Worth Every Penny
Paul Owens was many things in his baseball career: player, batting champion, scouting director, general manager, manager of a World Series team, and assistant to the president of the Phillies.
And, as far as he could tell, he was the only man who had to pay to play professional baseball.
After he got his degree at St. Bonaventure University in 1951, Owens was invited for a tryout with the Olean Oilers of the Class D PONY (Pennsylvania/Ontario/New York) League, a team affiliated with the St. Louis Cardinals.
“On the way up there it started to rain,” said Owens, who died in 2003. “It stopped halfway up, but by the time I got there the field was soaked.”
Olean manager Orval Cott said it wouldn’t be fair for Owens to work out on a drenched field. He invited Owens to stay and see that night’s game for free, telling him to mention his name at the ticket office.
But Owens didn’t want to throw the name of the manager around, so he paid for the ticket. After he found his seat, someone with the team came running up to him 20 minutes before game time.
“You got your gear?” the man asked. The club had just found out its first baseman who had been hit by a line drive the day before, had a broken jaw and couldn’t play. They asked Owens to take his place.
Owens ran to his car, got his spikes and glove, and started at first base. He went 4 for 5 with two RBI’s.
Paul ``Pope`` Owens
After the game, the manager said he wanted Owens to accompany the team on a bus ride to their next contest. Owens was helping his father paint a bridge, and said he probably couldn’t make it to the departure time. They agreed that the bus would take a detour to where Owens and his father were working and pick him up there.
That next game, Owens went 5 for 5. “I guess we better sign you,” Cott said to Owens, who inked a contract.
He wound up winning the PONY League batting title with a .407 average. At a post-season awards banquet, with club owner Harold Chesbro in the audience, he related his tale.
“Mr. Chesbro, I think the least you could do is reimburse me for that 75-cent ticket,” Owens said.
“The next day, a check arrived in the mail for 75 cents,” Owens said. “I never cashed it and I forgot about it for 20 years. I was cleaning out something and there it was. ‘God, I’ve still got this damn thing,’” he said. “I’ve kept it as a souvenir.” Owens liked to claim that he was the only ballplayer who had to pay to get onto the field.
Owens was a sergeant in an engineering unit during World War II. He met his wife in Belgium. He graduated from St. Bonaventure College and began his minor league career. When he retired, he batted .374 and won three batting titles, but some people have said his “advanced age” cost him a shot at the major leagues.
1973: Steve Carlton (left) re-signs with Paul Owens' Phillies as the league's highest paid pitcher, with a $165,000 salary. (Photo: AP Wire)
In 1955, the Phillies hired him as player/manager for its team in Olean, N.Y. The next two years he managed a team in Bakersfield, CA, then became a scout for the club. In 1965, he was named Director of the minor leagues.
As the Phillies Scouting Director, he employed what he called “Good dogged scouting” when evaluating players. He traveled to Illinois to see then prospect Greg Luzinski play basketball, saying he wanted to see if he was aggressive under the boards. An area scout was very high on a shortstop at Ohio University. Owens attended a game watching Mike Schmidt, and thought he’d move him to third base, where he played for 18 seasons with the team and was inducted into the Hall of Fame. (The Phillies honored him in 1986, creating the Paul Owens Award, presented yearly to the organization’s best player and pitcher in its minor league system.)
He was nicknamed “The Pope,” apparently because Phillies slugger Dick Allen said Owens looked like Pope Paul VI.
When he became the Phillies General Manager in 1972, he became the first GM to travel with his club on the road. He believed you could get a better feel about players on the road as opposed to at home, where they were more comfortable. He would also talk to ticket takers and ushers who worked at other ballparks, asking them which opposing players had good work habits, such as arriving early to the stadium. He would then file away this information in case he wanted to trade for some of those players.
He became a shrewd trader, acquiring Garry Maddox, Tug McGraw, Manny Trillo, Bake McBride and others to complement the Phillies home grown players, such as Schmidt, Luzinski, Bob Boone and Larry Bowa. Four years later, he became GM, and the Phils went on to win three consecutive NL East titles in 1976, ’77 and ’78, but lost the League Championship Series each year. Then, he hired Dallas Green to manage the team and did not break up the nucleus of the club in a proposed multi-player deal with an American League club. Both moves helped the team win its first World Series.
Owens (center) was a five-decade Phillies legend as a scout, manager, GM, and executive. (Photo: Matt Veasey/Phillies Nation)
Another unconventional move also helped that squad. Owens was with the team in San Francisco and was angry at how they were playing. On September 1, he told Green he wanted to address the club. What about the new players, the September call-ups, asked Green. “Have they got a P on their uniform?” responded Owens.
He let the team have it. Green also let the squad know what he thought of them. Owens said Pete Rose told him, “It was the toughest team meeting he’d ever been in.” Years later, Owens was recalling that day. “Here were those players, in the major leagues for the first time, and their general manager yells at them, and their manager yells at them.” He shook his head and said, “Those poor kids.”
But the meeting worked. The Phillies went on to win 23 of its final 34 games to win the National League East, then defeated the Houston Astros for the NL title and the Kansas City Royals for its first World Series Championship. It was a long-held wish for Owens.
“I always wanted to be the guy who lifted that cloud of never having won it all,” he said. All it took was 75 cents.