willis_ward_trackWard clears the bar in 1933 – via a current eBay auction 

It was a pleasure to attend the screening of Black and Blue at the Alumni Association building last Thursday.  

imageA few moments during the film drew a verbal reaction from the crowd (including John U. Bacon’s hilarious description of Henry Ford’s henchman Harry Bennett) but none more poignant than the gasp when it was noted that Willis Ward once defeated the great Jesse Owens on the track. 

In chatting with the writers it turns out that gasp has been a common reaction at recent screenings of the film.  Buddy Moorehouse of Stunt3 sent over some more specifics on Ward vs. Owens including this clip (left) from the March 3, 1935 Milwaukee Journal when the Michigan man took down the famous Buckeye star in 2 of 3 events, just a couple months before Owens’ famous day at Ferry Field. 

In an email, Moorehouse provided additional details on their meetings:

On March 2, 1935, Michigan hosted Ohio State in an indoor track meet in Ann Arbor. Owens and Ward raced three times – in the 60-yard dash, the 65-yard low hurdles, and the 65-yard high hurdles.  Ward beat him twice – in the 60-yard dash and 65-yard high hurdles.

The winter and spring of 1935 was the only time Ward and Owens raced against each other. Owens was a sophomore (freshmen couldn’t compete back then) and Ward was a senior, so this was the only time they ever faced each other. Ward quit competing in the summer of 1935, because of what happened with Georgia Tech.

During the outdoor season, Ward had an injured leg, so he wasn’t at his best. He and Owens only raced a couple times, and Owens won all of those times. On the day that Owens set the four world records in Ann Arbor – May 25, 1935 – Ward had to scratch from the long jump and all of the running races because of his bad leg But Ward did win the high jump that day.

It would be interesting to know what would have happened during the outdoor season if Ward had been healthy. But Ward was healthy during the indoor season, and he beat Owens.

The timing of Ward’s success on the track naturally makes folks to speculate on what would have happened if Ward participated in the 1936 Berlin Olympics alongside Owens.  According to the Bentley, he participated in the U.S. Olympic trials but didn’t qualify, in part, according to Ward, because the 1934 Georgia Tech game crushed his competitive drive:

In later interviews Ward said the [Georgia Tech game] left him disillusioned with sports and sapped his competitive spirit. He took part in the Olympic trials, but having lost the burning ambition to win, Ward, in his own words, did not train to his peak and failed to make the U.S. team.

But I’m not sure he actually participated in the 1936 trials.  In this detailed account US Olympic trial history, the introduction to the 1936 trials actually mentions Ward and the Georgia Tech game incident(!), but only notes Ward’s 4th place finish in the 1932 trials in the high jump.  He’s not mentioned in any of the results or even heats in 1936.  Owens dominated.

Near the conclusion of the Q&A session following the screening at the Alumni center, Moorehouse suggested that it’s time for the university to honor Ward in some way, and I agree.  And after all, as Moorehouse pointed out, the only memorial on campus (if you don’t count buildings or roads in parking lots) for former athletes is this plaque dedicated to Owens…a Buckeye!


* Harry Kipke and the Fall of 1934
* Jesse Owns and Gerald Ford (1934)
* The Willis Ward Protests (1934)

1 Comment

  1. Good stuff; nicely done.
    I met Willis Ward as a very young fan at a Ferry Field tailgate before a football game. He was an elegant, authoritative man; by that time I think he had been appointed to the Wayne County Probate Court. I felt like I was in the presence of greatness.
    btw; If I am not mistaken, Michigan won the track meet in which Jesse Owens set four world records.