Love for the game keeps fastpitch alive in Odin

Written by Bob on July 27th, 2009


By Bob Otto / Writer & Photographer

ODIN, MN – Lou Heller admits that his body aches more than it once did. And that his rise and drop ball pitches don’t “pop” as hard into his catcher’s mitt as they once did.

But never-the-less, the 55-year-old Heller’s love for the sport hasn’t faded as he continues on in his 40th year of playing fastpitch softball. And all 40 of those years Heller has played for only one team and one town: Odin, Minnesota.

Heller’s 40-year playing career is remarkable. But even more impressive is Odin’s legacy in the sport. 2009 marks the 59th consecutive year of men’s fastpitch softball in the little village with a population of 125 located in the southwestern part of the state.

And the Heller name has been linked with the team for most of Odin’s impressive run. Before Lou, another Heller graced the lone softball diamond in Odin: Lou’s older brother Gerry.

“Odin has had a fastpitch softball team every year since 1950,” said Bob Harder, a retired Odin player himself. Harder is also the part-time game announcer and team’s historian. He has kept detailed records of the team’s and its players’ exploits over the years. “Gerry has played for Odin since 1968,” Harder said. “He has played for the team for 37 of those 59 years.”

    HELLERS FOR OVER 100 YEARS

Since 1968, Lou and Gerry have a combined 87 years of lacing up the spikes for Odin men’s fastpitch. And before Gerry and Lou, their dad, Gerald, played in the 1950s. And both had sons who played for a while with their dads. That’s three generations of Hellers wearing the Odin colors for over 100 years.

While other teams in southern Minnesota have folded, Odin continues to survive. Well, not just survive. But thrive. Thrived as in claiming state championships and playing in many Amateur Softball Association (ASA) and North American Fastpitch Association (NAFA) national tournaments.

Harder’s records reveal some amazing numbers: From 1972 through 2008, Odin has played in the Minnesota state ASA tournament for 36 consecutive years. And in 1978 and 1982, Odin took home the state championship trophies.

Along with those two state championships, Odin has also claimed two runner-up spots; two thirds; and five fourth place finishes. And during an 18 year period from 1977 to 1994, Odin carved out an enviable 240-43 record in league play, winning 17 league championship during that incredible run.

And in 2007 Odin finished second in the 32-team NAFA “A” Major World Series Championship at Des Moines, Iowa with a 6-2 record. And Lou Heller was named as a first team All World pitcher. And his pitching partner, Justin Davis, claimed the Most Valuable Pitcher award.

So how is it that this little village with but a few streets nestled in a grove of trees in the middle of thousands of acres of corn and soybean fields survive and thrive in the sport?

While cities, such Long Beach, Lakewood, Riverside, and San Bernardino, California – with millions in population from which to choose and hone ball players – have seen men’s fastpitch wither and die?

    LEADERS KEEP GAME GOING

Odin fastpitch carries on, say Harder and Heller, because of the commitment of a few outstanding men. Outstanding leaders, who refused to allow the team to fold.

“Lou (Heller) has kept it going by managing and pitching,” Harder said. “But there are many people responsible for keeping it going. Vern Meyers was the player / manager for most of the 1950s. And during the 1960s Butch Nordby was a player / manager and he was responsible for keeping it going and playing for 21 years.”

In other words, former players always stepped up to manage and lead when the current manager decided to retire. But one player / manager in particular stuck around for a long time.

As a 16-year-old, Lou Heller remembers Lloyd Carlson talking to him about the many fine virtues of fastpitch softball. Carlson sold Lou and Gerry on the game and soon they were penciled in as the team’s shortstop and second baseman.

A look at Harder’s records shows that Carlson played for 30 years (1961 through 1990) and also wore the manager’s cap for most of the 1970s and ‘80s.

“In 1969 Lloyd asked Gerry and me to play,” Lou Heller said. “I played (American) Legion baseball, and Lloyd (encouraged) me to come along with Gerry to practice, so I tagged along. Lloyd was the one that kept the team going, and Bob (Harder) was our go to guy when we needed help (with sponsorship.) He’s supported the team ever since I started playing.”

    HELLERS LOYAL TO ODIN

Both players could have easily left Odin for greener pastures. Gerry, a shortstop, is a Minnesota state softball Hall of Fame member. In the 1981 ASA Class “A” National Tournament, Gerry hit home runs in five consecutive games and was selected as an All-American. And he also was named first and second team ASA All American in the Over Age 40 division.

And Lou, a fleet-footed, sure-handed second baseman, who began pitching at the age of 32, could have moved on to bigger and better teams as well. Others have done it, why not the Hellers?

Lou said it was great playing alongside his brother, turning more double plays than he can remember. And winning close games against bigger teams with bigger budgets. But when it came down to staying true to Odin, loyalty was the key.

“I got that influence from Lloyd (Carlson), that it’s important to keep your team going,” Heller said. “I’ve seen so many teams fold after their pitcher, or (key) players left for other teams. And I didn’t want that to happen to Odin.”

    BALL DIAMOND WITH HUGE HISTORY

The Odin ball diamond lies on the south side of the village nestled in the corner where Plum Street and County Road 19 meet. Across County Road 19, a farmer’s field of dark green, waste-high corn rustles in an afternoon breeze.

Beyond the left field fence is a farm with a barnyard where a long-horned steer bellows. And where Gerry Heller hit many of his 550 career home runs, while playing in about 2,500 games according to Harder’s records.

Old style wooden bleachers show their wear from 59 years of use. The backstop is an old style metal and screen configuration that towers above home plate. And just beyond the backstop and the bleachers is a red, 15-foot high, rectangle announcer’s booth where Harder broadcasts Odin ball games.

    FIERCE COMPETITION

Ron Olson lives across the street from the ball diamond. He and his brother, Roger, grew up in Odin and at one time both men played for the team. Ron recalls times when the ball field came alive with tense games and never-forgotten pitching duels between the likes of Odin’s Swede Winkelman and Ormsby’s Windy Olson.

“The competition was fierce between Odin and Ormsby,” Ron Olson said. “Windy Olson (no relation) was good and so was Swede.”

Roger Olson remembers times when teams from neighboring towns such as St. James, Ormsby, Darfur, Windom, and Butterfield invaded the village to challenge the Odin boys in league and tournament games.

“The 4th of July was a big tournament,” Roger Olson said. “We always had big crowds that parked their cars up and down the street and all the way around the outfield. The bleachers would be filled. Fastpitch was the heart of the town.”

    THE FUTURE

But what does the future hold for Odin fastpitch? Heller says he’s got one or two good years left. Then what? He says that he along with player / manager, Kurt Hanson, stay on the look out for young ball players.

Odin plays in the Mankato Key City League and carries about 20 players on its roster – many of them young and getting a taste of the game.

“For about the past 10 years, Kurt has recruited players for his (age) 23-Under team for the nationals,” Heller said. “He helps out recruiting young players and he talks to young players at tournaments. In the league we have the kids playing. We want to get them involved.”

    FOND MEMORIES

When Heller looks back over his 40 years in the game, many fond memories surface: The huge crowds that once lined the entire ball diamond during the Odin 4th of July tournament. Seeing his brother hit a monster 345-foot home run (a grand slam that landed over the hay shed, said Harder) over the left-centerfield fence that old timers still talk about. Pitching to his brother on the Odin ball diamond during Gerry’s retirement ceremony – so that Gerry could hit one final home run for his Odin fans.

Winning those two Minnesota state championships are near the top of his list. And he remembers fondly school buses filling up with Odin fans to accompany the team on long rides to state and national tournaments.

Hundreds of players have worn the Odin uniform over these 59 years and Heller doesn’t want to be the one to turn out the lights on the sport in Odin. For now though, he has the same energy and the same love for the game as he did when Carlson first recruited him as a 16-year-old.

“I guess I will have to quit when my body tells me it can’t go on anymore,” Heller said. “But I still love the game. I still get into the games.”

And that love and devotion has kept Odin men’s fastpitch softball alive for 59 years.

Bob Otto
botto3@verizon.net

5 Comments so far ↓

  1. Brian Looft says:

    I played ball for twenty plus years and always looked forward to playing in Odin, Mn. For two reasons. 1) You knew when you went there, they were putting a 100% effort to beat you. 2) The Odin ballpark & fans, second to none!!
    Lou & Gerry are top notch ballplayers but more importantly, top notch people. My hats off to them and the great fastpitch town of Odin, MN.
    ~Brian Looft

  2. Bob says:

    I played in the Southern Star League back in the early 70s and played against Odin a time or two, but never had played at their ball park. So when I drove there in June it was an honor to stand on the field where so many had dedicated their fastpitch playing days to keeping a storied tradition alive. And one of those 550 home runs that Gerry hit was off me in a game played at St. James in ’73 I believe. A high soaring shot way over the centerfield fence. Guys like the Hellers, Bob Harder, Lloyd Carlson, and Butch Nordby are the reason the sport continues. If only we could clone them.

  3. Nate says:

    Odin claimed the state this year with a 4-0 record

  4. Bob says:

    Odin just keep rolling along racking up the wins and the state titles, along with creating an enviable legacy.

  5. Alan Hansen says:

    I spent many great days and nights watching those great Odin teams from the ate 1950’s through the late 1980’s! I am always proud to tell people that I am from Odin!! Played one game for them in a pre-season game. Got hit by the pitch three times. It hurt, so I went back to slow-pitch! Carry on guys!

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