Ford set to auction off memorabilia
Hall of Famer offering part of collection at All-Star FanFest
NEW YORK -- It was the early 1960s, the Yankees were playing the sixth inning of an exhibition game, and two serious-looking gentlemen were headed to Palm Beach, Fla., on official business.
Ducking out on a warm afternoon, Whitey Ford found refuge in front of his locker in the visiting clubhouse, puffing a few drags on a cigarette. The Yankees hurler looked up to spot two United States government agents shuffling into the room.
"These two guys walked in and flashed their badge at me," Ford recalls. "It scared me a little bit -- they were Secret Service men. I said, 'Uh-oh.'"
Asking the future Hall of Famer to identify himself, the agents nodded, saying, "Good. That's who we're looking for."
As "The Chairman of the Board," Ford took part in more than his share of memorable events, but the twist of this afternoon would be different than most of the rest. President John F. Kennedy, the agents explained, kept an ocean house nearby and was interested in a little company from the Yankees.
Kennedy requested that Ford, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle and Tony Kubek stop by for a bit that afternoon; the president would even send a limousine over, so the players wouldn't have to worry about missing the bus back to Yankees camp in Fort Lauderdale.
So it was to be young and a Yankee in that dynasty era, when New York snatched 11 pennants with "Slick" as their left-handed ace.
Luckily for the future collectors of the world, Ford had a sense of history unfolding on that spring afternoon, snatching a dozen baseballs from the Yankees before heading over to a catered shindig with the Kennedys.
"For some reason, I was thinking from the sixth inning when I met these guys, I decided to take a dozen brand new balls from the Yankees," Ford said. "I took them to the house with me, and after we got through with Mr. Kennedy and were getting ready to leave, I said, 'Sir, would you mind signing these?'"
Each player received three baseballs that day, but over the following four decades, all but one from that trek was lost. Ford believes his children played with two of them, and the remaining lot is believed to have disappeared.
Who would have suspected that memorabilia would hold such value?
"I just wish I'd started earlier, collecting these kinds of things," Ford said. "We had an All-Star team there, with Joe DiMaggio, Mantle, Yogi and such great players. I think of joining the Yankees, and DiMaggio was my idol. Now, I wish that the few years I played with him, I'd have picked up every cigarette he threw away."
Ford's prestigious collection will be auctioned at this year's DHL All-Star FanFest in New York on July 15 and 16. A collection of several hundred pieces, acquired over Ford's decades in baseball, also includes his 1961 World Series MVP Award, the warmup jacket Lou Gehrig wore on the day his consecutive-games streak ended in 1939, Tony Lazzeri's 1928 World Series ring and more.
"My wife is tickled this is happening," Ford said. "Now we're going to have room in the house."
The 1961 Cy Young Award winner and a 1974 inductee to Cooperstown, Ford still holds many World Series records, including 10 wins and 94 strikeouts, once pitching 33 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings in the Fall Classic to break a pitching record set by Ruth. His lifetime record of 236-106 established Ford with the fourth-best winning percentage (.690) of any pitcher in Major League history.
Now 79, Ford is no longer a regular visitor at Yankees Spring Training in Tampa, Fla., though he does miss the experience and the camaraderie.
He said he still keeps up with the Yankees during the season, and even though he can still remember paying $3 for a World Series ticket at the pre-renovation ballpark, Ford said he believes the new incarnation of Yankee Stadium will be a jewel for the city.
Especially if the new era Yankees create more indelible memories for fans, like the ones Ford continues to treasure of his summer days spent in the Bronx.
"I started going there when I was 11, and I just loved the place," Ford said. "Every time, I sat in the bleachers, and I just looked around -- never believing that I was going to pitch there eventually. It had such different dimensions from all the other parks. You'd go to Ebbets Field and the fences there looked very close; not like Yankee Stadium.
"I saw DiMaggio hit about six fly balls in a doubleheader to left-center field, all over 400 feet, and they were all outs. I used to say to the kids I'd go to the games with, 'DiMaggio would have had six home runs in Ebbets Field!' It was a different time."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.