Best Pitching Season Ever?
by Mike Whiteman
February 12, 2023
The Yankees have always been given nicknames that highlighted their offensive prowess, like "Bronx Bombers", "Murderer's Row", "M&M Boys", etc. It makes sense, as the most recognizable Yankee players are position players, big hitters like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. Alas, the Yanks didn't win all 27 of their World Series titles on hitting alone. There are plenty of pitchers who made names for themselves in New York, and many are enshrined in Cooperstown along with their hitting brethren. When we think about some of the great Yankee pitching feats, we think about Ron Guidry's masterful 1978 season, Jack Chesbro's 1904, or Lefty Gomez's 1934. All fine seasons, but per WAR, none of were best effort from the mound in team history.
That would belong to Russ Ford of the 1910 Highlanders.
At the beginning of the 1910 season, Russell Ford was a 27-year old rookie pitcher with one big league outing to his career log. His minor league record was 82-59 over five seasons - good, but not great. His sole Major League effort was a relief stint in April 1909 for New York in which he allowed three runs on four hits, four walks, and three hit batsmen. That game bought him a ticket back to the minors in Jersey City. What nobody knew was that Ford subsequently spent that summer working at perfecting a new pitch. That era in the game's history had a bit of a "wild west" feel when it came to doctoring the baseball. The spitball was commonly used, and pitchers were constantly looking for other ways to make the ball dip and dive away from hitters' bats. As Ford later told in a confession to The Sporting News, he too was primarily a spitballer when in spring 1908 he was throwing to catcher Ed Sweeny under the stands in Atlanta on a rainy day. An errant pitch eluded Sweeny's reach and struck a concrete post, scraping the ball. The gash on the ball seemed to create extra break as the catch went on, and a career-changing idea was born. Ford worked on ways to scuff the ball over the next couple of years. He found some success with broken glass, but was fearful that it could be detected, and his "secret" would be exposed and others would start doing the same. He later came up with emery paper - similar to sandpaper - as a tool to scuff the ball discreetly. Ford sewed small pieces into his glove and also cut a hole in his glove to reveal a part of his ring finger, with emery paper wedged in the ring he wore. The practice back then was for players in the field to drop their gloves in the field when they went in to bat, but Ford carried his glove with him back to the dugout, so his forensic evidence would not be revealed should someone check out his mitt. As part of the deception, he would also go through the motions of the spitball, in an effort to keep others from trying to replicate his success. The difference between the break of the "emery ball" and his spitter was significant. During his 1909 season with Jersey City, he said it looked like he developed a "double curve" that had the action of a "hop" and a "sail" upon approaching hitters. He used it when throwing batting practice, and his teammates flailed at the ball - missing it sometimes by up to 12-18 inches! Ford then started to use the pitch in games, and ended up finishing among league leaders in strikeouts. Ford again made the Highlanders out of Spring Training in 1910, except this time he hung on. His season debut was two innings of hitless relief on April 21, then in his first start, spun a five-hit shutout against the eventual World Series champion Philadelphia Athletics. Ford jumped out to a 7-0 record on the strength of four shutouts, including one against the reigning American League champion Detroit Tigers and their lethal 3-4 batting order combination of future Hall of Famers Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford. He came back to earth and was a .500 pitcher from June through the beginning of August. Lest one think that his great start was a fluke, Ford put an explanation mark on his season by starting, winning and completing each of his last twelve starts, including three shutouts in a row. Ford's final stats are imposing - 26-6, 1.65, eight shutouts, which amounted to an impressive 11.4 pitching WAR. In Yankee/Highlander franchise history, Chesbro's 1904 season is second with 10.4 WAR, Guidry's 9.6 in 1978 is third. Ford carried the Highlanders to an 88-63, second place effort, a fourteen win improvement over the year before. Had the Rookie of the Year award existed then, he would have been the clear AL winner. Only Grover Cleveland Alexander ever had more wins as a rookie, with 28 in 1911. The season was not just impressive, it was historical. His 11.9 WAR (11.4 pitching and .5 batting) is tied for 18th best single season mark - pitchers and position players included - since 1901. Ford followed up with a solid 22-11, 2.27 season in 1911 on the strength of his emery ball. Arm trouble led to losing seasons in 1912 and 1913. He moved on to the Federal League in 1914, going 21-6, 1.82 for the Buffalo Buffeds (short for "Buffalo Feds"). By this time, word of the emery ball got out and others were utilizing the pitch. In a blow to Ford, the Federal League banned the pitch after 1914. joining the American League in doing so. The results were immediate - his last gasp was a 5-9 , 4.52, 1915 season hampered by arm trouble and the loss of his best weapon.
The spitball itself was banned in 1920.
Despite the fact that manipulating the ball has been deemed illegal, that hasn't prevented pitchers from honing their "craft". Whitey Ford admitted that he turned to doctoring the baseball later in his career. Gaylord Perry famously rode the spitter, the Vaseline ball, the K-Y ball, etc. straight to 300 wins and Cooperstown. Don Sutton was another Hall of Famer who had a reputation for scuffing the ball. And of course, who can forget Joe Niekro and his own emery ball, and his being caught in 1987.
Yankee franchise history for all intents and purposes starts with the purchase of Babe Ruth and the 1920 season. The Highlander years should not be overlooked though, as there are some memorable performances. Among the most impressive was the 1910 season by the "Father of the Emery Ball", Russ Ford. ********************************************************* Among my sources for this article were Russ Ford's SABR biography, the April 25, 1935 edition of The Sporting News, www.baseball-reference.com, and The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers.