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Walt Owens, Detroit three-sport star who coached Willie Horton in high school, dies at 87

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Walt Owens, a three-sport standout at Detroit Northwestern who went on to play baseball for the Detroit Stars of the Negro American League, and later coached a young Willie Horton and taught The Supremes' Mary Wilson in high school, died Sunday.

"Coach O" was 87, and living in DeKalb, Illinois, where he remained an active supporter of Northern Illinois, where he coached baseball in the 1970s and 1980s, and was a longtime faculty member.

Walt Owens, who played for the Detroit Stars of the Negro Leagues, died at the age of 87.

"He lived an amazing life, from his days as an athlete, playing in the Negro Leagues, to dedicating himself to young people and education," said Sean Frazier, athletic director at Northern Illinois.

"This loss is personal not just for me, but for thousands of students who he coached, taught and encountered during an amazing career."

Owens was born in Cleveland but moved to Detroit at a young age, and went on to play baseball, basketball at Detroit Northwestern. He won three high-school city championships in baseball.

After he graduated, he attended Western Michigan, where he earned bachelor's and master's degrees and was part of a Mid-American Conference-record relay team in the 880. He also played basketball in college, but interestingly, not baseball.

Instead, while he was in college, he started playing professionally for the Detroit Stars of the Negro American Leagues — a reincarnation of the Negro Leagues, which began disbanding in the 1930s and 1940s as baseball began integrating. Legend has it Owens used an alias, to maintain his amateur eligibility. He once singled off Satchel Paige, and legendary Negro Leaguer Turkey Stearnes, another Detroiter, was a mentor.

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He played two seasons with the Stars, before playing amateur ball for the previously all-white Pepsi-Cola team of the Detroit Baseball Federation, batting .379. He was an outfielder and pitcher.

After college, Owens returned to Detroit, where he worked 22 years for the Detroit Department of Parks and Recreation, and taught in the Detroit Public Schools system for 19 years. It was then that he coached future Tigers star Horton. Owens once recalled one particular game between Northwestern and Detroit Cass Tech, at what then was Briggs Stadium and became Tiger Stadium.

The game was in June 1959.

"I remember Willie hitting two foul balls on top of the roof in the left-field corner," Owens told The News in 2000. "Carmen Fanzone (who went on to play for the Chicago Cubs) put Cass ahead and then Willie deposited this enormous home run in the upper deck in center field.

"I heard only Babe Ruth had hit one there."

Amazingly, Owens said the foul balls were even more impressive.

Willie Horton

He said you could stand on second base and hit fungos, and not reach where those balls landed. He went home and got a tape measure, and calculated those foul balls at 600 feet or more.

Northwestern won the championship game, 13-10. Horton was 2-for-4 with a homer, double and three RBIs.

Horton, in his autobiography, recalled the home run.

"The ball exploded off my bat," he wrote. "I had never hit a ball quite that hard before. I just stood there and the umpire had to tell me to run."

The mammoth homer is stuff of urban legends, given few fans were in the stands. It was a day game, and the Northwestern principal wouldn't let the students out early to attend the game.

While at Northwestern, Owens also coached Alex Johnson, who won an American League batting championship with the then-California Angels in 1970.

Owens also had a stint at head basketball coach at Detroit Mumford. He hired Emory Luck as an assistant coach, and when Luck got the head basketball job at Northern Illinois, he returned the favor and hired Owens as an assistant in 1973. Owens became head coach of the baseball program in 1976 and coached until the program was disbanded in 1982. (The program has since returned.)

Walt Owens as the Tigers' Negro Leagues celebration in 2014.

He remained on the faculty at Northern Illinois until his retirement in 2007. He helped found the National Congress of Black Faculty, served on the Presidential Commission on the Status of Minorities, and was a member of the Racial Discrimination and Sexual Harassment task force.

Northern Illinois annually hands out the Walt Owens Student Award of Excellent. He remained a regular at Northern Illinois athletic events until COVID-19 shut down sports in March.

"I will miss Coach dearly," said Mike Kunigonis, Northern Illinois' current baseball coach.

Owens remained a competitive slow-pitch softball player as a pitcher later in life, and is members of many Hall of Fames, including Northern Illinois' and the Detroit Negro Slow-Pitch Softball League's. He would occasionally return to Detroit, taking part in the Tigers' Negro League Weekend ceremonies at Comerica Park as recently as 2014. In 2008, when Major League Baseball held a ceremony Negro Leagues draft, the Chicago Cubs selected Owens with the fifth pick in the first round.

Owens is survived by wife Janice and four children, Mel, Lamar, Kyle and Stacia. Mel was a linebacker at Michigan from 1977-80 and was a first-round pick by the Los Angeles Rams in the 1981 NFL Draft.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984