Walter “Coach” Owens played for the Detroit Stars in 1953 -1955 during Negro League baseball’s declining years. Although he never wore a Major League uniform, he used the lessons he learned through his experiences to have a positive influence on young players.
Born on August 19, 1933 in Cleveland, Ohio; Owens grew up in Detroit where baseball was segregated at the amateur and semi-professional levels. He played on three high school city baseball champions and received a basketball/track scholarship to Western Michigan University.
During the summer months while in college, he played for the Detroit Stars of the Negro American League (NAL). A pitcher and an outfielder, Owens played under an alias in order to keep his college amateur eligibility. Playing against the House of David one of those summers, he singled and struck out facing “Satchel” Paige. Although Owens was a good ballplayer, but former Negro League star and Detroit resident Turkey Stearnes, advised him to stay in school.
After graduating from college, Owens received an offer to play for the Indianapolis Clowns. He turned it down, began teaching school, and eventually became the baseball coach at Detroit’s Northwestern High School. Owens was a father figure for many of his players. Two of them, Willie Horton and Alex Johnson, went on to have successful Major League careers in the 1960s and 1970s.
In 1976, Owens was named head baseball coach at Northern Illinois University (Mid-American Conference) and became one of a very few African Americans to run the baseball program at a majority white NCAA university at that time. NIU won 133 games in Owens’ seven years (1976 – 1982) as coach.
Born May 8, 1901 in Nashville, Tennessee, Norman Thomas “Turkey” Stearnes did not have the typical built of a home run hitter. But the 6 feet, 175 pound left handed hitting center fielder swung with such power he became one of the most prolific sluggers in Negro League baseball during his career (1920 – 1940). Stearnes was the league leading home run hitter a reportedly six times.
While running, Stearnes’ head bobbed up and down, his neck stretched, and his arms flailed. Someone said he looked like a “wild turkey” and the nickname stuck with him throughout his career. But, he was an excellent fielder with base stealing speed.
Also, he had an unorthodox batting stance in which he pointed his front foot towards the pitcher with the heel down and toes up. He looked awkward standing at home plate, but it proved productive for him and nightmarish for pitchers. Stearnes was the marquee player for the Detroit Stars (1923 – 1931, 1933, and 1937). But, he also played for other teams including the New York Lincolns (1930), Cole’s (Chicago) American Giants (1932 – 1935), and the Kansas City Monarchs (1938 – 1941).
Stearnes received the most votes from fans for the first Negro League East – West All Star Game in 1933 and he got two hits in the contest. The yearly game became the national showcase for Negro League baseball and Stearnes was chosen by fans to play in it five times; 1933, 1934, 1935, 1937, and 1939.
He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000.
At the front of what current Major League baseball stadium is there a statue of Turkey Stearnes?