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Calling his name

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DeKalb resident Walt Owens will be selected Thursday in a Special Negro Leagues Player Draft by the Chicago Cubs, prior to the First-Year Player Draft in a program which allows each Major League club to select one surviving former Negro League player to represent every player who did not have the opportunity to play Major League Baseball. Owens played in the Negro Leagues from 1953-55 and played with the all-white Detroit Pepsi-Cola team when baseball integrated in Detroit in 1957. KATE WEBER CARLSON - kcarlson@daily-chronicle.com

DeKALB - The house is an ode to sports. The walls in the basement are blanketed with photos, collages, murals and artifacts that rival any small museum. Even the golden sandy exterior of Walt Owens' DeKalb home is a color you only see on a sunny day when the grounds crew waters the baseball diamond right before first pitch. But the first thing the former Northern Illinois baseball coach and assistant professor wants to show is a mural in his living room. It's of his son, Mel Owens, a linebacker and a first-round draft pick of the then-Los Angeles Rams in 1981. As of Thursday afternoon, Mel Owens has company in his family's draft history. The Chicago Cubs will select Walt Owens in Thursday's special Negro Leagues Player Draft prior to the Major League Baseball Draft. Owens was a pitcher/outfielder for the Negro Leagues' Detroit Stars from 1953-55. “I told my son,'Now there are two first-round draft picks in the family,'” Owens said with a laugh. Hall of Fame outfielder Dave Winfield thought up the concept of the draft and brought it up to MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, who approved it after the two worked together on the plan. The purpose is to honor former Negro League players that never made it to Major League Baseball by drafting them to Major League clubs and then giving them a $5,000 bonus. “It's quite an honor,” Owens said. “Not so much for me, I mean, I've done my thing. But it's for all the guys that played and never got paid.”

‘I was embarrassed' Owens always considered himself worthy of playing at the highest level and there was a time when he thought he should have been drafted. Owens was in college at Western Michigan while he played with the Stars over three seasons. He played on the weekends, usually pitching the first game and playing outfield the second. Although it's widely accepted that Owens was a great player for Detroit, not much is actually known about Owens' playing days for the Stars. Owens played after the heyday of the Negro Leagues, and statistics from that era are unreliable at best according to the deputy director and chief curator of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Raymond Doswell. “It does seem a bit odd that we know less about the players who are more recent,” Doswell said. “Historians who have written on the Negro Leagues have focused on the earlier history. The museum tries to record the record as we can get it, but we have very little to go on for those later years.” For now, the oral history that Owens can pass down is one of the few primary sources left from that era. If it weren't for the museum, however, Owens' memories of his time in the Negro Leagues could have died with him. Owens was a 20-year-old playing against men twice his age when he was with the Stars. Like any young man outplaying the old guard, Owens said it went to his head a little bit. Owens still listened to what the older players had to say, though. That included former Detroit Stars legend Norman "Turkey" Stearns. “‘Stay in school kid, just stay in school,'” Owens said Stearns would tell him. Owens followed that advice. And although Stearns' sage words helped him and propelled him to a long, successful career in academics and athletics, the Negro Leagues experience had another profound effect on Owens. "I wanted to sign in the Majors and they made you feel like playing in the Negro Leagues was nothing," Owens said. "So honestly, I didn't want to be a part of the league. I never told anyone I played. I never told my kids I played. I never told my ballplayers. "I was embarrassed. I thought I was above the league. I was young, dumb, you know. I thought I was better. The fact was that you told people you played for them and it was like 'And, what?' It was like playing for a Class E ballclub." And so the stories of Owens' Negro League baseball past remained locked up in his mind, never a topic of conversation at the dinner table or in a bar with friend s. If he were asked to tell stories from his playing days, he would eagerly tell how he was the first baseball player to integrate Detroit when he played with the all-white Pepsi-Cola team, a full year before the Tigers did so with Ozzie Virgil. Or that one of his teammates was a young fellow by the name of Dave DeBusschere, who went on to star for the New York Knicks. Or he would tell how, in a moment that's not quite Lou Gehrig-for-Wally Pipp, he replaced a guy named Kemal Kasem in the outfield at Northwestern High School. Telling the story like Paul Harvey, Owens explained that Kasem's career turned out just fine. "You know Kemal Kasem, I know you do," Owens said. "But you know him as (legendary radio DJ) Casey Kasem." When it came to his three seasons with the Stars, however, it was as if it never existed. That all changed when he went to the Negro Leagues museum in 2000.

A seminal moment Owens spent all of Tuesday afternoon telling stories from his playing career and his life. He beamed when he talked about his family. His chest swelled with pride when he told the story of how he went to a late-night party at a white coach's house in Dearborn, Mich., back when African-Americans were not welcome in the town at night. He talked of how he played under assumed names - "I had a different one every week," he said - to protect his collegiate eligibility while he continued to try and make the Western Michigan basketball team. "Not that they really checked on black players," Owens added. "They really didn't. I had friends who played at predominately black colleges and they transferred to white colleges and played four more years." Only one time on Tuesday did his voice crack. Only once did his eyes begin to well up with tears. That's when he talked about visiting the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum for the first time. All the stories and memories locked away for almost 50 years all of a sudden had meaning. His mouth dropped open. His eyes widened. "And then I found out what this league was really about," Owens said. "I had no idea. I just played and went back to school and each weekend came out." Slowly after that, the stories started coming. He now shares them with everyone and has gone back to Kansas City a few times to share them with more people. Owens loves talking about the players he saw and played against and how the league transcended baseball. "They had stayed in the league and they loved the game," Owens said. "They held their bats low. Guys in the majors were all working up high. One day I saw Roberto Clemente swing his bat low and I was like whoa w here did you learn that?" He invited legendary Negro Leaguer Buck O'Neil up to Northern Illinois to speak in front of crowds. His storytelling has picked up steam in the last few years when the Chicago White Sox began honoring the Negro Leagues by having Owens and a few other former Negro Leaguers out to U.S. Cellular Field to watch a game from a skybox and sign autographs. The signs and photographs have been added to his basement collection from what has become a yearly event. Thursday, when the Cubs call his name, maybe Owens will share a few more stories from Detroit. "When the Cubs said they were drafted me that fired up my imagination," Owens said. "It's quite an honor for the guys that got missed. It's an honor for me to stand up for somebody."

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