Russell Ford, born in Brandon, Manitoba, Canada in 1883, was for a span of more than fifty years considered the best Canadian pitcher of all-time. And for one special season in 1910 he was considered amongst the very best pitchers in the game.
When Russ reached the age of nine his family moved from Brandon to the American Midwest. The earliest records of Ford playing in organized baseball are 1905, when he began play for the Atlanta Crackers of the Southern Association. It was here that Ford discovered the pitch that would change him from just another “bush leaguer” into a baseball superstar.
Russ Ford was pitching in Atlanta on day when a wild pitch went over catcher Sweeney’s head and struck a concrete post. This roughed up one side of the ball. On the next pitch Sweeney noticed that the ball took a peculiar shoot and almost got away from him. “What are you throwing?” he asked Ford. “It jumped half a foot.” Ford himself didn’t know exactly but he began to study this odd phenomenon.
After many experiments he reached the conclusion that the roughed up side of the ball caught the wind and the friction gave the ball a lopsided motion, casing it to veer off from a straight course at odd angles. It was two years before we learned his trick. Russel Ford always wore a ring while pitching and he and Sweeney conceived the idea of having this ring made of emery. As a darkly mounted ring it did not attract unusual attention and nobody suspected its real purpose.
(Source: Memoirs of Twenty Years in Baseball (Ty Cobb), Pages 65 – 69.
Ford became worried that others would find out the secret of his new found success. For a period of two years Russ was to keep his secret, claiming that his pitch was a spit ball, which was still legal at the time.
After gaining full command of the emery ball and dominating the Southern Association, the New York Highlanders took notice and Ford made one relief appearance during in 1909 before joining the team full time in 1910. His 1910 campaign has been heralded as one the greatest rookie seasons of all-time. Unlike most baseball assertions of greatness, statistics clearly support this claim. Ford is one of only three pitchers in the history of the game to record at least 20 wins and 200 strikeouts in their rookie season. The other two? Christy Mathewson and Grover Cleveland Alexander. Russ finished the year with 26 wins, 29 complete games, 8 shutouts, 209 strikeouts, a 1.65 ERA and a 0.881 WHIP. Ford avoided a “sophomore slump” in 1911, continuing his strong pitching by winning 22 games & completing 26 games with a 2.27 ERA. The next season Ford did a complete went 180°, going from 22 wins in 1911 to 21 losses in 1912. The prevailing theory behind this decline is two-fold. Firstly, at the age of twenty-nine, Ford began to suffer chronic arm fatigue due to years of heavy workloads and secondly, the support or lack thereof from the leagues worst defense. The Highlanders compiled a league low .940 fielding percentage, completing a league low 77 double plays, and allowed nearly 1.5 unearned runs per game. In 1913 Ford once again posted a sub .500 record, going 12-18. Despite this poor record Ford kept his ERA below the league average.
After two losing seasons the Highlanders requested that Ford take a pay cut. Refusing, Ford jumped from the Highlanders on January 20th, 1914 to join the Buffalo Buffeds of the newly formed Federal League. The upstart Federal League challenged established organized baseball by raiding American and National league teams of many of their top stars, including future hall of fame such as Joe Tinker, Mordecai Brown, Eddie Plank, and Chief Bender. Pitching in what was widely known as a hitter’s park, Ford went on to have the last great year of his career; winning 21 games win a 1.82 ERA. 1915 would not be as kind to Ford, as his ERA rose to a career high 4.51 in a career low 21 games pitched. With both the American and National league banning the emery ball before play in the 1915 season and the closure of the Federal League after two seasons Ford was out of options and never pitched again in the major leagues.
While the position of greatest Canadian pitcher has now been taken by Ferguson Jenkins, Russ Ford’s career accomplishments are still exemplary. He holds the best career ERA in Yankees history (2.54), along with three twenty win seasons, the 51st best career ERA (2.64) and the 64th top career WHIP (1.154). In 1989 Russel Ford was elected to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.