An evening with Marv Owen

Marv Owen won a World Series title with the Detroit Tigers in 1935 as their starting third baseman.

Marv Owen won a World Series title with the Detroit Tigers in 1935 as their starting third baseman.

Marv Owen, the old Tigers third baseman, is remembered today – if, indeed, he is remembered at all – for a couple of things, both relating to the two World Series he played wearing a Detroit uniform.

First and foremost, he’s the fella whose dust-up with Joe “Ducky” Medwick in the seventh game of the 1934 World Series precipitated the “Battle of Produce Row” at Navin Field. After 20 minutes of Detroit fans booing lustily and throwing enough vegetables on the field to feed a small army, commissioner Judge Landis finally ordered Medwick removed from the game to preserve the peace. It was the first time a player had ever been ejected from a World Series game, and Owen was directly responsible.

Second, and less famously, Owen set a postseason record for personal frustration that still stands. Over the course of the 1934 and ’35 World Series, he went to the plate 31 consecutive times between hits. Collectively, Marv batted .061 in his 13 Series games, one of the worst marks ever.

To me, Marv is best remembered for appearing in the doorway of his apartment wearing two sweaters and a pair of long johns on a warm, muggy night in San Jose, California. “I’m always cold,” he told me. “I can never get warm enough.” His ankles bulged from layers of socks.

At the time I was writing for a group of mechanical contracting magazines. I had come to San Francisco to cover a big HVAC trade convention, an assignment every bit as exciting as it sounds. I had absolutely no interest in the energy efficiency of the newest Carrier furnace, but I definitely wanted to poke Marv’s memory about those storied Detroit teams of the Great Depression. Learning that he lived on the other side of the bay, I had phoned and introduced myself. After some initial hesitation, he said OK to a visit.

I followed Marv into his apartment, a cramped space that can be charitably described as unkempt. Stuff was everywhere. There were teetering stacks of old newspapers (he hated television but had always been “a good newspaper man,” he explained) and four car tires piled in a corner. Marv cleared room on a table for his “fathead book,” 1930s lingo for his bulging scrapbook of clippings.

Marv explained his initial reluctance to have a writer over. A while back, a retired reporter had casually told locals that the unassuming old guy who always came into the little grocery store down the street had once played with and against names like Hank Greenberg, Babe Ruth, Lefty Grove, and Dizzy Dean.

“I used to walk in there and I was a nobody before that,” Marv said. “And I liked it that way. Now some guy will walk up to me and say, ‘I hear you used to play for Detroit.’ I tell them, ‘No, I played for the Gilroy Haymakers’ or something like that. He’s gonna tell me about his career, see? I’m not interested in his goddamn career. One guy was saying, ‘I want to tell you my theory on how I teach my Pony League hitters how to hit.’ I said, ‘I’m not interested at all.’ He said, ‘I’m gonna tell you anyway….”

For all his crustiness, it was impossible not to like Marv. He had a way of talking out of the corner of his mouth that was straight out of a Jimmy Cagney movie, and his free-roaming reminiscences touched on everything from star-struck “baseball Annies” hanging around hotel lobbies to teammates who drank their careers away. Of the latter, Clyde “Mad” Hatter, who pitched for catcher-manager Mickey Cochrane for parts of two seasons, stood out in his mind.

“I was friendly with the guy,” Marv recalled. “He didn’t show up at the ballpark for a couple days. So I go up to his hotel room in Detroit and say, ‘What’s the matter, Clyde?’

“‘Oh, I’m sick,’ he said. ‘I’m pooped.’ So bighearted me, I call the team doctor. He goes up to see Clyde, he looks in his eyes, and he knows right off the bat that the guy was drunk. He pulls open the bureau drawer and there’s two glasses of whiskey. He told me, ‘The guy’s drunk.’

“I said, ‘Holy Almighty, I probably ruined his goddamn career.’ So the doc told Mickey he was drunk. I guess Clyde got shipped down to Louisville. He went home that winter and they found him dead in back of his father’s car. From booze.”

Marv was justifiably proud of the Detroit infield of the middle ‘30s, considering it one of the finest ever assembled. In addition to Owen, there were Hall of Famers Hank Greenberg at first base and Charlie Gehringer at second, and hard-nosed Billy Rogell playing shortstop. “He was temperamental,” Marv said of Rogell. “He must’ve broken 25 bats a year across home plate. He’d strike out or pop out and come back to the dugout. We knew what was coming next: ‘Bullshit, I’m going fishing!’”

Malcolm Bingay, writing as Iffy the Dopester in the Detroit Free Press, dubbed the quartet the “Battalion of Death” for their ability to push across runs like no infield before or since. In 1934, they had 462 RBI between them. The following season they had 420.

The Battalion of Death could kill opponents with their gloves, too. The unit played together five years, 1933 through 1937 (though Greenberg missed most of 1936 with a broken wrist), and Detroit led the loop in fielding percentage in all but the first of those seasons. Marv had good hands, a strong arm, and when it came to picking up a bunt on the run no third sacker was better than him. At one time or another, he led all American League third basemen in putouts, assists, and fielding percentage.

To hear Marv tell it, he also topped the list in faking out base runners and was only occasionally called for interference. “I don’t know if I was tricky or not. I don’t think I was a dumb player. One time Joe DiMaggio’s on first in Yankee Stadium and someone hits a single to right field. He’s coming into third and [the outfielder’s throw] hits him. I don’t know where the ball is, see? So I put a decoy on Joe and he knocked me down. I rolled right over on his goddam body and I got up. So the next day, the same play happens with Red Rolfe. This time the umpire says to Rolfe, ‘You score.’ I did it in the World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals, too. Ernie Orsatti was coming into third base and I didn’t know where the ball was. I put on an act and rolled over him. No one told him to score.”

It was this kind of juking that resulted in the Ducky Medwick incident, one of the ugliest episodes in postseason history. It happened during the seventh game of the 1934 World Series, as the “Gas House Gang” Cardinals, behind Dizzy Dean, were en route to blasting the Tigers, 11-0, to take home the championship.

To set the scene: A day earlier, in Game 6 of the Series, Detroit had Dizzy’s brother, Paul “Daffy” Dean, on the ropes when a blown call prevented the Tigers from loading the bases with nobody out. The Tigers, who were up three games to two, went on to lose by a run, setting up a decisive Game 7. The showboating Cardinals took advantage of their reprieve, ringing up seven runs in the third inning. Dizzy Dean acted as if he was at a county fair, doing handsprings and shouting insults at the Tigers.

The crowd’s mood grew uglier as the score climbed. In the sixth inning, Ducky Medwick drove the ball deep to right center field, scoring Pepper Martin to make it 8-0. It was an easy stand-up triple, but Owen acted as if there would be a play. Medwick slid hard, and Owen stepped on his right foot.

“That’s when he kicked me three times, called me a son-of-a-bitch,” Marv said. “He just grazed me, though. And that made me mad. When a guy slides hard, but clean, that’s okay, you don’t give a damn. But when a guy slides hard and gives you a few little extra digs, well, you get a little mad.”

Marv admitted he was frustrated. Medwick dusted himself off and stuck his hand out, but Marv wasn’t interested in making amends. “Ah, bullshit with that,” he told Medwick.

Moments later, Medwick scored the Cardinals’ ninth run on a single by Rip Collins. When Medwick took his position in left field in the bottom of the sixth, the 16,000 displeased fans jammed into the temporary bleachers in left pelted him with fruit, vegetables, bottles, and anything else they could get their hands on. “Take him out! Take him out!” they chanted. It was more of a mob than a crowd, and after several failed attempts to clean the field and start the game, Judge Landis finally ordered Medwick removed for his own safety.

“It didn’t matter,” Marv said. “We got shellacked. I saw Medwick years later in Modesto when I was scouting. He was a Cardinals instructor. I saw him after a game. I shook hands with him. I thought everything was okay. He was still mad. If he’d gotten one more hit in the Series – he would’ve been up one more time, anyways – he would’ve tied the record for most hits in a World Series.”

Every last man on the ’34 Detroit squad went to his grave believing the Tigers were the better team and that they had been robbed of a championship. The following year the Tigers made up for their near-miss with a stirring Series win over the Chicago Cubs. They did it without their big gun, Greenberg, who injured his wrist in the second game. Cochrane shifted Owen, who had been a first baseman at Santa Clara College, to first and installed seldom-used Flea Clifton at third.

“Greenberg had a great big glove with a net that big,” Marv recalled. “I’d watch him spend two hours on the train fixing that web the way he wanted. That was too goddamn big for me. So I went to Mickey. ‘I can’t use Hank’s glove at first,’ I said. ‘I’m going to use my finger glove.’”

Cochrane couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “How bush you wanna get?” he asked. So Owen reluctantly wore Greenberg’s homemade scoop-like mitt the next day. He quickly became a convert when he had to dig a throw from Clifton out of the dirt. “The umpire says, ‘Yer-rr out!’” Marv recalled. “I looked in the goddamn web. I didn’t even know I had the goddamn ball.” Although Owen and Clifton went a combined 1-for-37 at the plate, the Tigers beat the Cubs in six games.

Marv was traded to the White Sox in 1938, and he wrapped up his nine-year big-league playing career with the Boston Red Sox in 1940. After that he moved around as a manager, coach, and scout, eventually retiring in 1973 after spending 45 years in baseball. He estimated he saw 11,000 professional games.

Marv said the two greatest players he ever saw were Gehringer, who he always called “Champ” and who was the best man at his wedding, and Babe Ruth. “It’s too bad Charlie didn’t play in New York with the years he had. He could do anything. Ruth, too.” Babe “could steal a base when he wanted to” and, with the entire infield swung over to the right side, would occasionally drop a bunt down the third baseline. “If the ball game was won or he needed a base hit, he’d dump it down there. I’m playing shortstop, Rogell’s halfway in center field, Gehringer’s halfway in left field, and Greenberg has to hang and pray by first in case he might hit a ground ball to one of us. Ruth would drop a bunt, get to first base and stand there: ‘Ha-ha-ha.’”

In 1984, the All-Star Game was held at Candlestick Park. Hearing that Greenberg was the honorary captain, Marv got the idea to mail a ball to the Giants’ front office and have Hank sign it. Then he sent the autographed ball in turn to Gehringer in Michigan and Rogell in Florida. A nice keepsake, but…. “Now I don’t know where the hell the ball is the last six months,” Marv said, glancing around the cluttered room. “It must be somewhere in here.” It was getting late. We had talked for hours. We called it quits, and I drove back in the mist to San Francisco.

During the 1989 World Series between San Francisco and Oakland, which was interrupted for 10 days by an earthquake, I watched as Marv became a celebrity of sorts. The media, scrambling to fill pages and air time, were eager to interview this unvarnished throwback from the game’s golden age, though, to me, the octogenarian on my TV screen now appeared slightly confused. A couple of years later, I picked up the sports section and saw that Marv was gone. He had died inside a nursing home, having lost most of his remarkable memories to Alzheimer’s. He was 85 and left this world wholly unconcerned about his place in baseball history.

“As far as the record books go,” he had told me, “most people will just remember me for Medwick’s slide. It doesn’t bother me. Otherwise, they wouldn’t know who the hell I was.”

One reply on “An evening with Marv Owen

  • J.D. Danielewicz

    Marv hit .317 in 1934 with 96 RBI. Not too shabby for a guy most people remember only because of the Medwick incident.

Comments are closed.