He was the Bill Buckner of his era.
Mickey Owen only committed four errors during his best year as a major league catcher, the 1941 campaign with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Three came in the regular season and one in the postseason. That last error, a dropped third strike with two out in the ninth inning, allowed the New York Yankees to come back and win Game 4 and is cemented among baseball’s best-known blunders, right up there with Merkle’s Boner and Snodgrass’s Muff.
Arnold Owen (he wasn’t nicknamed “Mickey” until his playing days) was born April 4, 1916, in Nixa, Missouri. Now a suburb of Springfield, Nixa was then a small farming community in southern Greene County. When not farming, the Owen men worked in law enforcement; three of Mickey’s relatives had served as Greene County sheriff. His parents divorced when he was seven years old, so he and his mother moved to southern California, where he played baseball as a teenager with future University of Southern California coaching legend Rod Dedeaux and future Red Sox great Bobby Doerr.1
Owen returned briefly to southwest Missouri and the family farm after graduating high school in 1934 before going on to play 16 games in the Class D Arkansas State League for the Rodgers Rustlers and the Bentonville Officeholders. He batted .224 with one home run and a .449 slugging percentage. The following year he signed as an amateur free agent with the St. Louis Cardinals and entered the team’s fabled but penurious farm system.
Owen’s first professional stop came roughly 15 miles away from home with the Springfield (Missouri) Cardinals of the Class C Western Association.2 He hit .310 with a .440 slugging percentage while compiling a .976 fielding percentage. The next year, 1936, he played for the AA level Columbus (Ohio) Red Birds, which had recently been purchased and improved by Larry MacPhail.3 Owen was one of five Missouri-born players on the team and the only one not from either Kansas City or St. Louis. He assumed the majority of catching duties, compiling 482 putouts in 107 games for a .964 fielding percentage and a 5.21 Range Factor per Game (RFG). He complemented solid defense with the best offensive year at any level; his .336, batting average was fourth-highest on the team, and he was fifth on the team in total bases with 180.
Owen’s baseball skills quickly drew the attention of the parent club, for in 1937 he moved up to St. Louis, which still featured several members of the 1934 World Champion “Gashouse Gang.”
While still in the minors, Owen once showed off his glove saying “That’s the glove that’s going to catch the next World Series for the Cardinals.”4 Things did not start quite that auspiciously in the majors. Owen’s first game came on May 2, 1937 at Wrigley Field when he came in as a defensive replacement for catcher Bruce Ogrodowski. He did not come to bat, though, until May 5 when he played a complete game against the Giants in the Polo Grounds. He went 0-for-3 at the plate, but amassed five putouts and two assists. Owen’s first two major league hits and his first RBI came on May 18 in a 4-3 win over the Giants. The next day he was ejected from a game for the first time by umpire George Barr for fighting with Giants’ catcher Gus Mancuso.
Owen’s mediocre hitting at the major league level was soon evident. He finished the year with a .231 average in 78 games, with only two triples and no home runs. He hit best in St. Louis’ Sportsman’s Park. There he hit singles (26 in 40 games) and two of his four doubles on the year. He had a .974 fielding percentage, just below the league average of .980, with nine errors and 287 putouts. From 1938 to 1944, though, his fielding percentage ranked consistently higher than the league average.
Owen married his sweetheart from Nixa, Gloria, on December 24, 1937. The young newlyweds (he was 21 and she 15) remained married until Gloria’s death in June 1993. Their son, Charlie, was born in 1941.
The seven seasons between 1938 and 1944 constituted the bulk of Owen’s playing career. In those years he played between 106 and 131 games each season, averaging 123.8 games per season. He batted .259 in those campaigns, hitting nine of his 14 career home runs. Owen’s first career dinger came on May 18, 1938, at Ebbets Field, one year to the day after he had his first hit.
Owen’s four years with the Cardinals and five with Brooklyn saw his best production. His years in St. Louis (1937 through 1940) produced some of his career-best batting numbers, including career best on-base, slugging, and OPS numbers (.326, .335, and .661 respectively).
Owen became expendable with the emergence of Walker Cooper, a backstop with more hitting ability. Rickey traded him to the Brooklyn Dodgers in December 1940 for $65,000 and two players. His old boss from AA, Brooklyn owner and general manager Larry MacPhail, had been remaking the team, including naming the fiery Leo Durocher as player-manager. Nobody could argue with the result; in 1941 the Dodgers beat the Cardinals for the National League pennant, Brooklyn’s first in 21 years.
In 1941, Owen had one of his weakest seasons at the plate his entire career. He batted only .235 with one home run, .288 slugging and .584 OPS. He finished with 15 sacrifice hits, the second highest for his career (he had 18 the following year).
Throughout his tenure with the Cardinals and the Dodgers, Branch Rickey referred to Owen as “Arnold,” his given name. In the minor leagues his nickname had been “Preacher,” an apparent reference to his roots in the Bible Belt’s law-abiding side. In Columbus, manager Burt Shotton came to call him “Mickey” after a perceived similarity with Detroit Tigers’ catcher Mickey Cochrane. That nickname stuck. As Bill James wrote, “anything to avoid being called Arnold Malcolm.”5
Owen’s value to a team came from his fielding and catching. As of 2012 he ranked 76th in games played at catcher (1175). Bill James ranks him among the top ten catchers whose value came from defense.6 As expected, the bulk of those games came during the period when he received the most accolades (1938-44). In 1941, his first in Brooklyn, Owen set a National League record for consecutive putouts without committing an error, with 476. For the season Owen recorded 530 putouts, the league’s best. He also led the league in appearances behind the plate and despite a weak offensive contribution, he made his first All-Star team.
Unfortunately, all of Owen’s fine defensive work for the season went for naught with the fateful dropped third strike in Game Four.
The Yankees were leading the Series two games to one when Game Four began. Sunday, October 5 dawned hot and sweltering as the mercury hit 94, still a record temperature for the day in Brooklyn.7 The Yankees held a 3-0 lead in the fourth when Brooklyn scored two, with Owen scoring the first run. By the ninth, Brooklyn led 4-3 and seemed poised to tie the Series. Pitcher Hugh Casey induced two groundouts, including one he handled himself, before facing Tommy Henrich.
The Yankee right fielder worked the count to 3-and-2. Next came Owen’s defining baseball moment. Casey’s pitch broke sharply down and in to the left-handed Henrich who swung and missed badly. Umpire Larry Goetz called strike three. The ball, though, eluded Owen’s glove and rolled away. Henrich made it to first, and then the deluge began. The next four Yankee batters reached base and the score stood 7-4 Yanks before the Dodgers finally got the third out.
Later a debate would emerge whether the error was a passed ball by Owen or a wild pitch by Casey’s. Regardless, the Dodgers were stunned. For perhaps the only time in his managerial career, Durocher had no words. Owen later blamed himself additionally for not calling time to settle Casey down. Durocher eventually admitted the same.8 The next day the Yanks won Game Five 3-1.9 Owen went 0-for-3 in the game, for a Series batting average of .167.
Owen led the league in putouts again in 1942 (595), and games played at catcher (133) but he committed nine errors (fifth in the league). Nonetheless he again made the All-Star team and received 103 MVP votes, good enough for fourth place, but less than half the total of the eventual winner, Owen’s teammate in Columbus, Cardinals pitcher Mort Cooper. While Owen made the 1943 All-Star team, his numbers slipped somewhat from the previous year. He tallied 414 putouts, good enough for third in the National League, and he led the league in passed balls (9). While he dressed for the All-Star game, Owen did not play.
In 1944 he rebounded, again leading the NL in putouts (506) but also in passed balls (11). Owen was also named to the National League All-Stars for the fourth year in a row, but rode the bench in the game for the second straight time.
In 1945 Owen entered the Navy in mid-season.10 By early 1946, the New York media again reported that Rickey might deal the catcher while Owen was still stationed in upstate New York.11 Then on April 1, Jorge Pasquel of the Mexican League announced that he had signed Owen to a five-year deal as a player-manager for the Veracruz Blues.
Pasquel and his four brothers were heirs to a shipping fortune and loved baseball. Already they had successfully lured Negro League stars to Mexico with spectacular results. Jorge planned to revive his team and the entire league by signing Owen and the other players. The Pasquel family fortune could provide much larger salaries than those available in the major leagues up north.
Astonished New York sportswriters estimated that Owen would earn at least $15,000 a year, an impressive raise over Rickey’s stingy Brooklyn salaries. Pasquel had already landed three New York Giants players.12 Vern Stephens, the St. Louis Browns’ hard-hitting shortstop, originally had joined those leaving for Mexico, but returned almost immediately. Since he hadn’t played any games, he was not suspended. Upon learning of Stephens’ reversal, Owen contemplated leaving as well, but Pasquel produced the contract bearing Owen’s signature. The Mexican owner pointed out that neither side had agreed to termination clauses, so if Owen left, Pasquel planned to sue immediately for $100,000. Rickey immediately denied reports that he had offered Owen $20,000 per year for three years. Owen reported to Veracruz less than a week later.13
Eventually, 18 major leaguers jumped to the Mexican League, including pitchers Sal Maglie and Max Lanier and utility player Danny Gardella. Commissioner Chandler announced a five-year suspension for the 18 and any future player who left. From the beginning, Owen insisted he initiated the deal with Pasquel, seeing a chance to earn enough to secure early retirement.14 Nevertheless, Owen hit a raw nerve when he jumped; the money available illuminated just how suffocating the current labor situation was.15 Meanwhile, the New York media needled Rickey for allowing his thrift to overcome his pragmatism. At the Herald-Tribune, Joe Williams laid the blame on Rickey’s “pinch penny policies.” Tired of having their demands refused, players like Owen and Luis Olmo (another Dodgers refugee) went south, Williams observed, in “emotional crisis.”16
At first Owen seemed to thrive in Mexico. His ninth-inning sacrifice fly won his first game for Veracruz. Owen, who did not speak Spanish, seemed to work well with pitcher Ramon Bragana, an Afro-Caribbean who spoke no English. Accounts also noted the entertaining flair of outfielder Gardella.17 Later in the summer Owen caused a stir when he and Pasquel visited St. Louis to woo Cardinal great Stan Musial to Mexico. Musial refused them outright. That failure just added to the larger difficulties Owen faced in Mexico. The language barrier had become an issue, and he brawled with opposing players unaccustomed to his “Gashouse” playing style.
Owen also felt the Pasquel brothers (Jorge had four brothers, all of whom owned teams in the league) had not been forthcoming in their management of him by sending him to Veracruz after he had signed with Torreon, and ordering him to play first base. His family’s (wife Gloria and son Charlie) homesickness didn’t help matters, either.18 For the long-time catcher, it all required too much adjustment. The Owens chose to ignore Pasqual’s threatened lawsuit and returned home to Nixa in early August 1946. Mickey promptly applied for reinstatement in Organized Baseball. Owen was penitent yet stoic about his chances.
Commissioner Chandler denied Owen’s request and maintained the five-year suspension he had announced for all the offending players. Furthermore, opposition surfaced among both players and owners to Owen’s reinstatement. Horace Stoneham, owner of the Dodgers’ crosstown rival Giants, and the entire Philadelphia Phillies team favored upholding the ban. Vern Stephens himself said: “If they let him come back anybody can jump contracts anywhere.”19
For his part, Pasquel delivered on his promise to sue Owen for breach of contract. Pasquel claimed $127,500 in damages, in U. S. federal court in Springfield, Missouri, just miles from Owen’s own farm. In 1948 Owen counter-sued for over $93,000. Owen won $51,000 but the court later vacated the award. Meanwhile, Chandler’s suspension continued. Columnist Joe Williams lobbied for Owen’s reinstatement. Observing that while Owen had done the damage himself, Williams nevertheless indicted Dodgers president Branch Rickey for doing “little or nothing to straighten out the confused, stupidly stubborn farm boy. One of his own discoveries by the way.” Williams concluded: “Here’s a chance for Rickey, the celebrated do-gooder, to go into his act. Let him petition Chandler for a reprieve.”20
That would be, effectively, Owen’s last full season in the major leagues. Owen returned for the 1945 season and started 29 games before joining the Navy. His last game was May 24, 1945. During the season he hit .286 with a .393 slugging percentage. Stationed at the Seneca Naval Depot in upstate New York, Owen made good use of his farming background to operate tractor-treaded landing craft for the planned invasion of Japan.
Gardella had sued for reinstatement, and when a federal court of appeals decided in 1949 that his suit should be heard, Chandler dropped the suspensions, and all the offending players were reinstated. Just days later the Chicago Cubs picked Owen off waivers from Brooklyn.
Owen played four more years, 1949-1951 with the Cubs and 1954 with the Boston Red Sox. The Cubs claimed him off waivers from Brooklyn on July 2, 1949. He appeared in no more than 86 games in any one season (1950 with the Cubs). His fielding percentage over those four seasons was .976 with an average of six errors per season. After the Cubs released him in December 1951, he then spent the next two years in the minors, mostly with American League affiliates.
In late February 1954 Owen signed as a free agent with the Boston Red Sox. Owen played 30 games for the Red Sox in what turned out to be the last season of his paying career, hit. 235 and recorded a .989 fielding average. He hit one home run, exactly 50 per cent of his home run total for his five seasons in Brooklyn.
The Red Sox released him in early January 1955, but he stayed on with them as a coach for the 1955 and.1956 seasons. Owen spent the next three years as a player/manager in the minors or scouting for the major leagues.21 Reflecting on his career, Owen surmised: “I wasn’t a great player…but a lot of people who saw me catch will tell you I had some good qualities. I was good on popups, I could throw baserunners out and I was a good low-ball catcher. But the thing they remember me for was that one pitch. That’s OK. At least they remember me.”22
Throughout his career Owen had run impromptu baseball clinics for his son and neighboring kids. After 1959 Owen embarked on a new baseball endeavor. He purchased 595 acres off U. S. Route 66 in Lawrence County, Missouri, to establish a baseball camp for teenage boys. The camp bearing his name helped develop young talent in a safe, clean rural environment and quickly established itself as a local baseball powerhouse. Built every summer from the Midwest’s best talent, the camp’s teams routinely carved up local opposition from Springfield, Joplin, and surrounding smaller towns.23
Owen funneled his years of baseball experience into The Boy’s Baseball Book, written for the sort of teenage boys who would attend his camp. Over the years, the camp has hosted boys who went on to great careers both inside and outside baseball, such as NBA great Michael Jordan, actor Charlie Sheen, and Yankees manager Joe Girardi.24
Owen sold his ownership of the baseball camp when he ran for Greene County Sheriff in 1964, although he remained on the staff and appeared regularly at the camp into the 1980s. Far from opportunistic politics, Owen’s term as sheriff represented a return to his family’s occupational heritage. When elected sheriff in 1965, Owen defeated Glenn Hendrix, the Republican incumbent running for his fifth term and himself a scion of another Greene County law enforcement family.
Owen’s four terms as sheriff could be viewed as another addition to Midwestern law enforcement family dynasties and not merely a former major leaguer cashing in on his playing days.25 Nevertheless, Owen drew comparisons between his current and former occupations.26 “I’m doing my best, but when these law enforcement groups ask me to talk to their kids, I know what they’re looking for is five minutes on juvenile delinquency and 55 minutes on how to hit the curve.”27
In 1971, Greene County jail inmates sued Owen for inhumane treatment. Owen auctioned off much of his baseball memorabilia to cover his legal expenses. Successful bidders then returned the purchased objects to Owen’s possession, and eventually the suit was dismissed. Owen’s law enforcement success prompted him to test the waters of statewide politics. In 1980 he launched a campaign to become Missouri’s Lieutenant Governor. To bolster his image, Owen took to jogging across the state in the mid-summer heat.28 Nevertheless, Owen finished third in the Democratic primary with 79,038 votes.
After his campaign loss, Owen retired to Springfield, Missouri, where he and Gloria enjoyed their three grandchildren and one great-grandson. Owen’s exercise regimen continued apace; “where are they now” articles about Owen’s World Series error routinely commented on his fitness level.
A few years after Gloria died in 1993, Owen was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. For better health services he moved to the Missouri Veteran’s Home in nearby Mt. Vernon, just miles away from his baseball camp in Miller. Owen died in Mt. Vernon on July 13, 2005, and was buried next to Gloria in Patterson Cemetery near his family farm in Nixa.
The ’41 World Series third strike error has gained a life in American culture all its own. In December 1941 an Associated Press poll of sportswriters ranked Owen’s error as “the sports freak of the year.”29 Months later Chesty Puller’s Marines and a U.S. Navy unit used the 4-1 Yankee Series victory to confirm American identities during the fight for Guadalcanal.30 In his book on Jackie Robinson’s memorable first season Jonathan Eig used the 1941 error to frame Hugh Casey’s great relief pitching in Game Three of the 1947 series. Eig labeled Owen’s miss “one of the game’s most ignominious moments,” adding that “Owen and Casey never heard the end of it.”31 Memories of Owen’s anguish following Game Four helped prompt Herman Franks, a back-up catcher with the Giants, to participate in Leo Durocher’s sign-stealing system in 1951.32 Only in 1986, when Mookie Wilson’s single evaded Bill Buckner’s grasp was Owen’s status as World Series goat eclipsed. Even then, comparisons were made ? and Owen still refused to let himself off the hook.33
Owen’s error has even been immortalized in popular culture. In 1997 Annie Gosfield, a New York-based composer specializing in atonal compositions, debuted “Brooklyn October 5, 1941.” The four-minute piece for “piano, baseballs, and baseball mitt” depicts the ninth-inning disaster unfolding as the pianist hammers and rolls two baseballs up and down the keyboard.34 Current video games keep Owen’s error alive, too; dropped third strikes prompt a comment referencing the 1941 World Series.35
Owen’s own life, though, reflected a more melodic, if occasionally bittersweet, theme. After closing in 2008, the Mickey Owen Baseball Camp has reopened under local leadership. Owen’s solid performance as sheriff was punctuated by his humanitarian efforts, such as pony giveaways and crime victims’ rights activism.36 Through it all he gladly faced questions about the dropped third strike. In 1988 Phil Pepe gauged Owen’s legacy: “He is not only a part of the game, he is a central character in a legendary event in the game’s history. Even if it’s a negative part, Mickey Owen is convinced it’s better than having no part at all.”37
Owen’s flinty Ozark demeanor came to be one of his defining characteristics as a major leaguer. He kept his own counsel, even when public opinion — and subsequent historic judgment — suggested otherwise. And for more than 60 years he never shirked the blame for that one World Series error.
1 Steve Calhoun, “Where are they now? Mickey Owen,” February 1984 article in Mickey Owen file, Baseball Hall of Fame Library & Archives, Cooperstown, NY.
2 Marty Eddlemon, “Spring has enjoyed rich history,” Springfield News-Leader April 2, 2005.
3 Lee Lowenfish, Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007), 2-6, 123, 234-5, 302.
4 J. Roy Stockton, “Born for the Gashouse,” Saturday Evening Post (May 22, 1937), 14.
5 Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (New York: Free Press, 2001), 424.
6 Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, 400.
7 http://www.weather.com/weather/wxclimatology/daily/11201?climoMonth=10; accessed 5 July 2012.
8 Leo Durocher, The Dodgers and Me: The Inside Story (Chicago: Ziff-Davis, 1948), 110-2.
9 Quoted in “Owen Not Letting Life Get Away From Him,” Washington Post, May 16, 1989.
10 Bill Lauder, Jr., “Owen to Play with Dodgers Until Inducted,” March 26, 1945; clip in Mickey Owen file, Baseball Hall of Fame Library & Archives, Cooperstown, NY.
11 Dan Daniel, “Rickey Puts Owen Up for Sale” March 28, 1946; clip in Mickey Owen file, Baseball Hall of Fame Library & Archives, Cooperstown, NY.
12 Bob Cooke, “Dodgers’ No. 1 Catcher Wires Club He ‘Could Wait No Longer‘” April 1 newspaper column in Mickey Owen file, Baseball Hall of Fame Library & Archives, Cooperstown, NY.
13 “$20, 000 for Owen Denied by Rickey,” New York Times (April 11, 1946), 36.
14 “Owen Says he Launched Mexican Deal Himself,” April 3, 1946; clip in Mickey Owen file, Baseball Hall of Fame Library & Archives, Cooperstown, NY.
15 Lee Lowenfish and Robert Creamer, The Imperfect Diamond: A History of Baseball’s Labor Wars (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2010).
16 Joe Williams, “Giants Must Fight Hard to Hold Fan Interest,” New York Herald-Tribune clip in Mickey Owen file, Baseball Hall of Fame Library & Archives, Cooperstown, NY.
17 “Owen’s Bat Wins in Mexican Debut,” New York Times (April 19, 1946), 23.
18 “Rejects Mexican Offer,” New York Times (June 11, 1946), 31.
19 “Owen Can’t Join Dodgers in 1946, Baseball Law Cited by Ruel Shows,” August 9, 1946; clip in Mickey Owen file, Baseball Hall of Fame Library & Archives, Cooperstown, NY.
20 Joe Williams, “Why Not Lift Mickey Owen’s Ban?” clip in Mickey Owen file, Baseball Hall of Fame Library & Archives, Cooperstown, NY.
21 “Owen’s Team on Skids, So He’s Catching Again,” United Press release, May 4, 1957.
22 “Mickey Owen Oriole Scout,” New York Times Jan. 16, 1959, 15.
23 See Randy Turner’s blog: http://rturner229.blogspot.com/2005/07/baseball-legend-mickey-owen-dies.html.
25 Although Springfield Republican Billy Long recalled in 2010 that Owen “was some kind of celebrity” and thus defeated Hendrix. Cory de Vera, “Long touts his success to turn out November vote,” Springfield News-Leader, Oct. 2, 2010. http://www.news-leader.com/article/20101003/NEWS06/10030359/Long-touts-his-success-turn-out-November-vote?nclick_check=1
26 Paul Stubblefield, “Wearing Badge Instead of Mitt, Owen Still Catches Screwballs,” Feb. 24, 1976; clip in Mickey Owen file, Baseball Hall of Fame Library & Archives, Cooperstown, NY.
27 “The Mickey Owen Story,” Oct. 1, 1966; clip in Mickey Owen file, Baseball Hall of Fame Library & Archives, Cooperstown, NY.
28 “Owen Not Letting Life Get Away From Him,” Washington Post, May 16, 1989.
29 “Owen’s Series Muff of Third Strike Voted Most Freakish of Odd Incidents in Sports,” New York Times Dec. 24, 1941, 23.
30 James D. Hornfischer, Neptune’s Inferno: The U. S. Navy at Guadalcanal (New York: Random, Bantam Books, 2011), 147-9.
31 Jonathan Eig, Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007), 248-9.
32 Joshua Prager, The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca, and the Shot Heard Round the World (2001), 49-55.
33 Vic Ziegel, “Ball Passed, Memory Stays,” New York Daily News July 20, 2005.
36 Stubblefield, “Wearing Badge Instead of Mitt.”
37 Phil Pepe, “Owen revels in THE passed ball,” New York Post June 9, 1988, 32.