/Jake Gibbs caught Whitey Ford’s last pitch, and the teammates remained devoted friends

Jake Gibbs caught Whitey Ford’s last pitch, and the teammates remained devoted friends

Ford’s final game in 1967 was his last. Jake Gibbs from Grenada, the Ole Miss football icon, would be his catcher. Gibbs, who spoke Saturday morning from Oxford via phone, said that Whitey was “the master”. “Whitey was not a thrower, but a pitcher. He was an intelligent pitcher. He was able to place the ball exactly where he wanted. He knew all the pitches. He kept it below the knees, moved the ball inside and out, changed speeds, and always had the batter guessing. Gibbs said, “You know how many great Yankee pitchers there were in the ’50s & ’60s?” Whitey Ford was what they called the Chairman. He was the greatest. Whitey Ford was the greatest pitcher I have ever caught, and that’s what people ask me. There is no doubt about it. Everyone who plays the role of catcher should get one chance to catch Whitey. Ford and Gibbs were good friends and remained close over the years. Ford, an all-star pitcher and veteran, was there to welcome Gibbs when he signed with the Yankees in 1961. Ford and Mickey Mantle were out on the New York streets, and Gibbs was riding shotgun to make sure everyone returned home safely. Ford was once asked how Mantle, an Oklahoma country boy, and he became such close friends and running pals. Ford said, “We both liked Scotch.” Gibbs chuckled heartily when he heard that. Gibbs agreed that it was a good idea. After Mickey Mantle retired, Ford and Gibbs started their fantasy baseball camps. As Ole Miss’s baseball coach, Gibbs was dedicating the new stadium for the Rebels in 1989. Ford flew down from New York to throw the first pitch. Gibbs made arrangements for me to meet Ford in person that day in 1989. He was one of my childhood heroes. We spoke about Mantle and Roger Marris and Casey Stengel, as well as other Yankee heroes. What I will remember most about the conversation is this: How much Ford loved Gibbs. Ford stated, “I would do anything to help Jake.” “Everybody loves Jake, or there’s a problem with them,” I agree. The feeling between Ford and Gibbs was evident. Gibbs stated that Whitey was smart and a skilled worker, but he was also a good friend and a great teammate. He was outgoing and mixed with everyone. He wasn’t a prima donna type of guy. He loved people and had a great time. He was never too hard on himself. It was a great honor to him to make the effort to open our stadium. Gibbs was an Ole Miss infielder, so the Yankees were stocked with prospects and infielders at the minor league level. Gibbs would have been a major player for other teams, but the Yankees were brimming with talent. Gibbs did not play at any lower than Class AAA. It was at this level that Gibbs was converted by the Yankees from an infielder to a catcher. This position is where he became the back-up for Elston Howard in 1965. It is important to remember that Gibbs was also the link between Howard and Thurman Munson, Yankee catching legends. Gibbs was hired after Howard retired. Soon after Howard’s retirement, Gibbs was offered the job. Munson, another Yankee legend, joined the fray. Evidently, Ford’s catch was one of Gibbs greatest joys. Gibbs stated, “He threw three fast balls: a two-seam one, a four-seam one and a slider.” You see big, muscular men today who can throw 95 to 99 miles an hour. White stood at 5’10 and could throw 87-88 mph. But he knew exactly where it was going. My mitt was about two inches off the corner for a right-handed batter. He hit the mitt exactly there and I didn’t move the mitt. It was a strike nine times out of 10. Ford, a famous pitcher, was not afraid to load the ball with saliva or dirt – or even to nick it with his ring if it was crucial pitch. Gibbs stated, “If there were a nick or spot on the ball Whitey could make it talk.” Whitey Ford won 236 and lost only 106 games with an earned run of 2.75. He did it with great economy. He reached out to the contact. He was quick to respond. Gibbs stated, “In ’65 I caught one Whitey’s games where we won 1 to nothing.” “The whole game lasted about an hour and a quarter. That’s incredible! Ford was at his best in the moments that mattered most. Ford won 10 World Series games, and at one time had a streak that was 33.2 innings without a score in the World Series. This is still a record. He was small for his age, but he was confident in himself. He pitched confidently. He could have pitched longer if he hadn’t had circulatory problems in his throwing arm that first appeared in the 1964 World Series. Gibbs stated that Whitey’s right jersey could get sweaty on a hot August day. But the left side would be dry. Ford had to have surgery to clear a blocked artery. The relief was temporary. In 1963, he won 24 games, 17 in 1964, and 16 in 1965. In 1966 and 1967, he pitched sparingly. Gibbs was the one who caught his final game. In 1967, Ford’s last year, he still managed a 1.64 ERA over 44 innings. He couldn’t throw as much or as often at 38 and sometimes couldn’t feel his arm and shoulder. He could still pitch if they gave him the ball. He was able to rely on his fortitude and guile. Gibbs says, “Nobody knew how to pitch better than Whitey.”_x000D