In a further effort to document the strong baseball roots of western Arkansas, Jim West suggested that I pursue an article about Aaron Ward. His playing days were well before my time, so I do not remember him. He died when I was seven years old. However, he does hold a significant place in baseball history.
Ward was born in Booneville in 1896 (which made him a contemporary of my grandfather). His main claim to fame is that he was the first New York Yankee to get a hit in Yankee Stadium.
Beyond his place of birth, Ward had a couple of direct baseball ties to the state of Arkansas. He attended Ouachita Baptist, where he played shortstop and was quarterback of the football team. He also played minor league ball for the Little Rock Travelers.
Ward joined the Yanks in 1917. In his first major league appearance, he had the dubious privilege of facing the legendary Walter Johnson, considered by some to be the greatest pitcher in history. He singled late in the game, but later said that he suspected that The Big Train may have grooved one for his benefit, since the Senators were winning the game 10 to 1.
In 1920, the Yankees welcomed Babe Ruth to their lineup. Ward and the Sultan of Swat were teammates through the 1926 season, after which Ward was traded to the Chicago White Sox. Thus, a lad from Booneville narrowly missed being on what most experts consider to be the greatest baseball team of all time, the 1927 Yankees.
Ward was not an imposing figure, standing 5-10 and weighing 160 pounds. However, he was considered to be among the better fielders in the league, leading all second basemen in fielding percentage in 1923. He hit ten home runs that year, which was second on the team to Ruth. Shortstop Everett Scott said that next to the Babe, Ward was the most valuable man on the team that season. He had a respectable career batting average of .268, despite being a free swinger and leading the league in strikeouts in 1920.
Ward played in three consecutive World Series (1921-1923). He had only two hits in the 1922 classic, but both were home runs. After losing to the New York Giants the first two years, the Yankees finally prevailed in 1923 after winning the pennant by 16 games.
Ward lost his starting position with the Yankees to all-time great Tony Lazzeri, who went on to be a pivotal member of the famous Murderers Row batting lineup of the Yankees. Ward had one final full season with the White Sox in 1927, then closed out his major league career with six games with Cleveland in 1928.
Ward bounced around in the minor leagues for five seasons. His last formal connection with professional baseball was as manager of the Class D New Iberia (La.) Cardinals. He worked for a time for an oil refinery in the Texas Panhandle, then finally operated a tire retreading business with his son in New Orleans before dying in 1961.
Aaron Ward is not the most famous name in baseball history. But he did play on a World Series championship team. And he was a teammate of Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. And he was the first Yankee to get a hit in Yankee Stadium. And considering all the Hall of Famers who later got hits there, that is saying something.