cardinals; Baldomero “Mel” Almada Quirós was Mexico’s first big league player, when he debuted with the 1933 Boston Red Sox.) For more on Memo Luna, see https://studiogaryc.com/2018/05/18/memo-luna-the-story-behind-card-222/

Fast forward to spring training, 1954. Luna again bested Ford—as a reliever—in a 1954 St. Louis Cardinals – New York Yankees spring training contest. Ford was quoted as saying: “You [Memo Luna] came all the way from Mexico to win one [against me] in spring training!”

Raymond Brown Match-up versus Whitey Ford in Mexico

The six-team, 60-game Mexico Pacific Coast League season ran from late October (weekend of October 29-31, 1948) through March 13, 1949, including an All-Star Game between Natives and Extranjeros” (Imports). Whitey  Ford was 7-0, October 31-December 10, 1948, winning his first game on October 31 versus Obregón. On Sunday, December 19, he faced 42-year old Raymond Brown, with Obregón, ONLY time in Mexico’s Winter League history two future Cooperstown Hall of Famers started against each other. Brown was already a legend in the Independent (summer) Mexican League, and defeated the 1947 New York Yankees (12-8 score) in a February 24, 1947 spring training contest, pitching for the Ponce Lions, at Sixto Escobar Stadium, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Brown was inducted in Cooperstown in 2006, 32 years after Ford, in 1974. The Brown-Ford match-up on December 19, 1948 resulted in a no-decision for them. Ford learned to throw a change-up in Mexico and was influenced by observing the veteran hurlers.

Illness, Pennant Race in Mexico and Return to the States

Per Paul C. Rogers III, Edward Charles “Whitey” Ford, in Mexico, “contracted amoebic dysentery and became so sick that he almost died.” Ford tried to fly home several times; when he was spotted at the local airport, Mazatlán’s team owner would race over to “stop him from getting on a plane.” Rogers noted that when Ford finally returned home after the league playoffs, he was down to 130 pounds and still very weak, adding:

When Ford reported to the Yankees’ 1949 minor-league spring training in Orangeburg, South Carolina three weeks later, he was far from recovered. After being there about 10 days, he passed out in the third inning while pitching a game in Augusta, Georgia. The Yankees shipped him to New York and had him admitted to Lenox Hill Hospital to get rid of the dysentery. He was in the hospital 19 days and didn’t report to his minor-league assignment in Binghamton, New York until the season was six weeks old.

Whitey Ford was 12-7, .632 PCT, in the regular season, with a league-best 108 strikeouts. (Another source stated Ford was 14-7 in Mexico; perhaps this included two post-season wins). Ford pitched in Mexico, during his illness, one reason why Mexico’s baseball aficionados still hold Ford in high esteem. Table I includes the 1948-49 regular season standings, including ties.

Table I: Mexico’s Pacific Coast League Standings, 1948-49

Culiacán Tomateros (Tomato Growers)39-21-3.650
Ciudad Obregón Trigueros (Wheat Growers)38-22-2.6331
Venados (Deer) de Mazatlán37-23-1.6172
Cañeros (Sugar Cane Growers) de Los Mochis29-31-2.48310
Naranjeros (Orange Growers) de Hermosillo19-41.31720
Ostiones (Oysters) de Guaymas18-42.30021

Cooperstown Connection to Mexico’s Pacific Coast (Winter) League

Twelve Cooperstown Inductees once played winter ball in Mexico, including Ford, known as Eddie Ford, in Mexico. This January 24, 2020 blog by Christian Vernet, at http://scoredeportes.com.mx/?p=11848, lists them. Here is a photo of eight, of the 12, players:

Lower row, L to R: Frank Robinson, Rickey Henderson, Larry Walker and Mike Piazza. Upper row, L to R: Bob Lemon, Whitey Ford, Ray Dandridge and Dave Winfield. Photo Credit: scoredeportes.com.mx and National Baseball Hall of Fame. Note: Raymond Brown, Whitey Herzog, Buck Leonard and Willie Wells are the other four not shown above.

Bob Lemon pitched for Hermosillo, 1945-46, after returning from World War II Military Service. Ray Dandridge—who played summer baseball in Mexico—posted a .317 AVG in 44 games for Obregón, 1948-49; he batted against Ford. Buck Leonard was age 45 when he played 1B for Obregón, 1951-52, and in the league’s All-Star Game. Willie Wells joined Obregón at age 49, 1955-56 winter season, the same campaign Whitey Herzog played the OF for Navojoa.

Winfield, another Obregón player, 1973-74, spent six weeks in Mexico (28 games), but had challenges, with a .232 AVG, two HR and 11 RBI. (Winfield once noted he was hit by a beer bottle in Mexico, and was relieved to return to the States.) Rickey Henderson, who turned 20 in Mexico—playing for Navojoa, 1978-79—learned “how to hit the curve ball in Mexico, in a league featuring this pitch.” Henderson stole 22 bases in 44 games, with a .257 AVG, four doubles and one triple. He represented Mexico, February 1979 Caribbean Series, at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, San Juan, Puerto Rico, and was chosen as the All-Star LF for that Series.

Frank Robinson, player-manager for the 1977-78 Culiacán Tomato Growers, had 31 AB, while managing them to a 23-21 record, prior to departing for personal reasons. Robinson hit one HR for Culiacán, at age 42. It cleared two fences at the Angel Flores (Culiacán) Stadium. Robinson faced Ford in the 1961 World Series, but more on this later. Robinson’s only other Winter League HR came for the 1954-55 Ponce Lions, off Santurce’s Rubén Gómez, 23 years prior to his clout for Culiacán. Larry Walker’s 1987-88 season for Hermosillo included a .237 AVG, 27 runs, eight doubles, eight HR, 29 RBI, 12 SB, in 53 games. Walker suffered a serious knee injury trying to score a run from second base that winter and missed the 1988 minor-league season.

Mike Piazza claimed he “became a more refined hitter” during his 1991-92 winter season with the Mexicali Eagles. “I finished that [1991-92] season knowing I could hit in MLB…knew I had seen everything a pitcher could throw…” For the record, his .330 AVG, 45 runs, 16 HR and 45 RBI impressed Mexico’s baseball fans and Tommy Lasorda, Los Angeles Dodgers skipper, said: winter ball is so important,” (to the author). “I played in Puerto Rico and Cuba in the 1950s and managed in the Dominican Republic (1970s)…” Piazza vividly recalled  a 26-hour bus trip from Mexicali to Mazatlán when teammates purchased alcoholic beverages along the way such as Modelo, Tecate and Dos Equis. He (Piazza) really enjoyed Mexico post-1991 Class A season.

Table II lists all 12 players, Mexico team, season and percent of Cooperstown vote. The term “Entronizado” translates to Exalted; “Temporada” is Season; “Equipo” = Team; “Nombre” = Name. Percent of votes earned is in parenthesis.

Table II: Twelve Cooperstown Inductees who played in Mexico’s Pacific Winter League

Design: Manuel Lizárraga

Frank Verdi-Whitey Ford Connection

Frank Verdi was a long-time player (1947-1963) and manager in the minors and winter ball. Verdi, a native of Brooklyn, New York, and Ford—from the Queens borough—were teammates part of the 1947 season with the Butler Yankees, Class C Middle Atlantic League. Both were the same height (5’10”) and close in weight, with Verdi several years older. Verdi was an infielder who became a “baseball lifer.” (In Puerto Rico, Verdi managed the 1971-72 Ponce Lions to the February 1972 Caribbean Series crown; managed Mayagüez to a 1983-84 title; and, nearly led the Santurce Crabbers to a 1984-85 Puerto Rico Winter League championship.) Verdi opined that “Ford had the mental smarts and toughness, but not the physical attributes, to be an outstanding big-league hurler.” He (Verdi) played in the New York Yankees minor-league system when the Yankees were loaded with talented position players such as Clint Courtney, Vic Power and Bill Skowron, along with pitchers including Lew Burdette, Ford and many others…

Ford’s nickname (Whitey) came from 1947 Binghamton Triplets manager Lefty Gómez, during the Triplets 1947 spring training, per Ford’s SABR bio. Gómez had problems remembering names and started calling Eddie Ford “Blondie” or “Whitey,” eventually sticking with Whitey.

Whitey Ford’s Professional Career W-L Record

Ford’s 13-4, .765 W-L PCT, with 1947 Butler Yankees, was part of his 51-20 career minor-league W-L record, pitching for Butler,  1948 Norfolk Tars, 1949 Binghamton Triplets and 1950 Kansas City Blues.  He was 236-106, with the New York Yankees in regular season play in 1950 and 1953-1967. His 10 World Series wins are still an MLB record (10-8); so are 22 starts, 146 innings pitched and 33.2 consecutive scoreless innings (1960-62), to break Babe Ruth’s old record of 29.2 straight scoreless frames, for the 1916 and 1918 Boston Red Sox. https://baseballhall.org/discover-more/stories/inside-pitch/ford-breaks-ruth-record  Ford was 0-2 in AL-NL All-Star Games, losing contests in 1959 and 1960. For this blog, we will stick to his 12-7 record in Mexico, 1948-49, in compiling his career W-L mark. Ford won over 300 professional games (309), between 1947 and his May 30, 1967 retirement.

Table III: Whitey Ford’s W-L Record in Professional Baseball

League(s)/SeriesW-L PCTHighlights
U.S. Minors51-20, .7181949 Eastern League: 1.61 ERA, 151 strikeouts.
Pacific League (Mexico)12-7,   .632Learned a change-up, started versus Ray Brown.
American League236-106, .690Best W-L PCT MLB history, 300 plus decisions. Most career wins by New York Yankees pitchers.
MLB All-Star Games0-2, .00010x AL All-Star.
World Series10-8, .556All-time record of 33.2 straight scoreless innings, 1960-1962, breaking Babe Ruth’s mark of 29.2.
Pro Baseball Career309-143, .699Cooperstown Inductee with Mickey Mantle-1974.

Ford and Luis “Tite” Arroyo (1960-63)

Luis Arroyo joined the New York Yankees in 1960; saved an AL-best 29 games in 1961, but was injured for most of 1962 and 1963. Arroyo recalled the 1961 Cy Young Award Ceremony, when Ford gave a seven-minute acceptance speech, and motioned for Arroyo to conclude it. Bilingual Arroyo chipped in with two minutes of Spanish and English after Ford’s seven minutes. “Whitey was the one who helped me out that winter,” Arroyo told the author. “I must have made six trips [to the States) to do commercials with Whitey and I made around $30,000.”

Mazatlán’s Legacy, Dick “Siete Leguas” Hall and Upcoming Caribbean Series

Dick “Siete” Leguas Hall, MVP of the original Pacific Coast League’s final (1957-58) season, with a 10-3 record and 1.40 ERA, spent four seasons with Mazatlán (1953-56, 1957-58). He married a Mazatlán native. Hall had fond memories learning how to pitch in Mazatlán, 1954-55; facing Luke Easter in Mexico; and pitching against great New York Yankees teams, featuring Whitey Ford on the mound, 1960-64, when he (Hall) pitched for the 1960 Kansas City A’s and 1961-64 Baltimore Orioles. Hall, a Yankee Killer in 1963 and 1964 with great relief pitching versus the Bronx Bombers, got his nickname in Mexico by how his 6’6” frame galloped around the bases…reminding fans of Pancho Villa’s favorite horse—Siete Leguas. Hall still loves “Ranchera” music in Mexico sung by Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, Javier Solis, among others. Hall’s #9 was retired by the Mazatlán Venados (Deer), along with numbers of 14 others.

The January 31-February 6, 2021 Caribbean Series is still scheduled to take place at Mazatlán’s Teodoro Mariscal Stadium. https://www.espn.com.mx/beisbol/nota/_/id/7139667/alcalde-serie-del-caribe-2021-mazatlan-sinaloa-luis-guillermo-benitez-venados-estadio-teodoro-marsical-pandemia-coronavirus-contingencia-sanitaria Mazatlán won the February 2005 Caribbean Series with players including Adrián González. They won their second Caribbean Series title in 2016.

Rest in Peace, Whitey Ford. With thanks to Luis “Tite” Arroyo, Jorge Colón Delgado, Dick Hall, Rickey Henderson, Tommy Lasorda, Mike Piazza, C. Paul Rogers III and Frank Verdi.

*Photo Whitey Ford with Hermosillo courtesy of ¨Hablemos de Béisbol Hermosillo¨ (Facebook)

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