For years, Tigers fans idly hoped that they had seen the last of Yankees pitcher Whitey Ford. On the afternoon of May 21, 1967, they finally got their wish.
That Sunday, the 40-year-old Ford started the first game of a twin bill with 236 lifetime victories under his belt. He enjoyed a reputation as one of the best money pitchers ever. He had pitched for 11 pennant winners in New York and started an unprecedented 22 World Series games.
Many in the crowd of 44,862 remembered Ford’s sensational debut in 1950. The fun-loving, street-smart bartender’s son from Queens, New York, racked up a 9-1 record after being called up to the Yankees late in the season. His left arm was the difference as Casey Stengel’s Yankees edged the Tigers of George Kell, Hoot Evers, and Vic Wertz by three games for the pennant.
The small, crafty southpaw had vexed the Tigers ever since. In 1961, his 25-4 record led the Yanks to another flag, despite Detroit’s 101 victories.
On this day, the first-place Tigers got to their old nemesis early, scoring a run in the opening frame on Dick McAuliffe’s base hit and Al Kaline’s sacrifice fly. Earl Wilson maintained the 1-0 lead in the top of the second. But when the Tigers came to bat in Th. bottom of the inning, they discovered Jim Bouton on the mound. Ford had left the game with a sore left elbow.
“He felt it a little when he warmed up,” explained New York manager Ralph Houk. “It’s a damn shame.” The Tigers pounced on Ford’s replacement for five runs en route to a 9-4 victory. Ford got the loss, dropping his season record to 2-4.
Ford’s early departure was overshadowed by a Keystone Kops sequence in the fourth inning, when left fielder Willie Horton was knocked out after crashing into the wall chasing Joe Pepitone’s double. Manager Mayo Smith bounded out of the dugout to rush to his aid, then collapsed.
“About halfway out there, I thought I had been shot in the leg,” said Smith, who had pulled a muscle in his left calf. While Horton was on the outfield grass, trying to get his wind back, Smith was attended to by trainers and carried off the field on a stretcher.
Both men recovered. Horton went on to hit two home runs as the Tigers dropped the second game, while Smith managed the balance of the doubleheader sitting immobilized on a pillow in the dugout.
For Ford, Tiger Stadium was his last stop. He never pitched again. A week later he announced his retirement. He departed holding a slew of records, including a remarkable .690 winning percentage (236-106).
A curious footnote to Ford’s last game was that he had been scouted by Paul Krichell, the same man who had signed the Yankees’ great first baseman, Lou Gehrig. On a May afternoon 28 years earlier, Gehrig’s career had also ended at The Corner. Ford, who like most New York schoolboys of the 1930s had grown up worshipping the Yankees’ captain, joined his hero in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974.