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February 07, 2005

Glory to the Peanut Man

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.

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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.)

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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.

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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).

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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 …

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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.

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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.

Posted on Feb 7, 2005

Comments

Gosh I am thinking that Will Ferell would be perfect at playing this guy and they can do a very funny movie! Imagine all the cool stuff they could do. The end of the movie would be Farell/Owens saving the day:

Playoff game and the dodgers are the cinderella story. The dodgers werent even picked to come in third place in their own division after winning the NL west the year before. Sportwriters from across the land come to rip on Depodesta, McCourt and Moneyball. They ask Depo why they would trade LoDuca and risk with team chemistry. They remind depo that Beltre was 10th in the league in AL MVP voting.

It's the 5th inning of a 3-3 game 7. There are 2 out. Dodgers are in the field. Winner plays the LA Angels of Anaheim.

Like a blur, out of the stands comes owens to save the day.

You see, Owens spotted in advance what we all couldnt see. Milton Bradley was being provoked.

By our own fans no less.

Have no fear, Roger Owens is here.

Bradley then leads ff the next inning. Izz bunts him over, Drew is walked. Kent is walked after fouling 9 pitches off. Choi takes lidge to a full count. Choi walks. Dodgers win the pennant.

Bradley and Owens and Choi are 3 way MVP of NL championship Series.

Owens finally get the girl of his dreams that night after pushing aside Playboy material hottie with bad attitude.

Posted by: jasonungar at February 7, 2005 03:11 PM

What does my wife remember from her first Dodger game? Getting a bag of peanuts from a perfect behind-the-back toss. Can't say as I blame her.

I did not know anything about the guy who tossed her the bag of peanuts but I know a lot more about him now (yeah, it's the same guy).

After reading this, I am more convinced than ever that Bill Dwyre does not read Dodger Thoughts. If he did, there would be no more Dodger Thoughts 'cuz Jon would be at the Times. Great stuff, Jon.

Posted by: Suffering Bruin at February 7, 2005 03:13 PM

Sounds like good winter reading. Thanks for the tip Jon.

Anyone know the peanut guy that resembles Jamie Farr that screams "Nuts, Nuts, Nuts" at the top of his lungs?

Posted by: bigcpa at February 7, 2005 03:34 PM

Yeah, I know whom you speak of, Big.

Actually, I can't believe I haven't told my favorite Dodger Stadium peanut story yet. I searched the archives but didn't find it. I may have to save it for a separate entry.

Posted by: Jon at February 7, 2005 03:38 PM

Big, the "Nuts! Nuts! Nuts!" guy is Richard Aller. hes a High School teacher, or was one, im not sure if he is anymore.

Posted by: Daniel B at February 7, 2005 03:53 PM

I remember a guy in the 70's selling programs on the field level with a very hi-pitched voice "get yer SOUVenir PROgram!)

Posted by: Marty at February 7, 2005 03:57 PM

Yeah, Richard still teaches. There are actually many teachers that work as peanut vendors at dodger stadium. Fits their schedule well.

Posted by: King at February 7, 2005 04:02 PM

Terrific article, as usual, Jon. I got my copy of "The Perfect Pitch" last summer, but life has done a number on my reading habits-- down about 75% from what I'd like-- so I haven't yet read it myself. But I did get the man to sign my copy last year, and he was quite happy to do so. He even stopped down for a picture with my four-year-old daughter and has always had a kind word or a joke whenever we see him. I first encountered Roger's prodigious peanut-hurling skill when I won a season's worth of seats on the loge level in a little league raffle back in 1997-- in addition to being on the receiving end of some pretty keen tosses myself, I once saw him stand at the front of the section with a bag in each hand and send each missile sailing in opposite directions behind his back, getting direct hits on both intended targets. Ever since that summer, I've often bought a bag just to see that perfect pitch and have it directed toward me. Thanks for reminding us all of one of the human reasons Dodger Stadium remains such a special place.

Posted by: Dennis Cozzalio at February 7, 2005 04:03 PM

Grant High basketball coach Howie Levine still works as an usher, I trust?

By the way, don't thank me for this spotlight on Roger Owens - thank Daniel Green.

Posted by: Jon at February 7, 2005 04:12 PM

I had a teacher in 8th grade who also moonlighted as one of the security personnel at Dodger stadium, the guys that wear the hats. He would regale our class with tales of beating up drunks in private in the elevator, while taking them to a jail cell in the stadium. From there they were taken down to downtown to spend the night. In his words the downtown jail was the worst place on earth, so the punishment was quite severe for just being a drunk.

One time at an Angel/Dodger exhibition game at Angel stadium, the peanut guy in my area would say "I hate my job" over and over instead of "Peanuts". I thought it was funny.

Posted by: Dodgerkid at February 7, 2005 04:26 PM

I've seen the "Nuts nuts nuts nuts nuts"-guy. Wierd thing though, he doesn't sell peanuts, he doesn't even work there.

Posted by: jason at February 7, 2005 04:40 PM

I've seen the "Nuts nuts nuts nuts nuts"-guy. Wierd thing though, he doesn't sell peanuts, he doesn't even work there.

Posted by: jason at February 7, 2005 04:40 PM

My family had tickets in the loge section from 1962-on. Aisle 149 then 153. First row. Our peanut man? Roger Owens. Back then, the double bags were yellow and red. I think they went for a quarter. My Dad would give me a buck for the game and I'd get a hot dog (35 cents), a bag of peanuts (25 cents), and a frozen chocolate malt (I'm thinking 30 cents). I probably pocketed the remaining 10 cents.

Posted by: Rich at February 7, 2005 04:48 PM

See, it's funny. We were directly opposite from you, Rich - and we never saw Owens. It wasn't until we got to our current seats that we started to get a glimpse of him late in the games. But in the 1970s, before we had Dodger tickets, we had Ram tickets - in fact, my Dad's family got them when they moved from Chicago around 1951, when he was 16. When I went, we sat at or around the 40-yard line and saw Owens often, if I recall correctly.

Green makes a big deal in the book about how it used to be a big part of the job to field the return toss of the quarter - that it was almost as difficult or more difficult than the peanut toss. I guess dollar bills changed that.

I miss the double-bagger peanuts.

Posted by: Jon at February 7, 2005 04:53 PM

Which guy was the one who got fired a few years back for selling his own peanuts (Each vendor gets some free bags they can eat or take home. He was selling them and keeping the profits.) They rehired him after public outcry. Was that the "nuts nuts nuts" guy, or the guy from this article?

Posted by: Jose Habib at February 7, 2005 05:05 PM

Speaking of the Rams football games and other games at the Coliseum (including USC football and Dodger baseball), do you all remember the guy who looked like a relative of Uncle Fester hawking programs? He would shout, "Get your soooo-veneer program" in a very loud, distinguishable voice while holding the program in his left hand and motioning downward in cadence as he repeated his pitch.

I saw him at a game just a couple of years ago. Must have been in his 70s. Don't know what became of him.

Posted by: Rich at February 7, 2005 05:08 PM

I understand what you mean with Will Ferrell, Jason, but I look at that All American Peanuts shot and I can only think, Charles Grodin.

Some wise man suggested a 1950s Tony Dow as the young Roger Owens, but I lack skills to assess the reference.

Posted by: Sam (DC) at February 7, 2005 05:12 PM

I remember the "Get your soooo-veneer program" guy from the Coliseum very well, although I have not seen him since 1982 at the latest. I am surprised that someone saw him as recently as a couple of years ago. I remember being unable to stop laughing every time I heard him make that call.

I also miss the double bagger. It was just the perfect amount of peanuts. The $5 bag they sell now is too big and usually makes me sick (although that does not stop me from eating the whole thing anyway).

Posted by: Tom B. at February 7, 2005 06:02 PM

Well remember Roger, at the stadium, only works
the left field/third base side of the loge level.
That covers approximately from the dodger bullpen to homeplate. So anyone on the right side of the field wouldn't see him in that area.

Roger told me he remembers one vendor who, during
the quarter tossing days of peanut sales, used
to throw a tennis ball cut to look like a piggy bank. The customer would insert the quarters into
the tennis ball and throw it back. Roger, however, said he just preferred catching the quarters out of the air.

As more attention is given to the book, thanks even more to Jon, there has been interest in making it into a film, but no deals or options just yet. It's funny though some of you have mentioned the noticeable resemblance to Will Farrell, mainly during the 1970's. But would Will
be able to handle some of the more dramatic events such as the military jeep accident, or pull off a younger looking Roger??

One possiblity is Matt Damon. Some might disagree, but he does have a resemblance and
has the dramatic and comedy acting chops to pull
it off. Call me idealistic, but Nia Vardulos
from big fat greek wedding could easily be
Roger's Italian mother. As for Ross, Gene Hackman
would add plenty of depth to the strict but caring Baptist father.

Did I forget to spell idealistic with a capital "I"??

That wise man suggested in sam's post was
about right on the money. Roger looked alot
like Tony Dow in the 1950's/early 60's. Tony Dow
played as Wally from Leave it to Beaver.
In fact, that was Roger's nickname, for a while.

Another interesting tidbit, there was supposed
to be a movie done on Roger's life about 30 years ago, possibly starring Beau Bridges or Roger Caan. I don't see it, and glad it wasn't done. Besides, so much more has been added to the story since then.

the surgeon who saved Roger's life in 1969
has just recently heard about the book from what
I've heard from Roger. Dr. Schorn's cousin saw Roger recently and told him he'd send the 80-something retired doctor.

Roger is celebrating his birthday and 1st wedding anniversary on valentine's day. He says
he did that so he has no excuse in forgetting his anniversary.

He is going to appear in a quick scene for an
upcoming Disney show. Look for his site for more on that.

Posted by: Daniel at February 7, 2005 06:48 PM

I think I speak on behalf of all of us when I say "thank you" for that visit, Daniel Green.

Posted by: Suffering Bruin at February 7, 2005 07:19 PM

Yo - regarding Aller, I remember an article that came out several years back in the Times. I find him HILARIOUS. The "Nuts, nuts" chants rank high up there in my childhood memories at Dodger Stadium. Of course like any good peanut vendor, he's still there selling nuts. He'll almost always make a hilarious comment to you if you try to start a conversation.

Posted by: Rick at February 7, 2005 07:21 PM

Now who could be that "wise man" who suggested Tony Dow ... ?

Anyone notice the change in the Google ads above from Dodgers to boiled peanut sales?

Posted by: Jon at February 7, 2005 09:17 PM

Speaking of Dodger peanut vendors...

There was an old-timer that worked seemingly every sporting event in town. The last time I saw him at the Rose Bowl (around 2001) he looked at least 85.

He had a rapid chant of "PeanutPeanutPeanut" almost as if he was calling a horse race. But what always killed me was that around the 7th or 8th inning at Dodger games, to drum up peanut sales, he used to chant, "PeanutPeanutPeanut! Cover up the Beer Breath!" This always cracked me up, no matter how many times I heard him say it...

He used to work not only the Rose Bowl, Dodger Stadium (in the 90s he worked Field Box seats toward the foul pole) but The Forum as well, as I saw him at many Kings games doing his schtick in Inglewood.

Never knew his name, but when I saw him at the Rose Bowl at a Bruin football game he looked like he was on his last bag...

Ring any bells with anybody?

Posted by: Brian at February 7, 2005 09:35 PM

Yes, the "peanut, peanut, peanut" guy looked a bit like Grandpa in The Munsters. I saw him a few years ago.

Aller was a teacher at Compton HS. His favorite movie is Shawshank Redemption. Ask him about it if you have 30 or 40 minutes to spare.

Posted by: Rich at February 7, 2005 09:51 PM

Ah, Rich, you stole my story. Never had a peanut vendor like the one who sold me peanuts, then came up close and said, "You ever see 'The Shawshank Redemption?' That movie changed my life. 'Get busy living - or get busy dying.' ... Peanut peanut peanut!" ...

Posted by: Jon at February 7, 2005 09:59 PM

One story, as mentioned in the book, came from
an L.A. Times staff writer from 1976. Roger remembers it because the fan was a bit of a ham,
trying to prod Roger into tossing peanut bag after peanut bag. Finally, when the guy asked for one more, Roger tore open a bag and took
out a lone peanut and threw it nine rows and right into the guy's open mouth. According
to the columnist, Roger of course got a standing ovation.

Another story, like many stories, is one that Roger remembers after writing the book. At the stadium, a rather well-endowed woman with less than well-endowed hand-eye coordination clapped her hands, missing completely the peanuts hurled
by Roger at her.

They landed quite snuggly in, well, where else, The lady blushed as red as the round Coke sign in the outfield, and she couldn't stop laughing. Immediately, some college-aged guys sitting nearby dropped to their knees and bowed down a la Wayne Garth and chanted "We're not worthy. We're not worthy."

Posted by: Daniel at February 7, 2005 11:15 PM

that would be wayne and garth. sometimes the "&"
does come in handy.

Posted by: Daniel at February 7, 2005 11:20 PM

I'm telling you, if you really want to see Aller get going tell him Secrateriat was the best race horse ever--and stick to your guns. You might be sorry you tried this little experiment but he will tell (yell) you in painful detail why you are wrong. He might even accidentally spit on you as he froths at the mouth but he will stop yelling "NUTS" for a moment. This guy has forgotten more about racing then Mieszerski and Simmers will ever know.

Posted by: at February 7, 2005 11:36 PM

Sorry, that was me.
Also Jon, for all the interest you generate, the Dodgers should comp you club seats.

BTW, has anyone ever sat in the dugout club seats? are they nice--worth it? Something about $200 for a baseball does not seem right, but if the Lakes can get it why should'nt the Dodgers.

Posted by: LAT at February 7, 2005 11:43 PM

My first thought when they got rid of the double-bagger was how the new bags would affect Roger. My best memory of him is a few years back at the California League All Star game in Adelanto. All the teams sent their mascots but the Bakersfield Dodgers didn't have a mascot so the Dodgers sent Roger. He stole the show. I might have thought it would be a drag to travel to the middle of the desert to be part of a group of mostly high school students dressed in bull, squirrel and dinosaur costumes. But Roger said he loved it. He's got a lot of class.

Posted by: Clemens at February 8, 2005 03:55 AM

Thanks to Daniel for stating where Rodger worked. My family usually bought tickets for the right field bleachers or the top deck. That's all we can afford. That's a big reason why I don't remember him clearly, but I guess his influence rubbed off on the other guys in those sections. "Programs here!"

Posted by: Nick at February 9, 2005 10:02 AM