Friday, August 06, 2004

Canadian Bacon Anyone?....

Russ Ford : The Right Scuff

People would never look at an emery board the same way again.

When people think of New York’s American League franchise as respects pitchers named Ford -- generally the name first called to mind is Whitey. However long before the Yankees even made "Yankees" their official nickname they had another spectacular arm, a righthander named Russ Ford. Born Russell William Ford in Brandon Manitoba, Canada, Ford would light up the Yankees’ horizon as briefly and brilliantly as a bolt of chain lightning.

Ford made his major league debut in 1909 pitching a three inning relief appearance. His rocky outing where he surrendered three earned runs, four hits and four bases on balls gave absolutely no indication of what was to come.

Russ Ford : Chairman of the [emery] Board

In 1910, at age 27, Ford would set the American League on its ear. The spitball was then a legal pitch in professional baseball. Ford however had developed a new twist on the tricky pitch. The difficulty in throwing the spitter is that it generally requires applying a foreign substance to the baseball. However in doing so, the ball becomes difficult to grip and control because of the resulting slickness/stickiness.

Ford however bypassed that difficulty by not applying any of the standard forms of goop to the baseball but rather altering the surface of the ball itself. Using an emery board he was able to doctor the baseball in such a way that he could increase the action of a pitch without sacrificing grip or control. With this new wrinkle in place Ford, despite a late start to his career, would put together a season that would set several Yankee records.

In 1910, Philadelphia Athletics’ owner/manager Connie Mack had finished assembling on of baseball’s all time greatest teams. The Athletics would cop the America League flag that year, four pennants over the next five years with three World Series championships. This was the team against which Russ Ford made his major league starting debut. Ford threw a five-hitter downing the embryonic dynasty 1-0.

Over the course of that summer Ford would show that his debut was not a fluke. He enjoyed a 12 game winning streak over the course of that summer as his "emery pitch" danced, dipped and dropped around American League batsmen. One of the more memorable moments of the 1910 campaign was a game against the Cleveland Naps. As good as Ford was, he knew it was prudent not to let a team’s best hitter beat him. Three times he tried to walk Naps’ second baseman Nap Lajoie. Three times Lajoie got a hit. In Lajoie’s fourth at bat he got three balls on the future Hall of Famer but could not get ball four past him as he fouled off pitch after pitch. Finally Ford put the pitch where even Lajoie could not reach it, throwing the ball three feet behind him.

The Highlanders/Yankees continued to pursue the Athletics throughout the summer months. Ford put together a remarkable September winning seven games that month while losing none. However the Athletics would not be caught and despite Ford’s heroics; Philadelphia would not be headed. Ford would finish the regular season 26-6 and added seven additional shutouts onto the one he pitched against the Athletics in his starting debut.

The New York Giants, like the Highlanders/Yankees, finished second in their league. A seven-game city series was arranged between both New York clubs. This was historic in that it was the first series between the Giants and the Highlander/Yankees. In the opener at the Polo Grounds Ford faced Giants ace Christy Mathewson who had finished 27-9 that year. For 7 1/2 innings it was a tight game, but in the last of the eighth, two costly Yankee errors and a hit batsman and four Giant base hits, broke open a 1-1 tie with four runs for a Giant victory.

The 1911 campaign was uneventful for the New York American League club. Ford, showing no evidence of a "sophomore jinx," finished 22-11 on a .500 team as the Highlanders/Yankees finished 76-76. Both Ford’s and his team’s fortunes plummeted the following year as they finished dead last in the league even behind the moribund St. Louis Browns. Ford became one of a handful of pitchers who would go from winning over twenty games (22-11 in 1911) to losing 20-plus the following campaign (13-21 in 1912).

Ford righted himself in 1913 as his club continued to flounder. A 12-18 record obscured that he had pitched rather well. The only thing that went right for New York that year was they managed to finish slightly ahead of the Browns but still could not crack the sixty win barrier. Ford’s earned run average that year was 2.66 whereas the American League average was 2.93.

A Final Hurrah

During this time there were rumblings throughout baseball about the possibility of a third major league. In 1913 the Federal League was born. In 1914, the league proclaimed itself a "major league" and started raiding major league rosters of name players. The generous contracts offered by this upstart league caused many players to jump from the majors to this infant circuit. Ford decided to "follow the money," signed with the Federal League and assigned to Buffalo. Ford emerged as one of the league’s top hurlers.

The inaugural season of the Federal League (as a "major league") featured the weakest pitching among the three circuits. Ford stood tall winning 21 losing 6 with an ERA of 1.82 when the league average [for ERA] was 3.20. However he scuffled the following season going a meager 5-9, 4.52 ERA. It was his final major league season.

He no longer had his good scuff.

Other scuff of interest.....

  • Although his tenure with the Yankees was brief, he still owns the best ERA in team history (2.54).

  • Ford was the first Canadian pitcher in baseball history to have a 20-win season.

  • Ford batted .209 lifetime.

  • Ford held the Yankee single season record for shutouts (8) until broken by Ron Guidry in 1978.

  • Ford’s .813 winning percentage set in 1910 stood as a Yankee record until broken by Lefty Gomez in 1934.

  • Ford is one of five Yankee hurlers to win five or more games after September 1. The other four are Ernie Bonham, Mel Stottlemyre, Bob Wickman and Andy Pettite.

  • Ty Cobb hit .520 lifetime against Ford.

Best Regards