Unlike many of the parks in New York City, there is no sign or marker at Whitey Ford Athletic Field to explain how the place got its name, just a standard list of park rules posted at the entrance to a ballfield and exercise area.
It’s a beautiful little spot at the northwestern tip of Long Island. Directly across the river is Asphalt Green on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and the Ward’s Island and Triborough Bridges can be seen, with a fair amount of boat traffic going by for entertainment.
On its website, the Parks Department explains that Ford, who died on Thursday at the age of 91, “was an Astoria native who, after signing with the Yankees in 1947, became a Cy Young Award winner, a six-time World Series champion, and one of the greatest pitchers in Yankee history.” The dedication of the field took place in 2000, at a Yankee Stadium ceremony.
Ford is the fifth Hall of Famer to die this year, along with fellow New York City icon Tom Seaver, St. Louis Cardinals Bob Gibson and Lou Brock, and Mr. Tiger, Al Kaline. Ford won 236 games in his 16-year major league career, and has the highest winning percentage (.690) of any pitcher with 200 or more wins. He was teammates with Mickey Mantle for 15 of those seasons, and the two were close friends.
Whitey Ford Athletic Field was slated for a renovation project to begin in 2019, but the only construction visibly happening is on luxury apartment buildings that are rising to take advantage of the river views and overshadowing the public housing complex on the other side of 27th Avenue. Construction was slated to begin this spring on the $2.4 million project, but was delayed by the coronavirus outbreak. The riverwalk portion of Whitey Ford Field abruptly ends at a wire fence, leaving its seating area inaccessible and the space behind the outfield fence overgrown with weeds. In the 1940s, it had some rather majestic bleachers.
Eventually, especially as that part of Astoria gets an influx of wealthier residents who would push for it and be heard in the still-dysfunctional city government, Whitey Ford Field will get its renovation, and be a hub of activity rather than an afterthought on the waterfront.
It will just be more change in the expansive neighborhood from the time that Ford was growing up there. That is, to the extent that the “Chairman of the Board” grew up there at all.
The Society for American Baseball Research’s biography file on Ford notes that his family moved when he was 5 to “34th Avenue in Astoria, Queens, an Irish, Polish, and Italian neighborhood.” This is true, because while Astoria has a longstanding reputation as a Greek neighborhood, that influx didn’t happen until the 1960s, three decades after Ford’s family crossed the river from Manhattan. Neil Herdran, co-chair of the Friends of Whitey Ford Field, clarified that the Fords lived on 34th Street, near Broadway, while Ford’s future in-laws lived on 34th Avenue, about 10 blocks east.
Further to the point of Ford and the field bearing his name, SABR notes that “Ford and his friends played sandlot baseball until dark on the fields next to Madison Square Garden Bowl, about a mile from his neighborhood.” The Bowl was a 72,000-seat stadium — the site of many boxing matches over the years, including the heavyweight title bout between Cinderella Man James Braddock and Max Baer in 1935 — that was torn down in 1942, and now is the site of an enormous used-car dealership, two and a half miles from Whitey Ford Field, but a straight shot of 20 or so blocks from where Ford lived.
The other place where SABR mentions Ford playing baseball when he was growing up is “on a public playground under the Queensborough Bridge on an ill-shaped field.” There still are baseball diamonds in the shadow of the bridge, in Queensbridge Park, directly across Vernon Boulevard from the Queensbridge Houses — then brand new, now known as the projects where Metta World Peace and Nas grew up. It’s two miles down from Whitey Ford Field, but again, much closer to where Ford lived.
The change is the constant. Ford’s father wound up running a bar called the Ivy Room on 34th Avenue, and just in the last decade, nearly every business on that block between Crescent and 24th Streets has entered another iteration, whether it’s the Mi Tierra Supermarket that became the Bravo Supermarket, the Chinese restaurant that’s had multiple name switches, or the bodega that finally got closed down for selling too many beers to teenagers. The one constant in the 21st century has been a liquor store which, humorously for the block’s Yankee ties, always has a big Mets display in its window.
It’s the natural evolution of a neighborhood that sees these things happen. Whether or not Ford ever set foot as a youth on the patch of land now named for him, it’s part of Astoria and he is part of the history of Astoria, well worth celebrating, now and into the future. The change will be ongoing, but the history will remain and when that renovation of Whitey Ford Field does happen, part of it should be that missing sign, explaining and offering a proper memorial to one of the neighborhood’s greatest sons.
This article was updated on Oct. 14 to reflect the status of construction at Whitey Ford Field, according to the NYC Parks Department, and with additional biographical detail about Ford and his family from Neil Herdan.