Obituary: Jim Owens (1934-2020)

RIP to Jim Owens, who had a 12-year career as a pitcher before spending six seasons as a pitching coach. It has been reported that he died on September 8 at the age of 86. Owens pitched for the Philadelphia Phillies (1955-56, 1958-62), Cincinnati Reds (1963) and Houston Colt .45s/Astros (1964-67).

The story that announced his death came from an autograph seeker. Owens was a notorious non-signer, so the seeker contacted Owens’ son. Owens was in poor health and hospitalized with pneumonia, but he agreed to sign this one card. The seeker got the returned card and, on the same day, a text message from Jim Owens Jr. saying that his father had passed away. Wikipedia and Baseball Almanac have both listed the date of death as September 8 and his place of death in Houston. I will update this post with any more information, such as a family-placed obituary, should it become available.

James Philip Owens was born on Gifford, Pa., on January 16, 1934. He attended Bradford High School in Bradford, Pa., and was a star on both the basketball and baseball team. He also captained the top touch football team in the school in his senior year of 1950. After he graduated in the spring of 1951, Owens remained in Bradford as a pitcher for the Bradford Phillies, Philadelphia’s affiliate in the Class-D Pony League. He won 6 games in that first season of pro ball and moved on to the Miami (Okla.) Eagles of the Kansas-Oklahoma-Missouri League in 1952. There, he showed his potential by posting a 22-7 record with a 1.76 ERA. He missed a no-hitter against Independence by giving up a single after 8-2/3 hitless innings and an 0-2 count on the batter. The 22 wins were second-best in the league, but he set a new K-O-M League record of 302 strikeouts. He also picked up the nickname “The Bear,” which he carried with him throughout his career.

Source: The Tampa Tribune, February 25, 1963

Owens continued a remarkable run in the minors for the next two seasons. He won 22 games for Class-B Terre Haute in 1953 and 17 for AAA Syracuse in 1954 (winning the International League Rookie of the Year Award). That performance resulted in offseason reports comparing him favorably to Phillies ace Robin Roberts, and he was considered the best pitcher in the minors, even ahead of Cleveland’s Herb Score.

“Owens has the best curveball in baseball,” said Phillies general manager Roy Hamey, “and you don’t have to take my word for it. All the scouts of the rival clubs back me up. The boy is ready for the big leagues now.”

That great curveball vanished entirely about midway through training camp in 1955, but the Phillies put Owens on the Opening Day roster anyway. He made his MLB debut on April 19 in a start against the Brooklyn Dodgers. He surrendered 5 runs in 5-1/3 innings, striking out 3 batters and allowing back-to-back home runs to Carl Furillo and Roy Campanella in a 7-6 loss. After one more rocky start and a relief appearance, he was sent back to Syracuse with an 0-2 record and 8.13 ERA. He found his mojo back in the minor leagues and won 15 games.

Owens was still several years away from being a regular in the Phillies pitching staff. Once again, he started 1956 with the big-league team, but he wasn’t successful either as a starter or reliever. He lasted on the team until July 1, when he failed to retire a batter in a start against the Dodgers. After two walks, a 3-run homer by Duke Snider and a single by Randy Jackson, Owens was pulled and soon after sent to AAA Miami.

The problems that would make Owens notorious in a few years started to surface in Miami. He showed up for a game on August 8 “in no condition to go on,” as The Miami News tactfully put it. In reality, he was too drunk to pitch, and Owens was later sent to the hospital with a bruise on his head — allegedly after getting into a fight with manager Don Osborn. Owens apologized for the incident, which saved him from a season-long suspension.

“I realize what a spectacle I made of myself and I am ashamed of my actions. I’m sorry that I set such a bad example for the kids. I guess I feel worse about that than anything else,” he confessed. “My only hope now is that I can back in uniform and help the Marlins win this pennant.”

Owens ended the year with a 5-7 record in 15 appearances for the Marlins, with a 2.86 ERA. That would be the last pitching he would do for a long time, as he was inducted into the Army on January 3, 1957. He spent most of the next two years in the military, not appearing in a Phillies uniform until September 23, 1958. He started a game against the Milwaukee Braves and pitched the best game of his career to date. In 7 innings, Owens allowed just 4 hits and 4 runs (2 earned) while walking 5 and fanning 2 batters. The Phillies beat the Braves 6-5, giving the pitcher his first major-league win in his third stint in the majors. It was the only game he would pitch in 1958.

After a successful campaign playing winter ball in Venezuela, Owens put together the best season of his career in 1959. Though his record was just 12-12, he had a 3.21 ERA and struck out 135 batters in 221-1/3 innings. He made 30 starts and completed 11 of them, and he picked up a save in his one relief appearance. He was one of the few bright spots for the 90-loss Phillies.

Owens made headlines in 1960, but it was for his off-field activities. He was involved in a post-curfew bar fight during spring training in Florida on March 30 and quit the team when he was fined $600. “I don’t make that kind of money with the Phillies that I can afford a $600 fine,” he said. The retirement lasted about an hour, ending when General Manager John Quinn cautioned him against throwing away his career at the age of 26. A couple of weeks later, he beat the Pirates 4-3 on a 3-hitter, and it looked like he’d have another good year. Instead, that victory was one of only four wins he’d pick up on the season, to go with 14 defeats and a 5.04 ERA. Part of the problem was the long ball, as he gave up 21 homers in 150 innings.

The nightlife was the other part of Owens’ problem, as he became known as part of The Dalton Gang. Owens and pitcher Turk Farrell were charter members dating back to 1959, along with pitchers Seth Morehead and Jack Meyer. Quinn had even offered Owens a $500 good behavior bonus as a part of his 1960 contract — which was revoked as a part of that $600 fine. New manager Gene Mauch had no tolerance for their behavior. Owens was suspended in July for “general insubordination and personal conduct” after being demoted to the bullpen and exchanging words with Mauch.

The article from Sports Illustrated that I’ve linked in the previous paragraph may explain some of the behavior. According to some who knew him, Owens came from a broken home and started drinking at a very early age. “His father used to come down to breakfast and put a bottle on the table,” said one anonymous source.

Owens’ struggles continued with the Phillies for the next two seasons. He went a combined 7-14 in 1961 and ’62, with his ERA rising into the 6’s while his usage dropped. He’d occasionally pitch brilliantly, but just as occasionally his personal troubles would land him in trouble. He left the team in March of 1961 after being disciplined for “a hotel incident” and demanded to be traded. He didn’t return to the team until late June. When he did, he shut down the Giants over 6 innings in his first start, and Dallas Green relieved him for a 1-0 victory. Giants manager Alvin Dark was so upset over the loss that he threw a stool at his locker and ended up ripping off the tip of the little finger on his right hand.

By 1962, the relationship between Owens and the Phillies had fractured irreparably. Philadelphia owner Bob Carpenter refused to sell him to another team unless he got quality in return, on account of Owens’ former status as a prized pitching prospect. However, no team would offer much, so Owens was left to stew in the dugout and only occasionally pitch. Finally, he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds of November of 1962 for Cookie Rojas.

Jim Owens (right) is ejected by umpire Shag Crawford after committing three balks in one inning. Catcher Johnny Edwards complains to no avail. Source: The Palladium Item, April 25, 1963.

Mauch called the trade a case of addition by subtraction. Owens shot back, “Tell Mauch that the Phillies might add something if they subtracted him.”

Much of Owens’ time with Cincinnati was spent in the minor leagues with the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League. He was brilliant there, with a 4-2 record and 2.21 ERA in 8 games. In 19 games with the Reds, he was 0-2 with a 5.31 ERA and worked mainly out of the bullpen. He was charged with three balks in one inning, tying a major-league record, on April 24 and was ejected by home place umpire Shag Crawford. The first two balks were for not making a 1-second pause in his windup. The last one was for taking an absurdly long pause in the windup and annoying Crawford.

The Reds left Owens unprotected in the Rule 5 that offseason, and he was picked by the Houston Colt .45s. He was reunited with his Dalton Gang cohort Turk Farrell, but by then, the pitchers were 30 years old and more interested in pitching. Not that a reputation ever really goes away. Owens suffered a cut on his leg after slipping and falling on a piece of glass. Then he read the papers that reported he was stabbed during a bar brawl and was in critical condition.

Owens as an Astros pitching coach. Source: The Times, September 28, 1972.

Owens stayed with the team for four seasons and became a pretty good reliever. He made 11 starts and 37 relief appearances for Houston in 1964, ending the year with an 8-7 record, 3.28 ERA and 6 saves. After that, he was exclusively a reliever. He saved a career-high 8 games in 1965 while maintaining that 3.28 ERA for a second straight year. On April 24, 1966, he surrendered Willie Mays’ 511th career home run, which tied the National League record set by Mel Ott.

He and Farrell proved that could cause a ruckus while sober, too. They bought a boa constructor and two baby alligators from a pet shop in spring training in 1965 and unleashed them in the clubhouse. That was how they discovered teammate Walt Bond really did not like reptiles.

Owens was released in July of 1967 after accumulating a 4.22 ERA in 10 games out of the pen. It wasn’t a bitter parting, as the team offered to hire him as an unofficial pitching coach if no other team signed him. Owens joined the Astros coaching staff and held the role of pitching coach through 1972. He held the position under managers Grady Hatton, Harry Walker and Leo Durocher.

In 12 seasons, Owens had a 42-68 record with 21 saves and a 4.31 ERA. He appeared in 286 games, with 103 starts. He struck out 516 batters in 885-1/3 innings and had a WHIP of 1.437.

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