Thanking Roger Nelson for a fastpitch career

Written by Bob on March 1st, 2012

WANAMINGO, MN – Yesterday, I found an old friend that I lost touch with 45 years ago. Roger Nelson. Every week I visit the website of my hometown newspaper the News Record, searching for the latest news in Wanamingo, Minn. Sadly, that’s where I found Roger.

Roger was my first fastpitch softball manager. He launched me on my way to a 34–year pitching career. Roger took a chance on me when I was 15 years old. He started a team of high school kids with a few older guys mixed in. That very first year in 1965 we were awful. My pitching was awful. We went 0-10 in the six-team Wanamingo Fastpitch League.

Throwing a strike was about as hard as making a half-court shot in basketball. I just could not find the strike zone. A few of my teammates – mainly the older guys – grew impatient with my shortcomings. They thought there was no hope for this greenhorn.

Roger would just put his hand on my shoulder and tell me not to worry.

“Just keep throwing the ball, it’ll get better,” he promised.

My catcher soon grew tired of chasing after wild pitches ricocheting off the backstop. Not that I blame him. He suggested that it might be better if I went back to playing third base. But Roger would hear nothing of it. I was his pitcher and everybody else could shut up and deal with it. He was the manager.

So with Roger’s encouragement I kept throwing and taking my lumps, and practicing. He told me to throw 100 pitches a day. And I did. Hurling pitch after pitch against the block wall on our red, dairy barn. Soon I get better. So much so, that the next year we won the league championship.

But that first year, I was ready to quit. Had it not been for Roger, encouraging and pushing me to stay out there on the rubber, I just may have given up.

After that second-year pitching for Roger and John Deere, I went on to pitch for R&R Bar in Hampton. And that was all Roger’s doing. The R&R manager needed a second pitcher, and Roger told him about me. I still remember his phone call.

“Bobby, there’s a team in Hampton that needs a pitcher and I told them about you,” he said. “Would you like to pitch for them?”

I was flabbergasted because I knew R&R played in the tough Red Wing League. It was a much higher league than Wanamingo. I was thrilled for the opportunity. And it was all because of Roger. He was looking out for me, and he believed that I had the ability to compete at that level. So I told him yes, I would love to pitch for R&R.

Fresh out of high school, I needed a job, and Roger found me one driving a portable farm feed mill. I pitched for R&R the summer of 1967, and then enlisted in the Marine Corps.

It was then that Roger and I parted ways. After my four-year enlistment, I went off to college at Mankato State University (now, Minnesota State). Soon after graduation, I moved to California. I never saw Roger again. Which now I deeply regret.

There’s something else you should know about Roger Nelson. He was one great salesman. A man with a ready smile and a smooth talkin’ way. He talked the John Deere dealership in Wanamingo into sponsoring his rag-tag outfit.

He also finagled some sporting goods company out of a bunch of softball equipment.

I remember him glowing and saying, “I got a great deal!”

He had balls and bats and gloves and pants. He had piles of stuff. I needed a glove and he gave me one. For this poorly teenage kid who couldn’t afford one, it was like Christmas. And Roger was Santa Claus.

Roger Nelson, the man who put the first game ball in my hand and pointed the way to the pitching rubber, passed away on February 21. He was 76. He will certainly be missed. But Roger was more than just a softball guy. Much more.

I learned from Roger’s obituary in the News Record that he and his wife Henrietta raised five children, Scott, Cynthia, Michael, Laurel, and Amy. But Roger and Henrietta were also foster parents for 25 years. Hundreds of children benefited from their kindness. That doesn’t surprise me because the Roger I knew was a caring person.

As for fastpitch softball, Roger’s teams never won any state or regional or national championships. He just loved the game for the time he was in it. I’m guessing about 10 years.

Piggy backing my pitching career, I went on to write and photograph about the sport for over 20 years. If Roger hadn’t insisted “you’re my pitcher,” on that John Deere team way back in 1965, the writing, the photography, and writing a book about the sport, We Play It Fast, most likely wouldn’t have happened either.

But thanks to Roger, it did.

5 Comments so far ↓

  1. Pat Stenzel says:

    That was a great story! I think you should print it out and mail it to his wife and his family! What a great tribute you wrote about him!

  2. bob thurmes says:

    Bob ,great to hear about your friend Roger Nelson helping and coaching you and being such a great friend i know you can’t ever replace him but you can always drift back and remember such gret times with him. loved you shared this thanks bob

  3. Laurel Schacht says:

    Oh my. Roger was my dad. My daughter is working on a family culture project and Googled his name and found this wonderful article. It means so much that you took time to randomly share this about my dad. He truly loved softball – never missed any of my girl’s game. God Bless your kindness…he and Henrietta are both gone now – but will be remembered forever. Laurel(Nelson) Schacht, Rochester, MN.

  4. Ann Noonan Nice says:

    Thank you so much for your beautiful words about Roger. He’s my uncle. Hennritta is my mom’s sister. They were two of the sweetest people I New. Love hearing the story’s I will keep close to my heart and share with family.
    Thank you again

  5. Bob says:

    You are very welcome, and yes they were great people, and I’m better for having gotten to know Roger. He sure helped my fastpitch career! And got me my first post-high school job.

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