For two years, Pete Ward lived up to Opening Day promise
On April 9, 1963, the White Sox opened the season in Detroit. The Tigers were up 5-4 in the 7th when Sox rookie Pete Ward faced Jim Bunning, with Nellie Fox and Floyd Robinson on base.
According to George Puscas' account in the Detroit Free Press, the "blond, baby-faced rookie third baseman lashed into the pitch" and "sent the ball rocketing into the right-field seats," capping a four-run inning that gave the Sox the 7-5 victory.
The home run seemed to validate the trade earlier that year with the Orioles that brought the Montreal native to the South Side.
To get Ward, Ron Hansen, Dave Nicholson, and Hoyt Wilhelm, the Sox gave up two members of the 1959 pennant winners, Al Smith and future Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio.
For two years, Ward, who died March 16 at 84, continued to justify the deal. In 1964 the Sox nearly captured a pennant, finishing one game behind the Yankees with a 98-64 record.
Ward, who had batted .328 for Rochester in 1962, good for second place in the International League, was the key to the trade, since the Sox badly needed to shore up third base.
Ward told reporters, "Mr. Short (GM Ed Short) called me. He told me I'd be at third base for 162 games the way the White Sox figure now."
In 157 games in 1963, Ward hit 22 homers, batted .295, and drove in 84 runs.
His stellar performance earned him Sporting News AL Rookie of the Year honors.
When the Baseball Writers Association of America picked the AL Rookie of the Year, they chose teammate Gary Peters over Ward by four votes.
When I phoned Peters at his Florida home, he told me Ward never let him forget it. "About every time I talked to him after he retired, he would always ask me if I was keeping his trophies polished."
A big factor in making Ward major league ready was a change in his batting grip.
Teammate Ken Berry, speaking from his Kansas home, said he remembered when Ward was in the minors, "He spread his hands apart."
Perhaps his grip owed something to his hockey roots. His father, Jimmy Ward, played for the NHL's Montreal Maroons in the 1930s.
Teammate Jerry McNertney, speaking from his Iowa home, said, "When Pete first started playing, he kind of split his hands a little bit. I don't know if Pete played hockey. ... When I joined up with him in Chicago, he wasn't splitting his hands."
Ward himself explained in 1963, why he changed.
"In 1961 I was with both Little Rock and Ardmore. The pitchers were jamming me on the fist and I had a total of only five homers even though both were small ballparks.
"I put my hands together and swung from the end of the bat. It gave me 22 homers and a .328 batting average with Rochester last year."
Though Ward is best remembered as a hitter, he was an excellent fielder.
McNertney remembered, "As far as hands, man, he could catch it. He was kind of like Clete Boyer with the Yankees. If you hit a ball down to third, he was going to get it."
Throwing, on the other hand, was somewhat of a challenge.
"Pete's problem was he just had an erratic arm," McNertney said. "Whatever errors he had, I guarantee you 90% of them were throwing errors."
Off the field, Peters remembered, Ward's athletic skills weren't limited to baseball. "He was good at everything. Any paddle game like Ping-Pong or handball or any of those games. He was hard to beat at any of them."
Ward continued his hitting brilliance in 1964, with 23 homers, 94 RBI and a .282 batting average. That year, he finished sixth in the MVP voting.
In 1965, Ward's steady rise reached an abrupt end. In the first week of the season, he and teammate Tommy John went to the Stanley Cup playoff game between the Hawks and the Canadiens at Chicago Stadium. After they drove away following the game, no more than half a block away a car rear-ended them.
"That one wasn't too bad, and we drove on about a block and a half. That's when another car hit us in the rear, a real shot. Now it seems every time I do something real strenuous, like the lunging tag I made on Clete Boyer the last time we played the Yankees, I'm out of action a couple days," he said in 1965.
Piled on the neck trouble were back problems. He briefly regained his longball stroke with 18 home runs in 1967 and 15 in 1968, but lost his regular position and shuttled among third and first base and the outfield. He spent his last season, 1970, with the Yankees, mainly as a pinch hitter.
After his playing days, he managed in the minors and spent 1978 as a coach under Bobby Cox with the Braves before entering the travel business.
Peters recalled Ward would bring a group to Florida for spring training.
"He would call and say he wanted to see me and could I stop by the ballpark. I'd go down and shake hands with all 20 of his clients. And then I'd shake hands with Pete. But he always got me for doing a little PR for his travel clients."