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About Jon
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1) using profanity or any euphemisms for profanity
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Glory to the Peanut Man
2005-02-07 09:26
by Jon Weisman

George Washington Carver and Jimmy Carter might head the list of famous Americans associated with the peanut. But perhaps the only person made famous by the peanut is Roger Owens.

More than 40 years ago, Owens was selling peanuts in the stands during Dodger Stadium's opening season when he found the path to a customer obstructed. What happened next is a magical part of Dodger lore ... and the centerpiece of a new book by Daniel S. Green, The Perfect Pitch: The Biography of Roger Owens, The Famous Peanut Man at Dodger Stadium.

That's right - a biography of Roger Owens. I have to say I was a little surprised that one existed, even more so when I saw that it clocked in at 325 pages of text and images. Anyone - including this site's readers, more than a few of whom probably have a "Peanut Man" memory to share and, like me, will smile big at the sight of these photos - could be forgiven for thinking that even the most interesting vendor in the history of American sport could be summed up in a nice magazine article.

But Owens does have a story. Born on Valentine's Day, 1943 in Glendale, Owens was the son of a minister and the oldest of nine children who grew up in poverty that helped drive his mother to a sanatorium and the siblings to foster care for a period of years. As a member of the National Guard in 1969, a Jeep accident in which he was a passenger forced Owens into emergency brain surgery to save his life. This happened a year after Owens' father, Ross, was shot point-blank in the chest, only to have the religious tracts in his coat pocket stop the bullet. (A Times article documents the event.)

These and other traumas mingle with the fun tale of Owens' peanut-throwing exploits and improbable celebrity, which brought him appearances on The Tonight Show as well as stadia around the world and introduced him to his first wife (whom he sold a bag of peanuts when she was 13). His unique career also brought him joy and friendship on a scale many of us might not experience.

You could say that you haven't truly experienced Dodger Stadium unless you've caught a bag of nimbly tossed peanuts by Owens - behind the back, under the leg, or via the "double-bagger" (a single toss that sends two different bags to two different people). That makes me a little sad, because I haven't. Owens usually works the third-base side of the park, and of the roughly 1,000 Dodger games that I have attended, probably all but 10 or so have been on the right side of the diamond. If and when Owens reaches me, I'm all full up.

That being said, I do remember getting peanuts from Owens during Ram games at the Coliseum in the 1970s, placing him on my consciousness lo these many decades. And he's one of those quietly spellbinding figures that if he didn't already exist, you'd have been pretty proud to invent.

According to The Perfect Pitch, it all began for Owens, as a 15-year-old in 1958. Owens showed up well before game time during the Dodgers' first season in Los Angeles, much like a day laborer, in the hopes of being selected for just the chance to sell anything in the stands at the Coliseum. For months he was denied, but finally he was allowed to work his way up the vendor food chain, from soft drinks to ice cream to finally, as Green writes, "the bags of salted gold."

Green is Owens' nephew, and at times, his enthusiasm for Uncle Roger carries his writing away (not that mine hasn't fallen victim to such flights myself). Describing an earlier job Owens had working at a newsstand, Green writes, "Before going to work, he would quietly stare at the dark, gray strip of boulevard. He was entranced with the torn newspapers flying down the forsaken streets, and with how the wind howled an octave higher than poverty's loud mockery of everyone that lived there."

Faith is also an integral part to the Owens story, and while as a religious work the book is on the mild side, Green clearly has a goal to place Owens' life in a spiritual or testimonial context. That's not to say that Owens is portrayed in any way as the Second Coming, but that his humility, along with his dedication and selflessness and even occasional missteps and depression, are themselves as important to Green as Owens' peanut purveyance itself. Broadly speaking, it's a Horatio Alger story with occasional surprises (such as the nonchalant treatment of the news that Owens' first wife was 17 years old when he married her, an event that either reflects vestiges of a different era or an implicit "not-that-there's-anything-wrong-with-that" philosophy).

So, there are moments where Green's pride in his family takes over, as in this description of Owens' mother: "Mary Owens was a selfless woman who fought desperate times to raise a family in poverty, but she became a warrior in the Faith in her later years, becoming one of the Godliest women ever to be shaped by the Master Potter's hands." But beyond that lies the reason that Owens' story is worth this hefty a book. In between the occasional soft-shoe preaching, there is a story you don't see every day: of what makes an ordinary man extraordinary. The distance between The Perfect Pitch and the mega-bestseller, Tuesdays with Morrie, is probably less than one might think.

It doesn't hurt if your subject knows how to write poetry with a peanut toss ...

Roger just finished handing a bag to a customer when he turned around at the cry of another fan several rows away. More people now made their way down the stairs, carefully reading the ticket stubs for their row and seat number. Suddenly, they stood still, obstructing the travel path of a simple toss to the seated customer, who was yelling a second and third time for his peanuts. Young Roger stayed calm and instinctively surveyed the situation.

He couldn't put too high of an arch on the toss, because he noticed how the concrete rafter above, from the next highest level of stadium seating, was not high enough to allow a throw like that.

Some fans were already seated and, sensing the tension of the moment, they sat there grinning devilishly, as if watching a show. They sat back comfortably, but with undivided attention, to see what this young peanut vendor would do about the situation.

Before panic set it, he whimsically and nonchalantly poised the bag of peanuts to throw behind his back in one sweeping motion and let it fly.

The bag soared with a slight curve to it, sailing past the indecisive roadblock of people that caused the dilemma, and into the waiting hands of the shocked man.

"Hey. That was cool," the customer said in amazement, holding the bag in his lap.

Owens will be back at Dodger Stadium this year, which gives me another chance to get my first behind-the-back ballpark peanuts from him. Good deal. He is a rare treasure of the ballpark, and after reading The Perfect Pitch, I have greater appreciation of him than ever.


Bottom photo by John Gannon. Woman pictured with the Owens children in the fourth photo is foster mother Edith Beatty. All photos courtesy of Daniel S. Green.

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