Who is Billy Owen? It's a mystery that dates back at least one hundred years. Journey back with us now through the mists of time as we seek the long-lost answer. The question as to the true identity of one "Billy Owen" arose almost by accident, as part of research done to establish the answer to another question, that of the actual date of manufacture of the Fan Craze card game. Much in demand now among collectors of antique tabletop baseball games, several different editions of Fan Craze were produced by The Fan Craze Co. of Cincinnati sometime between 1904 and 1906. "Generic" editions of the game, packaged variously in boxes measuring six by four inches and six inches square, handsomely printed, and including a wooden playing board, were popular and successful in their day, and are attractive to modern collectors -- the price for an example in decent condition averages over $400., ranging from under $100. to a record $2,300. Even more desirable are the two "Art Series" editions of the game, each featuring stunning Carl Horner portraits of 52 luminaries of turn-of-the-century baseball -- one a blue-backed set of cards featuring American League stars, denoted "WG2" in the American Card Catalogue, the other a red-backed set of National League stars, denoted "WG3." Complete examples of the "Art Series" editions -- difficult to obtain, since the games are often ruined by the greed of vendors and card collectors who break up the card sets and sell off the individual cards -- typically range from around $4,000. to $9,000. at auction, but have averaged over $16,000., a figure inflated by a $51,000. sale in 2005 yet not taking into account a reported but unsubstantiated $67,000. sale in 2004. A curious aspect of the otherwise sumptuously produced game is the manufacturer's inattention to detail in verifying the names of the featured players. It was this shortcoming that led to the discovery of the mystery of Billy Owen. The majority of cards in both the WG2 AL set and the WG3 NL set depict star players of the day, many of them later inducted into the Hall of Fame. Several feature players of somewhat lesser status, but all are well known to baseball historians and readily identifiable, despite the errors in the names. Documented errors in the AL set include the cards of "Wild" Bill Donovan (labelled "Pat Donovan" on his card), Norman Elberfeld (labelled "Norman Elberfield"), Hobe Ferris ("Hoke Ferris"), Frank Isbell ("Frank Isbel"), George Mullin ("George Mullen"), George Winter ("George Winters"), George R. Stone ("Fred Stone"), and Terrance L. "Terry" Turner ("Roy Turner"). At Baseball Games, we left no stone unturnered in researching the name discrepancies in the sets, and thanks to the assistance of several knowledgeable members of our forum and feedback from the many experts at the Net54 Vintage Baseball Card Forum, we're confident that all those typos and inconsistencies -- save for that of "Billy Owen" -- have been resolved correctly. Some of the simpler and more obvious mistakes offered little impediment to determining the true identity of the pictured player. Others required some additional research, and in the process we found that some of the VBCF crew had already assembled strong evidence that the WG2 AL set, long deemed a 1904 production, is -- based on the career debuts and team affiliations of certain players in the set -- far more likely to have been a 1906 release, almost certainly no older than 1905. Although the lack of proofreading and vetting before the cards went to press is inexcusable, it's not hard to see how the mislabelling of players in the Fan Craze "Art Series" sets might have resulted from difficult transcriptions of only marginally legible handwriting that had originally noted the players' names when the photos were shot -- the same process that, proceeding from handwritten scorecards, created "phantom" players that have bedevilled latter-day historians and stat researchers in baseball and in other sports as well. It's an entirely credible supposition, for instance, that the bit of handwriting from the Horner studio that read "Terry Turner" became torn or smudged, and all the typesetter at the Fan Craze Co. had to go on was "rry Turner," which was then transcribed as "Roy Turner." Such are the basics of the backstory behind the Billy Owen mystery, the nub of which is this: no one named "Billy Owen" has ever played major league baseball. There may well have been a professional ballplayer by that name, but he never made it into a major-league game, not even at the Moonlight Graham level. Rode the bench, perhaps, as has been suggested to us, but never played. If he had, we're pretty sure the combined resources of SABR, Retrosheet, Total Baseball, and Baseball-reference.com would have found him by now. Which in no way refutes or dismisses the theory that the card in fact represents a fellow actually named "Billy Owen." To this point in the story, it's as valid a guess as any that's so far been put forth. Whose face peers at us, though, from that card, across the gulf of a century? The clues are confounding and contradictory. Many of the other players in the set are stars, and most no worse than solid journeymen, or young players not yet established but whom would continue on to worthy careers in the bigs. Although it's recognized that minor-leaguers are occasionally included in other pre-War card sets, it seemed unlikely that a player who never made the cut would be included on the Fan Craze roster. Still, we couldn't rule out the possibility. "Owen" is identified on the card as a player with Boston -- then still the Pilgrims, not yet the Red Sox. Other researchers have noted, however, that the dark shirt "Owen" wears in the portrait -- probably black or navy, possibly maroon or brown -- is not a Boston uniform of the period. We're informed that between 1904 and 1906, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, and Washington, in the American League, and New York's National League club, wore dark blue road uniforms. So did Detroit, we're told, but their dark uniform shirts sported white collars, clearly not in evidence in the "Owen" photo. Yet this didn't entirely rule out any affiliation with Boston. The shirt might be from a minor-league or college team uniform -- or it even might be merely an ordinary shirt, and "Owen" was photographed in his street clothes. Additionally, every other player in both the AL and NL editions seems to be assigned to the correct team.
This all left a perplexing number of doors open. If we assume the name shown is approximately correct -- that he was someone named Owen or perhaps Owens -- only three contemporaries emerged as possibilities on major-league rosters. Thomas Llewellyn "Red" Owens was given only brief consideration. The obscure second baseman, then past 30, played with Brooklyn in '05, but his only other major-league tour had been with the 1899 Phillies. Frank Malcolm Owen seemed -- at first -- an unlikely candidate. A three-time 20-game winner for the White Sox between 1903 and 1909, Frank M was certainly worthy of inclusion in Fan Craze, but had no apparent connection to Boston. Could The Fan Craze Co. have gotten both his name and his team wrong? Frank Walter Owens seemed a better bet, although he didn't start his less than stellar career as a catcher until 1905, still just a teenager, and played only a single game for Boston that season. Frank W didn't reappear for a second major-league game -- with the White Sox -- until 1909. Both Frank M the pitcher and Frank W the catcher, incidentally, were apparently both nicknamed "Yip." Not that this should become confusing. We next considered that the transcription of the name might have been considerably worse than the single-letter typographical errors noted earlier. Perhaps it had been hastily scribbled and was the victim of poor deciphering, and was actually something that, in hurried or sloppy longhand, might only appear to resemble "Owen." Various new candidates emerged. There was outfielder Fred William Odwell -- right era, but wrong team (although, perhaps not coincidentally, it was Cincinnati), wrong league. There was Kid O'Hara, but he played only a handful of games with Boston's National League team in 1904, his only season in the majors. Then there's Jack O'Neill, but he too played for the "wrong" Boston club, and not until 1906 -- after which, we hear, he took command of the Stargate project. Another nominee was Bill O'Neill -- an unknown in 1904 when he made his major league debut, but it was with Boston's AL club. He was moved to Washington midway through that season, then played with the 1906 White Sox. At a real reach, there's Bill O'Hara, but his brief career was only with NL clubs and only in 1909 and 1910. For the record, we also went fishing for major-league players with the surname Quinn, but came back empty-handed.
We narrowed our focus back to players named "Owen" or "Owens," considered he might have been with some minor-league affiliate of Boston -- or with any other minor-league pro team, since the farm system as we now know it hadn't yet been invented -- and turned to SABR for assistance. One particularly helpful member of the Society generously provided us with this list of players active in minor-league pro ball in the 1904-1906 era: * Arthur P. Owens * Frank W. Owens * Thomas L. Owens * R.J. or J.E. Owen, with Oklahoma City in the Western League, 1906 * unknown-first-name Owens, with Johnstown, Pennsylvania, 1904 * unknown-first-name Owens, with Boone/Clinton in the Iowa State League, 1906 Frank W is almost certainly the same young Frank W who debuted with Boston in 1905.
That definitely isn't the end of the list of possible matches for "Billy Owen" -- allowing for fewer connections, or ever more tenuous connections, we could extend the list of suspects almost indefinitely. But we'll cut off the list there for now, working on the assumption that fewer errors are more likely than multiple errors, and the more closely the facts about any candidate resemble the scant information on the card, the more likely it is that a match could be made. So we're looking for someone named Owen or Owens, or Billy O-something, associated with Boston, or with an American League team, and judging by the portrait, someone fairly young in the 1904-1906 timeframe. Obviously, what was needed was photographic corroboration -- a good clear picture of "Billy Owen," whatever his real name might have been, from a second source. Unfortunately, one of the things that makes Fan Craze so desirable to card collectors is that it's nearly the only set of "baseball cards," using the term loosely, produced between their initial heyday in the late 1880s and their resurgence in the 1910s. Thus, portrait shots of any but the most famous star players of the era are rare as hens' teeth, while any photos at all of players of a lesser water are troublesome to locate and often of poor quality. Yet somewhere, so our childlike faith told us, there had to be another shot of "Billy Owen," maybe not an individual portrait for a card set or anything similar, but posed (and identified) with his teammates in a photo of the White Stockings, or the Boston Pilgrims, or the Zanesville Flood Sufferers or some other club. And were we to find it, we could jump up and shout "Hey! It's that guy!" And our wizened hearts would be content. So far, we've been unable to locate any photographic evidence whatsoever of Kid O'Hara or, save for Frank W. Owens, any of the minor league players listed. We have, however, located or been directed to photos and illustrations of widely varying size and quality for every other player we've mentioned -- Frank Owen, Frank Owens, Bill O'Hara, Bill O'Neill, Jack O'Neill, and Fred Odwell -- most of which have been presented in thumbnail format on this page. Play along with us for a moment. See any resemblance between "Billy Owen" and any of the players pictured above? No? Pictures too small? Links to the full-sized originals of all of those, and to a few unlikely extras, are linked to directly below. Each automatically opens in a new window. Fred Odwell, OF, Cincinnati 1904-1907, born September 1872, debut April 1904 * 1907 Cincinnati Reds team (Odwell fourth from left) * 1911 T201 Mecca double folder Bill O'Hara, OF, New York NL / St Louis NL 1909-1910, born August 1883, debut 1909 * 1909-11 T206 white border Bill O'Neill, OF, Boston AL / Washington / Chicago AL 1904-1906, born January 1880, debut May 1904 * 1905 action Jack O'Neill, C, St Louis NL / Chicago NL / Boston NL 1902-1906, born January 1873, debut April 1902 * 1905 pose Frank M Owen, P, Detroit / Chicago AL 1901-1909, born December 1879, debut April 1901 * 1905 warm-up * 1905 warm-up * 1905 warm-up * 1905 action * 1906 Chicago AL team (edit) * 1906 warm-up * 1907 pose * 1909 warm-up * 1909-11 T206 white border Frank W Owens, C, Boston AL / Chicago AL / Brooklyn FL / Baltimore FL 1905-1915, born January 1885, debut September 1905 * 1909 pose * 1909 pose * 1909 action * 1914 Brooklyn FL team (panorama, 363Kb) * 1914 Brooklyn FL team (edit, blow-up) 1906 Chicago White Sox * team photo Owen and Owens * 1909 Chicago AL team -- both somewhere among the twenty players, although we could rule out only fourth from right, front row... These were the best sources we could find or were given through nearly a year of investigation. As you attempt to draw your own conclusions from that evidence, note the players' actual ages and the year in which each picture was taken. Could the smooth-featured young lad in the Horner Fan Craze portrait possibly have aged so much in only a year or so that he could be the grizzled veteran in a player photo from 1906 or 1907? Can the passage of several more years account for the lack of similarity between "Billy Owen" and the subjects shown from 1911, from 1914? Not to color your own impressions of which fellow looks like "Billy Owen," but the bifocal-wearing crew in the Baseball Games front office found little to no resemblance to the fresh, unlined, great-chinned, pale-eyed face of "Billy Owen" in most of the images linked above, with the possible exception of O'Hara -- but these were located only one or two at a time, over many months, and the 1907 photo of Owen was a very recent discovery. In that one, we saw a possible match, but we remained skeptical that leathery scowl could belong to the same callow youth photographed just a year or two earlier, especially after so many of the previously discovered shots of Frank Owen had seemed to us so utterly unlike "Billy Owen." Other expert eyes concluded that Frank Owen was indeed the "Billy Owen" of Fan Craze, basing their judgment largely on the dark shirt and the very small 1906 photo cropped from a larger team portrait. We couldn't say they were wrong, but do you find that picture convincing? If you look long enough and hard enough for something, though, you will find it. Still at a loss for a definitive answer, we were in the very process of preparing this page -- with the idea of featuring a poll here that would allow visitors to the page to cast their vote for which if any of the suspects was in fact "Billy Owen" -- when we at last happened upon incontrovertible evidence of "Billy Owen's" true identity. Months of painstaking forensic comparisons of tiny, grainy, century-old images against the Fan Craze visage of "Billy Owen" -- were the lips full enough? Was the chin sufficiently massive and smooth? Did the convolutions of the ears match up? -- suddenly meant nothing. For here was that face, unambiguously, indisputably, not once, but twice, beaming back at us from two newly located sources. If you've followed the story closely this far, the titles of the links below already tell you who he is. Behold! 1906 Chicago AL team (front row, fourth from left) 1906 Chicago AL team (11) One hundred years later, the mystery of Billy Owen is solved. The authors would like to thank Gene Newman, Fred Young, Bill Hickman, Gilbert Maines, David Ayer, and the Net54 Vintage Baseball Card Forum for their contributions to the research for this article. Reference sources: Baseball Fever The Deadball Era Google Image Search The Library of Congress "American Memory" Net54 Vintage Baseball Card Forum