As the Big League World Series begins its 12th season in Easley, thoughts have turned to the man for whom the site of the tournament is named —- JB “Red” Owens.
“JB Owens left his mark on a lot of people,” said Easley Mayor Larry Bagwell, who was a cousin to Owens and served with him on Easley City Council. “He was a people person. He was a dreamer. He saw the best in everybody. He was very deserving of the complex being named for him.”
Owens died in May 2000, a year before the Big League World Series came to Easley for the first time. A star athlete who played on the first Easley High state championship football team in 1937, Owens was a standout football and baseball player at Furman. He turned down offers to play professionally and returned to Easley. He served on the Easley City Council for 25 years, where he played a major role in starting the Easley Recreation Department and Little League Baseball. He helped restart the Easley Post 52 American Legion baseball team and worked with the legion baseball program for nearly 30 years. He was also involved in beginning the Fourth of July Celebration in the city.
Gregg Powell, director of the Easley Recreation Department and the coach of the Easley area team in this year’s series, worked with Owens in the recreation department and as assistant coach for the Easley Legion team. He drove Owens to his last Post 52 game, the season opener in 2000 at the former Greenville Braves’ stadium.
“He was the face of Easley,” Powell said. “When you think of Easley, you see JB Owens.” When the recreation complex was dedicated in 1999, Owens was the Grand Marshall. After his death, members of the Easley community asked the City Council to rename the facility in memory of Owens.
“When they were talking about naming the park for him, there was a tremendous outpouring from the community at City Council,” said Randy Bray, who was the first director of the Easley Recreation Department and also worked closely with Owens in his 25 years as the head coach of the Post 52 team. “He was such an icon in this community. I didn’t know anyone who didn’t like him and that is rare.”
Bray, who was one of the pallbearers at Owens’ funeral, said Owens was a father figure.
“If I ever had an image of what a father should be it would be JB,” Bray said. He never intervened with what I did on the field. That is a special person who lets you do what they asked you to do.”
Bray said one memory that sticks out in his mind came later in Owens’ life.
“As he got older, he didn’t go on the road as much,” Bray said. “Before we were going on the road one time, he said to me ‘do you want to feed the boys?’ I said, ‘yes, that would be nice.’ He was wearing overalls and reached in his left pocket and pulled out some money and said “That isn’t enough.’ Then, he reached in his right pocket and pulled out some more money. He must have reached into four pockets in those overalls, pulling out money. That is one of my fondest memories.”
Bray said although Owens never tried to tell him what to do in his 25 years as the head coach, he would come talk to Bray when he thought Bray was getting too upset.
“He’d come down to the dugout as I got older and say ‘Calm down, Randy. You’re going to have a heart attack.’”
Post 52 won its first state championship in 2001, a year after Owens died.
“I hated the fact that we didn’t win that state championship until the year after he passed. “I think I wanted it more for JB than I did for me. As I was walking on the field after we won the state championship, I pointed up. Some people thought it was for Justin (Bray’s son, who was killed in a car accident just after his senior year in high school). I said, ‘No, Justin and I will talk later tonight. That was for JB Owens’”
Bray recalled one game years ago in Greenwood, when the umpire threw him out of the game and Owens had to coach the team.
“They messed up the rule and I got ejected,” Bray said. I said, ‘JB you got it.’ As I recall, we came back and won the game. He told me later, ‘I think I might replace you.’”
Bert Owens, Owens’ son, remembered that game as well.
“After they came back and won, he kept saying it was because he was coaching,” said Bert Owens.
Bert Owens played on those early Easley Legion teams the 1970s. He recalled one game when his father embarrassed him as he was at bat in a game.
“He was doing the announcing one game on the PA system,” Bert Owens said. “He said, ‘Now batting, Bert Owens. That’s my baby boy.’ I could have crawled under home plate. Of course, I struck out.”
Bert Owens works today as an assistant baseball and football coach at Easley High.
“I get it from him honest,” he said. “If there is a baseball game I want to be there.”
Mike Barnes, retired Easley High football and baseball coach, remembered Owens when he and other Easley High players approached then EHS baseball coach Eddie Barbary about restarting the Legion Post 52 baseball program. Barbary brought the players to Owens, who was the athletic director for Easley Legion.
“JB was a very conscientious person with the money and everything,” Barnes said. “He was steady, always there to make sure it got done.
“When the ball would get wet, JB would put the ball in a baggie with corn meal. “It turns out that old remedy of using corn starch to dry stuff out worked.”
Both Barnes and Bray remembered Owens could hold five baseballs in one hand.,
“I remember throwing with him when I played for the Legion team,” Barnes said. “He could throw to two different people at the same time.”
Joe Lesley, owner of Joe’s Ice Cream Parlor, was a senior on the Easley High football team, when Owens was an assistant coach. He later was one of the business leaders who provided financial support for the Post 52 team when the program was restarted in 1972.
“He was a volunteer coach,” said Lesley. “He loved Easley and he loved sports.”
Travis Barbary, who played for the Post 52 teams in the late 1980s and early 1990s, grew up around Owens when his father, Eddie, coached the team after Legion baseball returned to Easley in 1972.
“JB was always there and had a kind spirit, a gentleness about him,” said Barbary who is the catching coordinator for the Los Angeles Dodgers’ organization. “Legion baseball was an important part of the Easley community at that time and he was a big part of it. JB and the others involved made us feel that we were the best and they wanted the best for us. There was a lot of pride in being part of Post 52. It was one of my the most fun times I had playing baseball.”
The gymnasium at the JB “Red” Owens is named for Bagwell, something the mayor said is an a bigger honor because of the great impact Owens had on his life.
“It is a big honor to have my name associated with JB,” said Bagwell. “He loved being around sports and young people, “When we served together on Council, he showed me the ropes. He was a big influence in my life.”
Bagwell participated in a class with other South Carolina municipal leaders last month in Hilton Head. At the meeting, each person was asked to introduce himself.
“When it was my turn, I told them ‘my name is Larry Bagwell and I am Mayor of a small city that is beamed all over the world every year,’” he said. “JB would have loved to have heard that.”