Trivia time: Name the only major league third baseman who ever got knocked out by Muhammad Ali. The answer: Pete Ward. With a real phantom punch.
No, Ward wasn’t foolish enough to step into the ring against Ali. Ward was supposed to be a 1965 cover star when Sports Illustrated planned a cover story on the White Sox’s pennant hopes. Until he wasn’t.
“They just got the pictures there in time to do it,” said Ward—who died at 84 on 16 March—to interviewer Mark Liptak in 2003. “Sports Illustrated did send me some of the covers that were supposed to have me on it though.”
Ali-Liston II put paid to that idea. Ward eventually kept one of the covers’ prints in his office at his post-baseball travel agency, signing another and giving it to the magazine’s vice president for communications, Art Berke.
When a story about Ward’s death was posted to a Facebook baseball group, one commenter made a remark about “nobodies” being hoisted. Well, now. A guy who finishes a tight second to a White Sox teammate in the 1963 American League Rookie of the Year voting is many things. A nobody isn’t one of them.
Ward was a slick third baseman who was actually worth more wins above replacement level than the infielder who bagged the 1963 National League Rookie of the Year award—a kid named Pete Rose. (Ward: 4.1; Rose: 2.4.) If only his teammate Gary Peters hadn’t led the American League with his 2.33 ERA that season.
If it hadn’t been for an April 1965 auto accident that left him with neck and back trouble, Ward might have put up better than a nine-season playing career otherwise. Over his first two full seasons, Ward averaged 33 doubles, five triples, 24 home runs, and a .478 slugging percentage; over his final six: eighteen, two, thirteen, and .364.
The accident that changed the trajector of Ward’s career happened after the White Sox returned to Chicago following a rainout in Washington. As Ward told Liptak, he managed to score tickets for a Chicago Blackhawks hockey game for himself and pitching teammate Tommy John. It was after the game that the accident occurred:
[A]s we were leaving, I was in the front seat on the right side and Tommy was in the back seat on the left when a car rear-ended us. At the time I didn’t think that much about it, it wasn’t really that hard of a hit but the next day I woke up with a stiff neck and was sore all over. I went to see a doctor and he told me I had a case of whiplash and it bothered me the rest of the year. It just caused a lot of problems for me. Tommy also had neck problems.
As Ward told SI in due course, “I was never comfortable from that point on.” More than his batting numbers bear him out. He’d been worth eighteen defensive runs above his league average in 1964; he remained a plus defender at third in 1965 but he was worth eight such runs above league average for that season. He divided defensive time between the outfield, third base, and first base the rest of his career.
“I preferred third base,” Ward told Liptak, laughing, “because I was a bad outfielder!”
Chicagolander though I wasn’t, I’d had a particular affinity for Ward when I was growing up in the 1960s. It seemed that his baseball cards were almost ubiquitous; I could guarantee that out of my first three packs of Topps cards on the year, there’d be at least one and maybe three Ward cards among the bunch.
Ward was an Orioles discovery with a 1962 cup of coffee for Baltimore, before he was traded to the White Sox prior to spring training 1963. Quite a trade. The White Sox sent the Orioles Hall of Fame shortstop Luis Aparicio and veteran outfielder Al Smith; the Orioles sent Ward, Hall of Fame relief pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm, shortstop Ron Hansen (the American League’s 1960 Rookie of the Year), and spare outfielder Dave Nicholson.
In his memoir Safe By a Mile, then-White Sox scout/coach Charlie Metro remembered pushing then-White Sox manager Al Lopez that Ward be included or there’d be no deal:
I insisted on Pete Ward coming over to the White Sox in a deal with Baltimore because I had worked with Pete out in Vancouver. He was a pretty good hitter. He was very aggressive. He loved to play, quite a cocky kid. When the White Sox had a chance to make the trade, I said, ‘Make them throw Pete Ward in the deal. He can play, he can hit.’ Al Lopez said, ‘Well, what kind of fielder is he?’ I said, ‘Well, he’s not too good a fielder, but if you hit him a thousand ground balls at third base, he’ll do pretty fair. But he can hit, and he can drive in runs and has some power. Don’t make the deal unless you get Pete Ward.
Ward’s White Sox life ended when he was dealt to the Yankees in December 1969. Then in the middle of their Lost Decade (1965-75), the Yankees got only a shell of Ward’s former ability and released him in March 1971. But they respected Ward’s baseball mind enough to make him the manager of their Fort Lauderdale (A) farm team; he managed them to the league championship in 1974.
Ward managed two other Yankee farm teams, plus a White Sox farm team, before he left baseball to work for Miller Brewing before he opened his own successful travel agency in the Pacific Northwest, to which his family had originally moved during his childhood. The Montreal native—and son of 1935 Stanley Cup-winning Montreal Maroons right wing Jimmy Ward—was elected to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991.
Known as much for a good sense of humour as anything else, Ward proved sanguine about his missed SI cover. “You know,” he said to SI writer Richard Deitsch at the turn of the century, “Ali was on something like forty covers. It would have been nice if he could have let me be on just one.”
God willing, Ward met Ali in the Elysian Fields and said, “You knocked Liston out with your fist, but you knocked me out with a phantom punch!” Ward’s otherwise bereft wife, children, and grandchildren surely settle proudly for knowing Ward was always their cover guy.