Farrell Owens loves baseball. The lifelong Nashvillian grew up playing baseball in the sandlots, played for David Lipscomb coaching legend Ken Dugan, became the Nashville Sounds first general manager, and is a board member of the Nashville Old Timers Baseball Association. Owens realized his passion for baseball as a youngster.
"I didn't make the team when I was 11 years old," Owens said. "I went out for Junior Knothole Baseball. That made me realize how much I wanted to play, and how much I loved it. I was going to Richland Elementary School and my dad saw how much that hurt me. So he took to Friedman's Army Surplus and we bought a first baseman's mitt.
"That summer all we did was play catch and we played everywhere. I'd play with my buddies and I'd wear out that first baseman's mitt. The very next year, I made the team. We got beat in the semi-finals for the city championship. I hit the home run that won our division championship that put us in the city tournament. I enjoyed my teammates and just loved playing."
Owens graduated from Cohn High School in 1963 where he played first base as a senior. His natural position was in the outfield where Owens played in the summer leagues. Dugan came to one of Owens' high school games to scout another player. Owens caught Dugan's attention and would eventually land a scholarship with the Bisons.
Freshmen were eligible in college and Owens started right away in the Bisons' outfield. Owens said he remembers his first hit at Troy, AL a one-hopper to right field in a one-for-three day. His best memory playing baseball at Lipscomb made national headlines in the sports world.
"We were playing archrival Belmont in my senior year when something crazy happened," said Owens. "I pulled an unassisted double play from the outfield. Infielders do it all the time, but outfielders don't do it. It got on the AP wire and went all over the nation. I've got a newspaper article from Colorado Springs, CO, 'Nashville Outfielder Pulls Unassisted Double Play.' It was a big game and it was at Belmont.
"I was playing center field and there was one out and Belmont had runners on first and third. Their batter hit a looping line drive that I dove for and caught. When I made the play, the runner at third did not know if I caught the ball and wasn't sure about tagging to score. When I came up, the runner at third was bluffing to run home. My first baseman had gone for the cut off.
"When I came up rolling, my momentum was going towards the infield. The runner on first was breaking to stop and return to first. I would have thrown the ball to first, but he wasn't there. I caught the ball in right center and my momentum allowed me to catch the runner before he got back to first base. The next day it hit the papers."
Owens graduated from David Lipscomb in 1968. Next for Owens was coaching in high school while continuing to play baseball in the Stan Musial League. He was named MVP while leading the league in batting. Owens began managing in the league in 1973.
In 1975 and 1976 his team, Haury and Smith Reality, advanced to the National Baseball Congress World Series in Wichita. While as head coach at Pearl High School in 1977, Owens wrote an article on base running that was published in the prestigious "Athletic Journal." The following year, Owens left teaching and coaching to help found the Southern League Nashville Sounds, the Double-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds.
"In 1974, I was coaching the baseball team of the late Reese Smith, Jr. in the summertime," Owens said. "He had the idea that we should build a baseball stadium and I got excited about that. I somehow got the architectural drawings for the Memphis and Albuquerque ballparks. Late in 1974, we went into an economic recession so Reese thought we should hold off. Two years later someone told me that Larry Schmittou was going to try and bring professional baseball back to Nashville.
"I called him and we decided the both of us could do it. We started working together in late September, early October of 1976. He had the Vanderbilt connections, which was really good. We just went after it. Larry was still coaching at Vanderbilt so he wasn't allowed to have meetings with Cincinnati, our first affiliate. The NCAA would not allow that contact, so I was the general manager and handled that stuff."
Owens held the position of the Sounds GM for five seasons. His responsibilities in those first years included selling tickets, billboard ads, promotions, ordering and handling the paperwork for player development contracts. If a player were about to be released, the manager would tell that player to, "Go see Farrell." Owens would make arrangements for player's transportations.
Sometimes management can make mistakes, which can be corrected. Such was a case with Brian Dayett, who played with the Sounds from 1980-82. Dayett was lucky.
"Dayett was with us in 1981 and Stump Merrill (Sounds manager) decided to release him for a second time," said Owens. "So they told me to do the paper work on him. They decided to tell him when the game was over. In baseball when you beat someone 18-1, it's called laughter. That night we're beating Knoxville 9-1, 10-1 so they put Dayette in the game. He hit a home run over the scoreboard. The next time he came to bat, he hit another ball over the scoreboard.
"When the game was over, they put their heads together and decided not to release him. Stump told me to hold on to the paper work. They were going to see how he played the next night. If he goes 0-for-4 or 0-for-5, we'll release him. The media would be all over us since he hit two balls over the scoreboard. The next night, Dayette went 2-for-4.
"He had a good year for us, and the next year he was our Player of the Year. Dayett was also Southern League Player of the Year. Later he was Player of the Year in Triple-A Columbus. Dayette made it to the big leagues, and got a contract for three million dollars to play in Japan. If that game had been 1-0, he would not have hit those two home runs and his baseball career might have been over.
The first major league affiliate of the Sounds were the Cincinnati Reds. They were aligned with the Double-A Southern League. In that first season, the Sounds led all of minor league baseball in attendance.
The agreement between the Sounds and Reds was cancelled after two seasons due to a conflict with the designated hitter rule. The Reds insisted that the Sounds let their pitchers bat in every game even when their opponents were using the DH. Therefore the New York Yankees became the next Nashville affiliate.
"Right off the bat I started hearing about Steve Balboni," said Owens. "I got to be around Steve a lot. I got to spend time with George Steinbrenner that I cherished. Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle, they all came to Greer Stadium. I remember going out into the dugout on a cold late November night. Mickey was talking to Whitey and there was just the three of us. It was dark except for the inside stadium lights. Mickey said to Whitey, 'I believe that I could take it out of here now.' Whitey was bugging him telling him he couldn't. We had a lot photographs taken that night. Most of the Sounds' owners were there with Steinbrenner and Governor (Lamar) Alexander."
Owens' close relationship to the Yankees organization would give him stories to remember for life. Many former Yankee legends would visit Greer Stadium. Owens remembers one night in particular when he was driving for Steinbrenner, Ford, Mantle and Elston Howard.
"I'm in my station wagon driving them back to the hotel," said Owens. "Steinbrenner has taken the shotgun seat and its Mantle, Ford and Howard in the back. Elston is kind of reserve and he didn't go for much foolishness. Anything that Steinbreenner would say, they would start laughing in the back seat. It wasn't a sincere laugh, and I don't think Steinbrenner was picking up on it.
"When he was saying something, I could look in my rear view mirror. Mantle was punching Ford in the ribs with his elbow. They were having a big time at Steinbrenner's expense. Whenever Steinbrenner tried to say something funny, Mantle and Ford would just laugh like it was the funniest thing they'd ever heard. I couldn't believe that there I was driving these guys that everybody in the world knew. Mantle and Ford were making fun of Steinbrenner all night."
One story that Owens tells is about a tragedy involving a plane crash and Sparky Anderson. In 1979, George Scherger was the Sounds manager. He had been Anderson's bench coach the previous season when the Reds fired Sparky. Anderson was not connected to any team at this time and he was promoting his new book. Anderson came to Nashville to watch his friend Scherger manage the Sounds.
"I went to the airport to meet him and his plane was running late," Owens said. "Channel 2 was there to interview him at the airport. The plane is running late, and I'm thinking we need to hurry up and get to the ballpark so Sparky can watch BP and be around Scherger. When he got off the plane, Channel 2 wanted to take Sparky to their studio for a live interview at six o' clock and they'd take him to the ballpark.
"Sparky said, 'Farrell, here's my plane tickets and luggage.' So I took his stuff back to the stadium while he went to the studio. At seven o'clock that night there was a thunderstorm that really popped us. The game was rained out. Sparky said to me, 'Farrell, I've got to watch my main man George Scherger manage a game. I've just got to stay another day.'
"Sparky stayed at Scherger's place. The next afternoon he was supposed to have left Nashville in the morning as he had a flight out of Chicago around one o'clock to take him back to California. So he cancelled that flight to stay another night since the game the night before was rained out. We learned later that the plane Sparky had tickets for had crashed."
The plane that crashed was American Airlines Flight 191 with a loss of life totaling 270 passengers. This was May 25, 1979. During liftoff at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, parts of the plane were falling off and eventually an engine dropped off a wing.
Owens said that there was not any national news about Anderson once having reservations for that flight. Owens saw Anderson in 1982 in the winter meetings in Honolulu. He asked Anderson why there had not been any news about him and the flight. Anderson told Owens he never said anything out of respect for the families.
At one time Owens was a part owner of four minor league teams. After the 1982 season, Owens left baseball to join a family business. He is a member of the Old Timers Baseball Association's Amateur Hall of Fame and the David Lipscomb University Hall of Fame. He has been a board member of the OTBA for over 30 years. He has been involved with his publication of "The Sandlotter" (www.sandlotter.com) for over 20 years.
So, why is baseball such a great game?
"People that get into baseball love it," said Owens. "There is certain romanticism to it maybe because it starts in the spring. The grass is turning green. Trees are getting leaves. You've been inside for the winter, now you are going outside. Baseball hasn't change much over the years.
"One time I held a 1927 baseball that belonged to Jim Turner. It felt like a baseball of today. The seams, the smell, the feel of it were the same. It's the history we have of it. It's a statistical game. We've all played baseball and we all have a story to tell about playing in the backyard."
If you have any comments or suggestions, contact Bill Traughber via email.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.