When young Jim Owens first came up with the Philadelphia Phillies in the mid-1950s, the predictions were that he would be Philadelphia’s “next Robin Roberts.”1 He had dominated hitters in the minor leagues, was voted the best pitcher in the International League for 1954, and possessed what Phillies general manager Roy Hamey called, “the best curve-ball in baseball.”2
By the late 50s, Owens had become better known for fast living than fastballs as a member of the Phillies group of rowdies dubbed the “Dalton Gang” in an article in Sports Illustrated.3 In a last-ditch effort to get Owens to reach his potential, the team roomed him with the clean-living Roberts. “I let Jimmy know that I thought he had great ability,” Roberts said. “My advice to him was to throw hard and mix in some sleep, but it didn’t seem to take.”4
James Phillip Owens was born on January 16, 1934, in the small town of Gifford, Pennsylvania, in the northwest corner of the state. Jim’s dad, Harry, worked in the oilfields of that region as a pumper. Harry and his wife Josephine had three children, Elizabeth, Thomas, and the youngest by six years, Jim. Later reports indicate that it was not a happy home. The Sports Illustrated story on the “Dalton Gang” says it was a “broken home.” It cites a “man who knows them” as saying, “His father used to come down to breakfast and put a bottle on the table. Jim started drinking early.”5 Whatever his issues at home, Jim excelled in basketball at Bradford High School and in baseball in summer youth leagues in the area. In basketball, although not quite six feet tall, he was “a demon off the boards with an uncanny knack for scoring.”6 In baseball he made headlines for pitching several low-hit games for the Cyclones of the McKean-Elk County Junior League.7
Joe Young, the owner of a Bradford clothing store who also ran the Junior League team, took the young Owens to a Phillies tryout camp.8 The Phillies liked what they saw and immediately after graduation from Bradford High School in June 1951, Phillies scout Frank McCormick signed Owens to a contract. The Phillies assigned Owens to their short-season Class D affiliate in Bradford. Also on that team was future Dalton Gang compatriot, pitcher Jack Meyer. In his first professional appearance on June 19, pitching in front of his hometown fans, Owens threw two innings of scoreless relief against the Corning Athletics.9 In his next outing Owens was brilliant, pitching 6 1/3 innings of no-hit, no-run ball in a 7-2 loss to Jamestown.10 Owens started in his next game, but had to leave after 2 2/3 innings with a sore arm. He seemed to recover from that setback, completing his first professional campaign with a 6-3 mark and 4.33 ERA. He did, however, walk 93 batters in 108 innings. The sore arm and the bouts of wildness would be continuing themes as Owens worked to establish himself as a major league pitcher.
The following season found Owens still in Class D ball, but this time with the Miami (Oklahoma) Eagles of the Kansas-Oklahoma-Nebraska League. There he met another future Dalton Gang member, pitcher Seth Morehead. At Miami, Owens established himself as a true prospect going 22-7 with a 1.76 ERA. His 302 strikeouts in 245 innings set a league record.11 Control continued to be a problem, however, as he recorded 6.2 walks per nine innings. Miami won the playoff championships, during which Owens pitched his fourth one-hitter of the year.12
The spectacular year with Miami earned Owens a promotion to the Phillies Class B affiliate, the Terre Haute (Illinois) Phillies of the Three-I League. Owens was again terrific. He was the league’s top pitcher, racking up a 22-8 record with a 2.51 ERA, and reducing his walks per nine innings to 5.1. He was chosen to the Three I League All-Star team. While at Terre Haute, manager Hub Kittle tinkered with Owens’ arm angle, changing him from a three-quarter sidearm pitcher to a straight overhand motion. Owens liked it. “I know it helped,” he said.13
Owens’ Terre Haute performance got him an invitation to spring training with the Phillies. He worked in a few “B” games in 1954 spring training and then was optioned to the Phillies top minor league club, the Syracuse Chiefs of the AAA International League. There Owens teamed with buddy Meyer to become the best 1-2 pitching tandem in the league. The Chiefs finished fourth in the standings, but the pitching of Owens and Meyer helped the team win the International League playoffs. It led them to take on the Louisville Cardinals in the Junior World Series. In the Series, which the Cardinals eventually won 4 games to 2, Owens pitched a two-hit, 1-0, shutout to tie the series 2-2. Owens was named International League Rookie of the Year.
The Phillies were hoping that Owens, still just 21, would fill a gap in their 1955 starting rotation. His Syracuse manager, Skeeter Newsome, raved about Owens’ rising fastball and said, “his curve is one of the best I’ve ever seen….[he] combines this great stuff with the competitive heart of a tiger.”14 While Newsome may have compared Owens to a tiger, the nickname that stuck was “Bear,” a reference to Jim’s stocky build and round facial features. “Bear” was impressive early in spring training, opening with 11 consecutive scoreless innings.15As the Phillies broke camp, Owens found himself on the major league roster for the first time.
Owens made his first appearance and first start in the major leagues on a rainy April 19 evening at Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia. He was matched up against Brooklyn Dodgers ace Don Newcombe and the stacked Dodgers lineup. The young pitcher held his own, allowing two runs on six hits over the first five innings. Owens was undone, however, by a 36-minute rain delay in the top of the sixth. When play resumed, Owens walked Sandy Amoros and then coughed up back-to-back home runs to Carl Furillo and Roy Campanella. Owens final line for his major league debut was 5 1/3 innings pitched, eight hits, five runs, three walks, three strikeouts and his first loss.
In his next start on April 24 in Philadelphia, Owens was wild and ineffective and gone from the game in the second inning. On May 7, Owens was assigned to Syracuse where he joined Dick “Turk” Farrell, and Morehead — and the Dalton Gang was formed. Owens had another good season at AAA, but wildness continued to be a concern, as he averaged 5.3 walks per 9 innings.
Owens again made the team out of spring training to begin the 1956 season, but he pitched poorly and was used sparingly. In July, Owens was optioned to the new Phillies AAA affiliate in Miami, where a bad season got worse. On August 8, Owens reported to the Miami locker room “in no condition to pitch.” In an apparently drunken confrontation with manager Don Osborn, Owens fell, hit his head and ended up being taken to the hospital in an ambulance.16 Owens was fined $250, but a threatened suspension was rescinded when he offered an apology to his teammates, to the fans, and to “the kids.”17
In January 1957, Owens was inducted into the Army. He would not pitch again for the Phillies for nearly two full years. He made an end-of-season start on September 23, 1958, in Milwaukee. Surprisingly after the long layoff, Owens pitched creditably for seven innings and recorded his first major league victory. He gave up two earned runs on four hits. Farrell saved the victory for him. Because he had pitched so little during his stint in the Army, Owens decided to pitch winter ball with Oriente in the Venezuelan Winter League. He recorded a 12-2 record and racked up 112 strikeouts in 124 innings. In one game, against Pampero, Owens tied a Venezuelan Winter League record, striking out 14, in a 10-0 Oriente victory.18
Finally, after six exceptionally good minor league seasons, two years in the service, and two brief unsuccessful stints with the Phillies, Owens arrived in the major leagues to stay in 1959. Owens proved to be a mainstay of a struggling staff, starting 30 games, second on the team to Roberts. He won 12 and lost 12 and recorded a 3.21 ERA. Highlights included a complete game, four-hit, 4-2 victory over the Cubs on May 1 at Connie Mack Stadium and a six-hit, 2-1, defeat of the Reds at Crosley Field on July 24. Owens’ improved control was on display in an August 18 game at Connie Mack where he beat the St. Louis Cardinals 2-1, scattering 10 hits, but walking none. On September 4, Owens pitched the only shutout of his career, a six-hitter over the Pirates.
During the winter, concern arose over whether Owens’ sore arm would be ready to go for the 1960 season.19 The shoulder had apparently been bothering him at the end of the 1959 season, causing him to miss a few starts.20 By March, however, Owens had bigger problems to concern him. Involved in a March 5 bar fight with an “obnoxious” patron, Owens and teammates Joe Koppe and Bobby Gene Smith were fined $100 each for violating team rules.21 The issue grew even more contentious when Owens learned that because of this altercation, he would also forfeit the $500 team owner Bob Carpenter put in his contract as an inducement to improve his off-field behavior. Owens decided losing that money was too much and told Carpenter he was quitting. General Manager John Quinn talked to Owens and the pitcher eventually calmed down and returned to the team.22
Whether it was shoulder problems or behavior problems or a combination of the two, Owens failed to repeat his promising 1959 campaign in 1960. The Phillies were a team in turmoil. Manager Eddie Sawyer quit after one game saying, “I’m 49 years old and I want to live to be 50.”23 New manager Gene Mauch was a fiery disciplinarian with whom Owens found it difficult to work. Mauch tried splitting up ne’er-do-well roommates Farrell and Owens by having each room with one of his coaches. Owens with Peanuts Lowry and Farrell with Ken Silvestri. Mauch hoped the reasonable hours the coaches kept would calm the two miscreants down. Owens and Farrell foiled the plan by ordering beer in their rooms and staying up watching TV until four in the morning. After 10 days, the two coaches begged Mauch to end the arrangement.24 Finally, after being removed from the starting rotation in July because of ineffectiveness, Owens and Mauch met in what Owens characterized as a “showdown.” Mauch slapped him with a three-game suspension for “general insubordination and personal misconduct.”25 Owens then declared, “I don’t want to play for Gene Mauch.”26
On the field, Owens pitched what was probably his best game of the season in his first start on April 19, beating the Pirates at Forbes Field, 4-3, on a three-hitter marred only by Bob Skinner’s three-run home run. At home against Pittsburgh on May 28, Owens pitched another gem, shutting the Bucs down for seven innings before giving up two runs on some shoddy fielding by left fielder Tony Curry, catcher Jimmie Coker, and Owens himself. The Phillies eventually lost that game in 13 innings, 4-2. It was after that frustrating game that fellow Dalton Gang member Jack Meyer got into the drunken brawl that led to Meyer injuring his back and to Walter Bingham’s article exposing the exploits of the Dalton Gang.27 The incident ended Meyer’s career. The article permanently damaged Owens’ reputation.28 Articles about him, thereafter, often led with his reputation for carousing. Owens closed the 1960 season with a 4-14 record. He won only one game after June 5. His ERA ballooned to 5.04.
Spring training kerfuffles were becoming standard fare for Owens and the Phillies management and 1961 was no exception. On March 9, Owens, apparently drunk, caused a late-night disturbance in the team hotel and then barged into general manager John Quinn’s room demanding to be traded. Owens packed up to leave for his home in Pennsylvania saying, “I don’t know why they didn’t trade me over the winter. It looks like there won’t be any room for me as a starter, and I am not about to become a relief pitcher!”29 On March 20 newspapers reported that Owens was gone from camp and the Phillies had been unable to contact him.30 On April 11, the Phillies placed Owens on the “disqualified” list, effectively removing him from the roster and ensuring he would not be paid.31 Finally, on April 21, Owens contacted Quinn from his Pennsylvania home, told him he was working out and wanted to rejoin the team. Unable to get what he considered fair value for Owens in a trade, Quinn eventually allowed Owens to rejoin the team in June, where he quickly moved into the starting rotation.
In his first start back on June 26, Owens pitched six innings of four-hit shutout baseball at Connie Mack Stadium against the San Francisco Giants before tiring. Dallas Green pitched the last three innings to complete the shutout, 1-0. Owens stayed in the starting rotation for the remainder of the season, with only marginally better results than the previous year. He ended 1961 with a 5-10 record and a 4.47 ERA. By 1962, Owens was the only charter member of the Dalton Gang remaining on the Phillies. Morehead and Farrell had been traded and Meyer was retired. Owens started the season in the starting rotation but pitched poorly and was eventually replaced by Chris Short. Finally, in November, Owens was traded to the Cincinnati Reds for utility man, Cookie Rojas.
Owens spent one largely unsuccessful season in Cincinnati in 1963. After three poor starting assignments, he was relegated to the bullpen, where he was rarely used. For the season, he appeared in only 19 games before being optioned to San Diego in the Pacific Coast league in late July. In typical Owens fashion, however, his tenure in Cincinnati produced one memorable event.
In 1963, the National League decided to enforce the balk rule that says a pitcher must pause for one second when coming set in the stretch. Balks were up all over the league, but the umpiring crew led by Augie Donatelli was particularly enthusiastic about calling balks. Donatelli’s crew was in Los Angeles on April 24, when Owens made his first ever start for Cincinnati against the Dodgers. In the second inning, with John Roseboro on first, Owens went into the stretch and threw a pitch to Ken McMullen. Home plate umpire Shag Crawford called Owens for a balk, moving Roseboro to second. Owens stretched and pitched again. Crawford called a balk again, moving Roseboro to third. McMullen popped out, but Willie Davis singled Roseboro home. With Johnny Podres batting, Owens now stretched and held the ball “as if he were taking a [boxer’s] standing eight count” before pitching.32 Owens held the ball again on the next pitch and Crawford issued a warning. On the next pitch, Owens took his normal stretch and Crawford called a third balk. Owens yelled something unprintable at Crawford and was ejected as the Cincinnati bench emptied. After half an hour, order was restored, and play resumed.33
Owens pitched well in San Diego but was left unprotected by the Reds at the end of the season. In December he was a Rule 5 draft pick of the Houston Colt .45s. Over the winter, Owens had another excellent season in Venezuela, going 8-4 with a 1.08 ERA34 for the Valencia club. One Venezuelan League manager told Houston general manager Paul Richards, “You didn’t make a mistake getting this guy…. He’ll be a winner for you.”35
One guy who was pleased to see Owens join the Colt .45s was his old pal Turk Farrell, now a leading member of the Houston staff. He told The Sporting News’ Mickey Hershkowitz, “I always thought that Owens was a good pitcher. I think he got the shaft in Philadelphia. Everybody tried to tell him how to pitch and how to live, and he never got to pitch enough.”36 Coming out of spring training, Owens was in the Colt .45s starting rotation and was named to start the home opener in Houston on April 16. By June, after several indifferent starting performances, Owens was relegated to the bullpen where he seemed to find himself. He became Houston’s top right-handed reliever. After compiling a 4.50 ERA in 11 starts, Owens pitched to a 2.10 ERA in 37 relief appearances. He was especially effective against the eventual pennant winners, the St. Louis Cardinals, facing them seven times and going 4-0 with a save.
In spring training of 1965, old buddies Farrell and Owens decided to liven things up. On a visit to a local Cocoa, Florida, pet store, they purchased two alligators, named them “Turk” and “Bear,” and bought an unnamed nine-foot-long boa constrictor. These “pets” certainly enlivened the clubhouse. “We had a race with the alligators one day; we put them in the middle of the clubhouse floor, and they just took off,” said Owens. The snake escaped one day. Outfielder Jim Wynn noted, “You should have seen Walt Bond. He’s afraid of anything that moves that’s not human.”37 And so the Astros were introduced to the Dalton Gang.
Pitching exclusively out of the bullpen in 1965, Owens had another good year for the newly renamed Houston Astros. He led the team with 50 appearances, allowed no runs in 35 of those appearances, racked up eight saves, and compiled a 6-5 won/loss record. On August 26 he saved his seventh game of the season, coming on with the bases loaded and two out in the ninth to preserve a 6-5 lead over the Phillies at Connie Mack Stadium. The Astros’ starting pitcher that night was Owens’ former Phillies roommate and mentor, Robin Roberts, who had come over to the Astros in midseason after being released by the Baltimore Orioles.
By 1966, the Astros primary right-handed relief pitching duties fell to Claude Raymond. Owens was limited to 40 appearances and just 50 innings for the season. After a string of poor outings in August, Owens was optioned to the Astros affiliate in Oklahoma City where he finished out the year. In 1967, Owens came to spring training trimmed down and looking to reclaim a place on the team. Manager Grady Hatton was impressed saying, “He knows more about pitching than anybody on the club.”38 Owens did indeed make the team, but was used sparingly, making only 10 appearances by the end of June. Finally, on July 9, Owens was removed from the roster and asked to use some of the pitching knowledge (that Hatton had noted) as the interim pitching coach. The move coincided with Hatton firing his pitching coach, Gordon Jones.39
The following year Owens was named permanent pitching coach, a position he held for six years. Owens had come full circle. From a chronic troublemaker, bar brawler, and headache for managers and general managers to a member of the management. Astros General Manager Spec Richardson grew to respect Owens’ baseball knowledge and he was well liked by the Astros pitchers. His message to his young pitching staff, “Don’t do as I did, do as I say. I know all the ropes, on and off the field.”40 Among the young Astro pitchers he mentored were Larry Dierker, Mike Cuellar, and Don Wilson. Astros star Bob Watson recalled Owens’ pitching philosophy, “The way he handled pitchers was that you had to go drinking with him.”41 Owens was generally regarded as a successful pitching coach and survived several Astros managerial changes, but just as the 1973 season was about to begin, Owens was fired by new manager Leo Durocher. Durocher, apparently, had his own ideas about running a pitching staff.42
Although he hoped to catch on with another club, Owens never found another coaching job. In 1966, he had married the former Elizabeth “Lisa” Laseque in Winchester, Virginia. Curiously, on the marriage license he listed his occupation as “bartender.” He settled into a quiet life with his family in Clear Lake City, an affluent planned community in southeast Houston adjacent to NASA headquarters. Jim and Lisa had two children, James, Jr., and Deborah Ann. Owens took a job as a “safety manager” with Brown and Root Industrial Services LLC, a subsidiary of Halliburton that provided services to oil drilling operations.43 This was the same company that employed his old teammate, Turk Farrell.44
In 2005, Owens was added to the Syracuse Chiefs’ Wall of Fame, but he did not respond to letters asking him to attend the ceremony where he was to be honored.45
Owens appears to have been reclusive in later life. He became known in baseball card collecting circles as a “non-signer” – a former player who did not respond to collectors’ requests to sign memorabilia. One account on the card collector’s site, FreedomCardboard.com, claims that Owens chased an autograph seeker off his property, shouting that no one would want his signature anyway.46 One post suggested that his daughter, Deborah, with whom he lived, was signing for him.47 However, his son disputed this, commenting in a 2017 FreedomCardboard.com post that his father had signed the Topps 2016 Jim Owens Heritage Cards. “Dad did sign those cards,” Jim Jr. wrote, “and it took multiple sittings for him to complete the signing.”48
Owens died in Houston at age 86 on September 8, 2020.
This biography was reviewed by Andrew Sharp and Bruce Harris and fact-checked by Don Zminda.
1 Joe Reichler, “Phillies Claim to Have Found Another Robin Roberts,” Lancaster New Era (Lancaster, Pennsylvania), January 28, 1955: 23.
3 Walter Bingham, “The Dalton Gang Rides Again,” Sports Illustrated, June 13, 1960. Retrieved from, https://vault.si.com/vault/1960/06/13/the-dalton-gang-rides-again.
4 Robin Roberts with C. Paul Rogers, Throwing Hard Easy: Reflections on a Life in Baseball (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2003) 165.
6 “Jim Owens Leads Owls to Win Over East High,” The Era (Bradford, PA), December 23, 1950: 12.
8 Stan Baumgartner, “Owens Great Prospect, Also Great Gamble,” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 21, 1955: 25.
9 “Phillies Lose Twice to Corning, 4-3, 7-5,” The Era (Bradford, PA), June 20, 1951: 10.
10 “Phillies Divide Two; Batavia Here Tonight,” The Era (Bradford, PA), June 25, 1951: 8.
11 “Minor League Class D Highlights,” The Sporting News, September 10, 1952: 42.
12 “Class D Highlights,” The Sporting News, September 17, 1952: 39.
13 Baumgartner, “Owens Great Prospect…”
14 Baumgartner. “Owens Great Prospect…”
15 “Jim Owens Has Pitched 11 Scoreless Innings,” Public Opinion (Chambersburg, PA), March 24, 1955: 16.
16 Jimmy Burns, “Jim Owens Made a Mistake, So Did Some Miami Officials,” The Miami Herald, August 10, 1956: 61.
17 “Owens Apology Frees Him from Doghouse,” The Miami Herald, August 10, 1956: 61.
18 “Jim Owens Ties Strikeout Record,” Philadelphia Inquirer, November 1, 1958: 15.
19 Allen Lewis, “Meyer to Start for Phillies the Way Things Are…,” Philadelphia Inquirer, February 26, 1960: 30.
20 “Still Aching Shoulder Worries Jim Owens of the Phillies,” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 12, 1960: 19.
21 “Three Phillies Fined for Bar Brawl,” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 7, 1960: 22
22 “Phils’ Jim Owens to Stay, and So Will $500 Fine,” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 31, 1960: 38.
23 Richard Goldstein, “Eddie Sawyer, 87, Manager of the Phillies Whiz Kids,” New York Times, September 23, 1997: D27.
24 Mickey Hershkowitz, “Turk Tossing Terrific Ticket Selling Pitch,” The Sporting News, February 8, 1964: 9.
25 “‘I Don’t Want to Play for Mauch,’ – Owens,” Philadelphia Inquirer, July 31, 1960: 49.
26“‘I Don’t Want to Play for Mauch.’”
28 Farrell, Meyer, and Owens sued the author of the article and Sports Illustrated for publishing the piece. The players eventually won the suit, but little financial reward resulted. According to Owens, “We’d have gotten a helluva lot more money if one of the guys hadn’t attacked a maid a week before the trial.” See Frank Jackson, “The Turk, The Bear, The Bird: Outlaw Night Riders,” in The Hardball Times, https://tht.fangraphs.com/the-turk-the-bear-the-bird-outlaw-night-riders/, accessed March 7, 2021.
29“Jim Owens and Phillies Stage Annual Spring Fuss,” Victoria Advocate (Victoria, Texas), March 11, 1961: 9.
30“Phillies Owens Missing,” The Lima Citizen (Lima, Ohio), March 20, 1961: 12.
31 “Phillies’ Owens is Disqualified,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 11, 1961: 32.
32“They Did It Up Weird This Time,” Corpus Christi Caller-Times, April 25, 1963: 21.
33 Mike Rathet, “A Four-Letter Word Sets Off Marathon Warm-Up,” Corpus Christi Caller-Times, April 25, 1963: 21.
34 The Sporting News, February 2, 1964: 26.
35 Mickey Hershkowitz, “.45s Excited by Blue Chip Ratings of Bond and Owens,” The Sporting News, January 18, 1964: 18.
36 John Wilson, “Pitchers Get Jump on the Rest of Club,” The Sporting News, February 25, 1967: 27.
36] Hershkowitz, “Turk Tossing Terrific…”
37 Sandy Padwe, “Pitchers’ Pets Frighten Astros Into Orbit,” The Austin Statesman, April 27, 1965, 23.
38 John Wilson, “Pitchers Get Jump on the Rest of Club,” The Sporting News, February 25, 1967: 27.
39 “Hill Tutor Jones Released in Personality Conflict,” The Sporting News, July 22, 1967: 9.
40 Bob Hunter, “Difference in Houston is Owens,” Los Angeles Herald Examiner, September 11, 1967: NP.
41 Jim Bouton, “Revisiting the ‘Ball Four’ Astros,” The Sporting News, August 21, 1989: 15.
42 John Wilson, “Lip Juggles Aides, Owens Gets Boot,” The Sporting News, April 21, 1973: 12.
43 Frank Jackson, “The Turk, The Bear, The Bird: Outlaw Night Riders,” in The Hardball Times, https://tht.fangraphs.com/the-turk-the-bear-the-bird-outlaw-night-riders/, accessed March 7, 2021.
44 Farrell was killed in a car crash in England in June 1977 while working for Brown and Root.
45 Matt Michael, “Syracuse Honors Its Baseball Legends,” Post-Standard (Syracuse, NY), July 24, 2005: D-6
46 “Who Signed The 2016 Topps Heritage Jim Owens Cards?” Freedom Cardboard, https://www.freedomcardboard.com/forum/threads/who-signed-the-2016-topps-heritage-jim-owens-cards.150026/#post-2469091, accessed on April 17, 2021.
47 “Who Signed The 2016 Topps Heritage Jim Owens Cards?”
48 “Who Signed The 2016 Topps Heritage Jim Owens Cards?”