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Sidelines: Negro League baseball player a local treasure

Published: Tuesday, March 4, 2014 9:45 a.m. CDT

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Anytime you call someone cold for a story, you never really know what you’re going to get. Sometimes you click with your subject and sometimes you don’t. That’s simply human nature.

I was able to interview Walt Owens, a former professor and baseball coach at Northern Illinois University and the father of NFL star Mel Owens. The focus of the story, which appears in today’s paper, was his stint in the Negro Leagues 60 years ago.

“The Negro Leagues” is a rather loose term for various teams and leagues of African Americans who played baseball during the days of segregation. For reasons I still can’t comprehend, players were denied the chance to play in the major leagues because of the color of their skin. Jackie Robinson, of course, broke the major league color line in 1947.

Over the years, I have been fortunate to have my share of memorable interviews. This one definitely ranks at the very top of the good list.

Mr. Owens is not only gracious and generous, he is a wealth of knowledge, even if he can’t always remember dates. (Sorry, that’s an inside joke.) The basement in his lovely DeKalb home is almost like a shrine, with great photographs, numerous autographs and other memorabilia. Each one has a story to tell. And what stories they all are, one livelier than the next.

Not only does he know many famous people in the worlds of both baseball and jazz, but they know him. Some of them flew out to honor him when he was inducted into the NIU hall of fame last year. Among them, Earl Lloyd, one of the first African Americans to play in the NBA, is the first to send him a Christmas card every year.

“I am amazed at all the people he knows,” longtime friend Mike Campuzano said.

As a Negro Leagues buff, I was absolutely enthralled talking to him, so much so I probably overstayed my welcome, but I just couldn’t help it.

Many years ago, when I was just starting out in the newspaper business, I worked for a minority newspaper in Rockford called The Midwest Observer. One of the stories I pursued was about old Negro League ballplayers. Somehow, I got the address of Cool Pappa Bell, one of the premier players of the 1930s and 1940s, who is now in baseball’s hall of fame, and I wrote to him.

Due to health reasons, Mr. Bell couldn’t respond himself, but I did get a lovely letter from his wife, inviting me to call him anytime for an interview.

The idea of talking to such a distinguished figure intimidated me so much I put off calling him until it was too late. I have always regretted that.

For that reason, and a few others, I feel honored to have met Mr. Owens. He is like a true treasure trove right here in our own neighborhood, with so many accomplishments and honors there isn’t room to mention them all here. More to the point, he’s a prime example of the many brillant men and women associated with NIU. They don’t just dwell in the hallowed halls of Harvard or Yale or the University of Chicago; many breathe the same air in DeKalb County as the rest of us.

Maybe because we pass by it every day, there’s a tendency to overlook the many remarkable accomplishments taking place within the walls of NIU. Not just in athletics, which gets the most headlines, but in music, science, anthropology and academics. I could name some specific ones that I’m aware of, but there are so many, I know I’d leave out someone who may be more deserving, so I won’t.

We’re lucky to have NIU here, as well as great figures like Mr. Owens. I sincerely hope we don’t take any of them for granted.

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