Negro League player shares hidden history

DeKALB – Walt Owens once got a hit off Satchel Paige, one of the greatest pitchers who ever lived, and didn’t even realize it.

“I didn’t know who he was,” admitted Owens, of DeKalb. “I didn’t think that much of it at the time.”

Owens, who taught and coached baseball at Northern Illinois University for 30 years, played for the Detroit Stars of the Negro Leagues from 1953-55, while he was attending Western Michigan University. The Stars were playing the famed House of David, an all-white Israeli baseball team noted for their extremely long beards, when Paige, who was black, took the mound.

“He would pitch for anyone who would give him money,” Owens said.

Although he “lucked out” with a single his first time at bat, Owens said Paige struck him out on three straight pitches the next time up.

“It was boom-boom-boom,” Owens laughed. “He may have had everyone (his fielders) sit down, I don’t remember. ...I probably played against a lot of famous players and didn’t know it. Half the time, I was scared. You walk in and you don’t know anyone.”

Another Negro League legend he didn’t recognize was Turkey Stearnes, who once told him he was a good player, but should still stay in school.

Among his many accomplishments, “Coach O” was on three high school baseball champion teams, four National Amateur baseball champion teams, coached a womens softball champion team, played against the Canadian Olympic basketball team and the Harlem Globetrotters, was a former teammate of NBA great Dave DeBusshiere, was on the 1955 Mid-American Conference 880-yard relay record team and was a founding member of the National Congress of Black Faculty. His son, Mel, was a first-round NFL draft pick for the Los Angeles Rams in 1981.

“There is nobody like him,” longtime friend Mike Campuzano said.

Until recently, however, one story he didn’t tell his family was about his Negro League experience.

“I never told my own children until recently that I played, because I didn’t want them to know,” he said. “I was embarrassed.”

His attitude about the league didn’t change until he was invited to participate in a documentary about the Negro Leagues many years later.

“I don’t know why they asked me,” he admitted. “I guess I was one of the last living players.”

“He wasn’t fully aware of the history of the Negro Leagues,” Raymond Doswell, the curator of the Negro League Museum in Kansas City, Mo., said. “Since he played at the end of the Negro Leagues, he was one of the younger members. He had a chance to meet some of his predecessors. It was very emotional for him. He is very reverent of the game, you can see that.”

The more he learned, he realized “how fabulous” the league really was, eventually incorporating it into his classes at NIU. He came to DeKalb in 1973 after teaching many years at Northwestern High School in Detroit, where his students included Mary Wilson of the Supremes. As a coach, he instructed future big-leaguers Alex Johnson and Willie Horton.

Owens’ long career began in Detroit, where he grew up, when a group of local players invited him on a barnstorming trip to Canada. He was 14, and his mother only let him go because one of the players attended her church.

“He promised they’d look after me,” Owens said. “I thought I must have been a pretty good player. What I found out later is that they didn’t have to pay me. But I still learned a lot.”

When he was a student at Western Michigan, a friend, Eddie Williams, got him on the Stars. Owens was hoping to make the college basketball team, so he only played baseball on the weekends and used an alias so he wouldn’t jeopardize his amateur eligiblity.

“Ted Raspberry was the (Stars) owner,” he said. “I was supposed to get $25 a day, but he only gave you $10 and said to catch him after the game. But you could never find him. It didn’t matter; I was happy to be playing. I saw him at the Negro Leagues Museum opening and reminded him he still owed me $190. He said, ‘As long as I owe you, you’ll never go broke.’”

As one of the lighter-skinned players on the team, Owens was able to buy food for his teammates from segregated diners and restaurants that wouldn’t serve blacks. Ironically, he said many of his darker-skinned teammates looked down on him for the same reason, often referring to him as “red bones.”

Owens was working on his master’s degree when he got an invitation to play for the Indianapolis Clowns, baseball’s version of the Harlem Globetrotters, for $125 a month. He turned down the offer to accept a more lucrative teaching position.

“I didn’t want to be a clown,” he said.

Owens played softball in the DeKalb area until a stroke sidelined him at the age of 70.

“He was instrumental in so many people’s lives,” former NIU Associate Athletic Director Monique Bermoudy said at his 2007 retirement party.

“He always told me the stories of when he was in Detroit and he played with Bob Lanier and Dave DeBusshiere,” Campuzano said. “Finally, in 1991, I went to my first all-star game. All these same people I heard stories about, they came up and hugged him and talked about the same things he told me. I got to see firsthand the stories were true. It was amazing seeing all these players you watch on TV.”

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