Grave Story: Yip Owens (1886-1958)

If you go to Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis, you will find that there is indeed a lake… and woods. The lake, apart from being a peaceful place to sit, has also been a place where cremains are scattered. That’s what I’m assuming at least, because if you search on Lakewood’s website for the final resting place of Frank “Yip” Owens, you get a citation marked “POND” instead of the usual lot information. The pictures in this story are of that pond. So, while I can’t technically write “Here lies Yip Owens…” this is the closest thing to a final resting place that we’ll ever get for him. Owens was a catcher in two different major leagues before settling in as a longtime Minneapolis Miller. Owens played for the Boston Red Sox (1905), Chicago White Sox (1909), Brooklyn Tip-Tops of the Federal League (1914) and Baltimore Terrapins of the Federal League (1915).

Frank “Yip” Owens was born on January 25, 1886 in Toronto, Ontario. He is not to be confused with Frank “Yip” Owen, who was older, a pitcher, and not Canadian. Owen was from Ypsilanti, Mich., which is where the “Yip” nickname came from. It was passed down to Owens because not everybody can have a creative nickname. To complicate matters further, Owen and Owens both played for the 1909 White Sox; on May 5 in Cleveland, Yip Owens caught Yip Owen. Owens the catcher went 0-4, and Owen the pitcher won his 82nd and final MLB game. That was the last time when having the yips in a game was a good thing.

The lake of Lakewood Cemetery, Minneapolis. I believe Yip Owens’ ashes were scattered here.

Owens’ baseball origins aren’t well documented. A 1937 article mentioned that Owens played with a team from Lyons, N.Y. of the Empire State League, which may be how the Red Sox discovered him. He debuted behind the plate against Washington on September 11, 1905, in the second game of a doubleheader. After two innings in Game 2, 19-year-old Owens replaced starter Lou Criger and went 0-2 with three passed balls before the game was called on account of darkness, with Washington ahead 14-0.

“He looked light and acted worse than he looked,” wrote legendary Boston Globe sportswriter Tim Murnane. That was Owens’ only appearance with Boston. He spent the next three seasons with the Memphis Egyptians of the Southern League.

Source: The Minneapolis Star, July 3, 1958.

“Frank Owens hails from Canada and during the winter works as an engraver,” wrote the Daily Arkansas Gazette in 1908. “In 1906 he was brought South by Manager [Charlie] Babb and worked as an understudy for [starting catcher] Ed Hurlburt.”

He batted .231 in 1906 and slumped to .217 in 1907, both while working as Hurlburt’s backup. In 1906 he was teammates with Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, who played 12 games in Memphis en route to a brief career playing in a cornfield in Iowa. Owens brought his average up to .233 in 1908 as the starting catcher. In 117 games, he had 194 assists, which was said to be a record for most assists per game. These are league numbers and not verified by Baseball Reference, but either Owens had a cannon for an arm, or the Southern Association had the slowest baserunners on record.

Owens was acquired by the White Sox in late 1908. Charlie Comiskey, Sox president, sent for him in September as a precaution in case of injuries, but he never actually got into a game. He stuck around and spent 1909 as a backup to catcher/manager Billy Sullivan. In 64 games, Owens hit .201 and knocked in 17 runs. His defense was a little below average, with a .959 fielding percentage and a caught stealing rate of 38%. Owens’ biggest play actually took place before the start of the season, when the White Sox were playing an exhibition game in April in Oklahoma City. During the game, a roof holding some fans collapsed, and Owens pulled four badly injured boys from the debris.

Comiskey sold Owens’ contract to the Minneapolis Millers in the offseason, and he spent the next four seasons with the team. It ended up being sort of a trade, as Owens replaced Jimmy “Bruno” Block, who signed with the White Sox for 1910. Owens’ arrival was timed perfectly with the Millers resurgence, as the team won three straight league championships. He was teammates with the likes of Jimmy Williams, Rube Waddell, Gavvy Cravath and a couple of the Delahanty brothers (we’ll be getting to them soon enough). Owens teamed up with Wilbur “Wib” Smith to form a WibYip catching combination. While neither catcher was a superstar, they were one of the top catching twosomes in the American Association.

Owens failed to hit .200 in 100 games in 1910, but he adjusted to the AA in 1911. He batted .273 with 5 home runs for the Millers while playing 126 games. He hit in the .240s in 1912 and 1913, but he established himself as a better-than-average catcher.

A story about Owens from 1911 demonstrated his quick reflexes. The Millers arrived in Indianapolis one night as an altercation broke out at the station. One man was shot, and the assailant fled the scene. Owens led a mob after the shooter and was in the lead when the man stopped and leveled the gun at his pursuers. Owens came to a dead stop before taking a quick dive into the safety of a shadowy streetcar tunnel. Was it cowardice? Benevolence is more like it.

“Mr. Owens merely came to the sudden realization of the fact that he was too young to perish by an assassin’s bullet,” reported the Minneapolis Journal. “He thought of the dependence [manager] Joe Cantillon places in him, and far be it from the sterling Canadian athlete to betray a trust. He thought of [Wib] Smith, his catching partner, left alone without a guardian hand in a wicked world.”

The entity that we know as Major League Baseball has had some competitors in the past. The last serious challenge was the Federal League, which existed in 1914-15. The presence of a new major league was a boon to veterans like Owens. He was drafted by the AL Washington Senators but opted instead to sign a 3-year contract with the Federal League.

Yip Owens of the Baltimore Terrapins tags out Art Kores of the St. Louis Terriers in a Federal League game. Source: The Baltimore Sun, August 8, 1915.

The formation of the FL seems quite disorganized. Owens admitted in early January 1914 that a franchise in Toronto was interested in signing him, but a team never materialized in Toronto. He was also rumored to go to teams in Chicago and Buffalo. When the FL season finally got underway, Owens was a member of the Brooklyn Tip-Tops. Owens appeared in 58 games and slashed .277/.314/.380, with the first 2 homers of his major-league career. A leg injury and a broken toe prevented him from playing more.

Brooklyn sold Owens’ contract to the Baltimore Terrapins in 1915. He played in 99 games for Baltimore and hit .251 with 3 homers. He smacked 14 doubles and 7 triples, with 28 RBIs to show for his work. He also had one more scary encounter with a pistol. He was held up by two robbers and relieved of $15 while out on the town. The original report said the robbery took place in Chicago, but subsequent retellings moved it to Kansas City.

“Gee, a ball player ain’t safe no more anywhere,” he complained. “I used to think that if a fellow could get away from a ball field without being robbed of $25 or $50 by an umpire that he was safe. But he ain’t.”

The Federal League folded after the 1915 season, and Owens returned to Minneapolis. Along with his Millers catching job, he also owned a garage there that was becoming pretty successful in its own right. In his 4 seasons in the majors, Owens had a .245/.284/.334 slash line with 170 hits in 222 games. He hit 5 homers, drove in 65 runs and stole 9 bases. He had a lifetime 45% caught stealing rate as a catcher, which was league average.

Source: The Minneapolis Star, July 3, 1958.

Owens played with the Millers until 1922. He hit pretty well, including a .333 average in 1919. He scaled back his catching duties in 1920, and new Millers owner George Belden named him player/manager of the club’s farm team, the St. Joseph Saints, in 1921. A brief return to the Millers in 1922 as a 36-year-old player/coach produced poor results. Still, he was a mainstay and a fan favorite. He worked as a Millers coach for several years, helping the team’s young pitchers and catchers. He later worked as a manager and umpire in the area as well.

Owens held down a number of non-baseball jobs in his life, from hotel security to a traveling salesman. After he retired and settled in Minneapolis, he was a frequent attendee of any kind of Millers reunion. The old catcher was honored by the Minneapolis Baseball Boosters in 1951 for his tenure with the Millers.

Frank “Yip” Owens died on July 2, 1958. According to his death notice in The Minneapolis Star, he had been in failing health and suffered a severe hemorrhage. He was 72 years old. As previously mentioned, his resting place is Lakewood Cemetery, though you’ll find no stone for him.

Owens’ passing brought a great deal of reminiscing about the man, including his durability behind the plate, his massive 37-ounce bats and the championships he helped bring to Minneapolis. Also mentioned was his notorious Ugly Club. Owens carefully selected the members of the club, and getting inducted was somewhat of an honor. The downside was, of course, that you were ugly.

“I was the No. 1 catcher on Yip’s ‘Ugly’ club,” recalled Jack Onslow after a reunion with Owens a few months before his death. “You had to be ugly to make that team because Yip really scouted ‘em. Of course, I sort of sneaked in because Yip would have been the catcher if he hadn’t made himself manager.”

Star Tribune columnist Dick Cullum wrote about Owens’ kindness when Cullum was breaking into the business. He was staring at his typewriter one day when Owens sat down next to him, slapped him on the knee and asked how it was going. Cullum admitted that he was struggling, and Owens proceeded to give him a rundown on baseball basics and a scouting report on each of the Millers. “Don’t go overboard on that guy. He won’t be with us long; but this guy’s got a real chance,” Owens said, discussing down the team’s rookies. He also offered to help the scribe in the future. “If you’re working at night, call my room. If you’re lucky you may find me in.”

Owens apparently also had a reputation for being one of the harder drinkers on the team, but he wasn’t alone. One year, manager Joe Cantillon called his Millers team out for poor behavior and told them to straighten up — no pranks on hotel guests, no whistling at girls on the street, and absolutely no hard drinking.

“Aw Joe, not even a few eye-openers in the morning?” Owens asked.

Pongo thought about it. “Well, 15 or 20 drinks is all right. But remember — no real hard drinking. We wanna win that flag this year.”

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