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Former Negro leaguer Owens dies at 98
Posted: Friday May 07, 1999 06:43 PM
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- William Owens, a grade school dropout who played for a dozen teams in the Negro leagues in the 1920s and '30s and finally received a high school diploma three years ago, has died of complications from diabetes. He was 98.
Owens, who died Wednesday, grew up in Indianapolis and had only a sixth-grade education when he set out in 1923 to find a career in baseball.
He broke in with the Washington Potomacs that year, played briefly with the Indianapolis ABCs and spent the next decade barnstorming with many teams before ending his career with the Detroit Stars in 1933.
Owens, known for a good glove and a strong arm, was the starting shortstop for the Memphis Red Sox in 1927, when he batted a career-high .293. He also played third base and pitched, and a photocopied newspaper clipping from the 1920s hanging on the wall of his room described him as the "versatile Mr. Owens, who seems to be able to play all the positions on the diamond very credibly and then some."
He said in a 1996 interview that his finest moment in baseball was in a game with Memphis, when he started a triple play.
"We were playing Birmingham and had 'em 6-5 in the ninth inning," he recalled. "Our pitcher went wild and he walked three men, starting with the leadoff man. ... The cleanup man came up to bat and he lined a ball right at me. I jumped about 2 feet up in the air and caught the ball and ran to second base, stepped on it and threw the ball to first base. That made three outs. That was a good day."
Owens bristled when he was asked if he would have liked a chance to play in the major leagues.
"Well, we played in the major leagues," he said. "We were just as good as anybody. That was the major leagues when I made the triple play. I played with [Hall of Famer] Oscar Charleston. He was as good as any ballplayer that ever played the game."
After baseball, Owens returned to Indianapolis and later owned and operated a pool hall and tavern, traveled the Midwest as a professional pool player and became a Little League baseball volunteer.
After construction of Interstate 70 forced him to close his pool hall in 1965, Owens spent much of his time working with children, teaching them baseball, painting and pool -- and preaching the importance of education.
"I always tell them, 'Whatever you do, go to school, go to school,'" he said, shaking his head. "I only went through sixth grade. I was so wrapped up in my success, I didn't realize how important school was."
Owens' family, with the help of people in the community, petitioned the state for an honorary general equivalency diploma, which he received in 1996.
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