For the Olson’s and Duluth, a thriving time of men’s fastpitch

Written by Bob on December 27th, 2016

1988 ASA NATIONAL CHAMPION DULUTH STEWART TAYLOR PRINTING. Top from left: Dick Olson Manager, Jim Olson, Randy Hill, Mike Thomas, Brian Langeland, Corey Thomas, Paul Friesen, Brad Emanuel and Tom Olson. Bottom from left: Jerry Strange, Mike Morrissey, Bill Olson, Clay Kerr and Casey Frank. Team helper Mitch. Courtesy Photo

DULUTH, Minn. – Once upon a time a man could stand in the center of Minnesota and point to the east, west, north or south and as surely as the sun rises and sets, men’s fastpitch was being played in most cities and small towns of the state’s 87 counties.

That was the thriving times of the 1960s to 1980s.

Owatonna, St Paul, Minneapolis and Mankato? Booming. Winona and Rochester? Hot beds.

Scandia, Hastings, Red Wing, Lake Crystal, Wanamingo, St. James and Geneva? Teeming with teams, leagues and tournaments.

And up in the northern reaches of the state snuggled up to the western shore of Lake Superior, the game in Duluth was at its peak. That was back when Bill Olson started playing in 1973, barely a teenager.

“I started at 13 at Ordean Jr. High School,” said Olson, 56. “That was when they had fastpitch in the junior high schools. There were a lot of good teams in my era.”

    A DULUTH DYNASTY

Olson played for some of the finest teams Duluth has ever produced, including Stewart Taylor Printing that won the 1988 ASA Class A national championship.

The ball club also took a second and third in class A, and finished as high as seventh in the ISC World Tournament. And in Olson’s final year, 1997, he helped Duluth’s VCS bring home the runner-up in the ASA Class A nationals.

All this success on the national stage proved that the cold northern climes – more known for its insatiable appetite for hockey – could produce top-level fastpitch talent, outstanding teams and leagues.

“When we started playing in the 1970s, there were leagues in Duluth, Cloquet, Superior, Silver Bay, Buffalo House and Jackson Field,” Olson said.

Olson recalls a few of Duluth’s best hurlers, such as Don Olson (no relation), Bobo Johnson, Larry Sillanpa, Ralph Poppe and Stu Morrison of Cloquet.

“Stu was tough to hit,” Olson said. “We learned how to hit a rise ball because of him. If you didn’t swing above it, you were never going to hit it. Then he would come with a high drop that looked like a rise, but then it snapped down hard. On top of it all, he was fast. No doubt, one of the best pitchers we faced growing up.”

    DULUTH LEGENDARY FASTPITCH FAMILY

When old-timers reminisce about the great Duluth teams and players of the past, the Olson name is sure to pop up. Bill, brothers Jim and Tom, and the boys’ father Richard, carved out quite a legacy, playing collectively for over 100 years.

All four were on that 1988 Stewart Taylor championship team, making it an unforgettable and cherished experience.

“Winning the national championship with my two brothers and dad coaching was probably the highlight of our fastpitch lives together,” Olson said, while fondly remembering his teammates that made it all possible: Randy Hill, Mike Thomas, Brian Langeland, Corey Thomas, Paul Friesen, Brad Emanuel, Jerry Strange, Mike Morrissey and Clay Kerr.

Along the way, the Olson’s collected a sizeable share of accolades. Richard was inducted into the Minnesota Softball Hall of Fame in 1998 for his many years of managing and sponsoring teams, while Tom and Bill have a trophy case full of awards.

Tom played for two ASA national champions, Stewart Taylor and Mankato Happy Chef (1995) where he was selected an All-American. Tom also played for a NAFA national champion in 1991.

Much like his father, Tom coached, leading the INT Primary hockey team to back-to-back national championships in 1990 and 1991. A versatile athlete, Tom helped Twins Bar of Duluth claim the touch football national title in 1983.

    TEAM USA MEDAL WINNER

However, Bill’s fastpitch feats rank with the best Minnesota has ever seen: ASA Class A titles with Stewart Taylor and Happy Chef; ASA All-American twice in class A and once in the ASA Major division, and he was the NAFA Most Valuable Player with a .780 batting average in leading his team to the 1993 NAFA World Series title.

USA NATIONAL TEAM members, Rick Minton, Trent Rubley and Bill Olson. Courtesy Photo

Olson also played for the USA National Team, taking the Silver Medal in the 1991 Pan American games where he batted. .330. And in 1994, he played in the Olympic Festival in St. Louis.

Dan Nessler, former Happy Chef player / manager knows Olson well. The two anchored the middle infield with Olson at second base and Nessler at shortstop when Happy Chef won its ASA national title.

“Bill was a great player for Happy Chef in that championship run,” Nessler said. “He was a major impact player for Stewart Taylor Printing with brothers Jim and Tom. He was a very heady player that knew how to compete and win big games.”

Like Tom, Bill excelled at other sports. In high school, he starred in baseball and basketball, and at Bemidji State University, he was the captain and MVP of the baseball team his senior year in 1986.

But when college baseball came to an end, fastpitch took center stage in a career spanning 25 years.

    RELIVING GREAT TIMES

Memories? He’s got a few.

There’s the time that Penn Corp of Sioux City, Iowa (four-time International Softball Congress World Tournament champions) invited Stewart Taylor for a weekend series. Seems they wanted to get a good look at pitcher David Meyer and his acclaimed change-up.

“The pitch that everyone had trouble hitting was his change rise ball,” Olson said. “It was an optical illusion. When Penn Corp brought us down to play them, we found out that they filmed David to pick up his change-up. They had video of him puffing his cheeks when he threw that pitch.”

It apparently paid off as ISC Hall of Famer, Bill Boyer, hit a home run off Meyer to beat Stewart Taylor, 1-0, in a national tournament, added Olson.

1985 was a special year in Olson’s scrapbook. Stewart Taylor had qualified for the ASA Class A national tournament. But would they be able to go?

“We were a bunch of 20-plus-year-olds when we won the regional tournament in Sioux Falls, South Dakota,” Olson said. “We were told that we had to decide if we were going to go to Bakersfield, California for the national tournament. We almost didn’t go, thinking we didn’t have the money and didn’t stand a chance.”

Well, young Stewart Taylor embarked on the westward journey and finished runner-up to LTV Trucking of Michigan. That strong standing infused the team with confidence.

“That is when we knew we belonged at the top of ASA Class A ball,” Olson said.

Olson played for Stewart Taylor from 1982 to 1993 mostly in the infield, but he toed the rubber, too, winning over 200 ball games.

After the team disbanded, he spent the 1994 season with the Sting of Shelbyville, Indiana, helping the team win ASA and ISC state championships. But the following year he returned to Minnesota and signed on with Happy Chef, and was an integral cog in its national championship run.

Those days are long gone now and unfortunately fastpitch isn’t what it once was in Duluth. Teams and leagues have trimmed down or completely disappeared. So Olson is grateful to have played in the boom times.

And he wouldn’t change a thing regarding the countless hours practicing, the thousands of miles driving to leagues and tournaments, the time spent away from precious other pursuits, all for fastpitch.

“That is what we lived for and that is what we loved,” he said. “Fastpitch softball!”

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