A forgotten major leaguer is finally found

A man named Bill Ford pitched in the major leagues for a brief time in 1936. But until recently, there was no mention of him in the history books.

Originally Published: April 7, 2003
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

Since the beginning of the 2003 season, 28 players -- from Jason Anderson to Oscar Villareal -- have made their Major League Baseball debuts (thanks to Baseball Info Solutions for the list of 28 players). Many of these fellows will eventually be forgotten by everybody but their teammates and their families, but they'll always have something that can never be taken away: for at least a moment, they were major leaguers.

And no matter what happens now, they'll always be major leaguers, commemorated in team media guides and The Sports Encyclopedia: Baseball, at Baseball-Reference.com and everywhere else.

But what if a baseball player reached the pinnacle of the sport ... and everybody forgot?

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On June 17, 1936, a right-handed pitcher named Gene Ford made his major-league debut, pitching two innings of relief for the Boston Braves. Ford would also pitch briefly for the Braves -- who were actually called the "Bees" then -- in 1938, and the encyclopedias and Web sites include the following record for him:

      W-L  Games Innings Hits   ERA
1936  0-0    2      2      2   13.50
1938  0-0    4     14     21   10.29

No, it wasn't the most distinguished of careers, but it was a career nonetheless. When Eugene Matthew Ford died in 1970, he died a major leaguer.

Gene Ford, however, didn't do exactly what we've thought he did. One of those games in 1936 wasn't actually his.

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Eleven years ago, an amateur baseball researcher named Rick Benner was going through microfilm of the Boston Globe.

"I was researching Boston Braves transactions," Benner told me yesterday in a phone conversation, "just looking wherever I could find anything, because in those days they didn't list the transactions in agate type."

And in the September 28 edition of the Globe, Benner found William B. Ford, who the previous day had pitched in the first game of the Bees' doubleheader against the Phillies.

"From what I'd read earlier, I knew the Braves had another pitcher named Ford: Gene Ford, from the University of Iowa. He had pitched one game in June, and then the Braves had farmed him back to the minors. I also knew that he'd hurt his arm and was out for the season. So I figured this pitcher named Ford had to be somebody else."

In 1936, there was little confusion. As the Globe reported,

Boston's starting pitcher was William Ford, a [Pennsylvania] State College student who has been spending some time with Manager Bill McKechnie's squad. In his first major league christening Ford walked the first three batters and immediately was relieved by Guy Bush ...

Ford returned to State College where he has another year. He will rejoin the Bees in the Spring.

Bill Ford, Benner discovered, had been a teammate at Penn State of Bill McKechnie Jr., the manager's son. And with the season nearly finished, the elder McKechnie gave his son's friend a (brief) shot.

And then Bill Ford got forgotten by the record-keepers.

The following spring when the 1937 edition of Spalding's Official Base Ball Guide hit the shelves, Bill Ford's lone appearance had been credited to Gene Ford. When the first edition of the seminal Baseball Encyclopedia was published in 1969, Gene Ford still owned Bill Ford's game. And so it has been ever since.

Until last fall, when Bill Ford was finally returned to his rightful place on the list of major-league ballplayers.

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Rick Benner "discovered" Bill Ford in 1992, but he wasn't sure exactly what he'd discovered, and it was more than a decade before he -- and we -- found out.

"A few years passed by," Benner says, "and I came across my notes again. I said to myself, 'I should do some work on this,' and I contacted the Alumni Association at Penn State, but unfortunately they said Ford had passed away back in 1994.

"Later I moved from New England down to Georgia, and I kind of lost track of the story. But eventually I got involved again, researching college players who went on to play in the majors. I came across the Ford material again, and this time I thought I'd throw it back to Bill Carle."

Bill Carle is, and has been for many years, the chairman of the Society for American Baseball Research's Biographical Research Committee. And as Carle notes, to find a "new" major leaguer from the 1930s is rare.

"We find those from time to time in the 19th century," Carle told me last week, "and several years ago we found a guy from 1916: Moxie Divis, whose record had been embedded in one of the many major-league Davises. But at this point, I never thought we'd find somebody from as late as 1936."

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So we know what happened to Bill Ford's major-league record. It was lost by the professional record-keepers, and finally rediscovered by Rick Benner.

But what happened to Bill Ford, the ballplayer?

In 1937, he went 3-6 with a 7.30 ERA for Zanesville in the Mid-Atlantic League. So ended Ford's career as a baseball pitcher. He did play in the minors for another four seasons, but as an outfielder, and in 1939 batted .300 with McKeesport in the Pennsylvania State League. Ford last played professional baseball in 1941, batting .213 in a brief stint with Lancaster in the Interstate League.

In 1994, Ford died in the Pittsburgh area. According to Benner, Ford's obituary didn't mention that he'd been a professional ballplayer.

What I'd like to know is, what took so long? In all those years that Bill Ford was "lost," why didn't he or one of his relatives come forward to question the public record? Did Ford tell people that he'd pitched in the major leagues, only to be considered a braggart when somebody checked The Baseball Encyclopedia and found no mention of a "Bill Ford"?

If you knew Bill Ford, major leaguer, I'd like to hear from you.

Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published in April by Fireside, appears here regularly during the season. His e-mail address is rob.neyer@dig.com.

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