Past, future minor leaguers star for Windom in early 60s
WINDOM -- In February, while "Duke of Earl" by Gene Chandler was the nation's top rock and roll song, John Glenn became the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the earth.
In late October when "Monster Mash" by Bobby "Boris" Pickett and the Crypt-Kickers topped the charts, the Cuban Missile Crisis made headlines day-after day.
It was 1962 and in the summer between being a fifth and sixth-grader, I spent many evenings -- with my dad and my brothers -- at Windom's new baseball field at Island Park.
My heroes included Joe Maras, Milt Nielsen, Arnie Olson, Jack Kelly, Ed Maras, Bob Meyer, Dave Carlson, Art Leger, Jed Dommeyer, Doug Smith, Wes Krahn and Daryle Hanson -- key players for the Windom Gophers of the First Night League.
Yes, in 1962 -- and in 1961 -- Windom's amateur or 'town team' baseball squad was called the Gophers.
Not everyone seems to remember the team being called the Gophers. But my brothers and I do.
I also remember coming to the first game of a new season and hearing that the team's nickname had been changed to the Pirates.
That was 1963 and they have been the Windom Pirates ever since.
Apparently, they had been called the Windom Pirates back in 1936 when the team won a state amateur baseball championship at St. Paul's Lexington Park.
Those '36 Pirates defeated Carlton, Hackensack and Darwin (3-1) to win the Class A title -- which would be equivalent to today's Class B division.
Starring for Windom was Fred Ludtke, who was named the tournament's MVP. Ludtke struck out 21 batters in two games, including a shut-out over Hackensack and the championship victory over Darwin.
Catcher Mike Fury drove in Ludtke with the game-clinching run in that 1936 championship game.
That was Windom's only amateur state championship -- but the Pirates have always been a team to reckoned with and have earned their way to the state tournament six other times, including four trips in the '60s.
Windom played in the state amateur tournament in 1961, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1992 and 1997.
Rags to riches in '61
While my best memories are of the '62 and '63 teams when Joe Maras manned third base, it was the 1961 team that completed an amazing turn-around -- going from last place to league champions.
"We might have been something like 2-14 at one time," recalls Arnie Olson, who was a powerful hitter on that team. "I know that we finished at the bottom of the league standings, but we sure played good baseball in the playoffs and made it all the way to the state tournament."
Olson, a 1947 Windom High School graduate, had played a couple of stellar seasons with St. James in the mid-50s. In 1955, Olson had the best batting average (.329) of any rookie in the highly-competitive Western Minny League.
Olson played first base for Windom in '61 and batted fifth -- behind clean-up hitter Milt Nielsen.
Nielsen, who threw and batted left-handed, played center field -- covering a lot of territory. But it was the plate that Nielsen had a huge impact, driving in many key runs with his timely hitting.
"Milt was a great athlete with power and speed," remembers Windom's Jack Kelly, who became the Gopher player/manager that summer. "He was such a smart hitter, capable of hitting the ball where it was needed, depending upon the situation."
A 1943 graduate of Lake Benton High School, Nielsen had played a lot of baseball in the service before signing a contract with the Cleveland Indians in October of 1945. He spent nine seasons in the minor leagues, starring with Oklahoma City in the Class AA Texas League in 1949 and batted .330.
Nielsen also had a trio of banner seasons in Class AAA in both the Pacific Coast League (.298) and the American Association (.311 and .303) before leaving the Indians' farm system after the 1954 season.
Nielsen had played briefly at the major league level with Cleveland in both 1949 and 1951.
After an injury to his throwing arm ended his chances to return to the majors, Nielsen came back to Minnesota and landed a job at a lumber yard in Windom and later became a car salesman.
For his first six years in Windom, however, Nielsen did his playing in Worthington ('55 and '56) and Fairmont ('57-60), helping the Martins win a state championship in 1959.
Nielsen's presence with the Gophers in '61 was a big reason for Windom's late-season surge through the playoffs.
The team had been humbled by defending state champion Pipestone, 18-3, in June and struggled to find consistent pitching.
But as young Bob Meyer continued to improve and Jed Dommeyer recovered from an injury, the Gophers developed a solid rotation.
Kelly, who had starred for Pipestone in the Indians 1958 state championship run, smacked a grand slam home run in Windom's 10-6 playoff victory over Luverne as the Gophers advanced to meet Fulda -- who had dethroned Pipestone -- for the First Night League championship.
Fulda waxed the Gophers in the first game of the best-of-five series, giving Giant ace Del Koopman plenty of support in an 18-4 victory.
But Windom came back to win the next three, including a 5-3 win in game four. A pinch-hit double by Doug Smith, followed by a successful suicide squeeze bunt by Daryle Hanson plated the decisive runs in the bottom of the eighth inning.
A Slayton native, the right-handed Dommeyer -- who had played basketball for the University of Minnesota in the mid-50s -- twirled a complete game five-hitter for Windom.
Aided by a trio of drafted players -- pitchers Chuck Gageby and Don Bruns from Pipestone, along with Fulda catcher Marv Heinrichs -- the Gophers became an exceptionally well-balanced team with a deep pitching staff.
Gageby had pitched in the minor leagues in the New York Yankee organization, while Bruns had done the same in the Baltimore Oriole farm system.
Heinrichs had played in seven previous state amateur tournaments -- with either his base team or as a drafted agent.
The left-handed Meyer whirled a no-hitter in Windom's 13-0 regional victory over Woodstock. A 1959 Storden High School graduate, Meyer -- who would later pitch in the Twins' farm system -- struck out 11 batters, including eight of the last nine.
Windom pounded out 17 hits in the game, as Kelly and Heinrichs each smacked four.
Art Leger's RBI single in the bottom of ninth lifted the Gophers to an 8-7 win over Fairmont in the next round.
With Gageby pitching a complete game four-hitter (10 strikeouts) and Nielsen belting a towering three-run homer in the first inning, Windom clinched a berth in the '61 state tournament with a convincing 11-0 victory over the Martins in the next game.
The Cottonwood County Citizen and Windom Reporter's banner headline ran:
"Windom Gophers Champions of Region 18B, Complete Rags To Riches Baseball Story"
The starting Gopher line-up and batting order in that regional title game was as follows:
Leger, right field; Dommeyer, left field; Kelly, second base; Nielsen, center field; Olson, first base,; Heinrichs, catcher; Gageby, pitcher; Dave Carlson, shortstop; Wes Krahn, third base.
All nine players scored runs and eight of the nine had hits in that game, including three each by Nielsen and Kelly.
On to St. Cloud for the state tournament, the Gophers represented the area well.
Windom won three of five games, including a 5-0 win over Erskine and a 4-1 victory over Farming, which put the Gophers in the double elimination round.
Gageby tossed a three-hit shutout with 11 K's against Erskine, while Nielsen drove in four runs with a pair of doubles and a home run.
In a game that featured 29 hits, the Gophers lost a wild contest to St. Bonifacius, 19-8. Windom had 12 hits, but its pitching and defense were not what had brought the team to this level.
The Gophers stayed alive, bouncing back with a 3-0 victory over Springfield, but were eliminated by Perham 6-1.
Windom biology teacher Don Dulski -- who would join the Pirates as a catcher in 1963 -- snapped a 1-1 tie in the bottom of the eighth inning when his two-run double gave Perham a 3-1 lead, sparking the game-winning five-run rally.
I never was able to find out what Windom's final won-loss record was in that summer of '61 -- when Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle chased Babe Ruth's home run record -- but those Gophers impressively won numerous games when it counted the most and had a memorable journey through the amateur playoffs.
1962 and a few side notes
Earlier I mentioned third baseman Joe Maras.
The Maras brothers -- Joe and Ed -- were farm kids from north of Windom and were not on the "town team" yet in 1961. But they both played key roles in '62.
Joe, who had been the ace fastpitch softball hurler for the Dale Diggers in a couple of Cottonwood County 4-H championships in '56 and '57, had a cannon at the hot corner.
"Joe could really fire the ball hard," said first baseman Olson. "But the ball came into your mitt light as a feather."
After several more seasons with the Pirates, Joe became well-known as a firing softball pitcher for nearby Delft.
Younger brother Ed, who helped the Windom Eagles to the Region 2 basketball finals in 1962, became a dominant pitcher for the baseball Gophers in '62.
In a playoff game against Luverne, Ed had a no-hitter for eight-and-two-thirds innings before Luverne's Glen Kuechenmeister bounced a solid double off the left field fence. Maras struck out 12 of the 29 batters he faced in Windom's 6-0 victory.
Pipestone defeated the Gophers in the '62 league championship series and went on to its seventh state tournament berth in nine years. The Indians also advanced in 1963 and 1965, giving them nine appearances in 12 seasons -- missing only in 1955, 1961 and 1964.
In 1963, Ed pitched a two-hitter in a 2-0 victory over Fulda with both hits coming off the bat of by Giants' third baseman Butch Clausen -- a single in the second and a double in the eighth. The next year, Clausen helped Westbrook earn a trip to the 1964 State Amateur Tournament. Clausen turns 65 tomorrow.
Ed Maras went on to play both football and baseball at South Dakota State in Brookings. He was the favorite target of Jackrabbit quarterback Ron Meyer -- who later became Windom's high school football coach and played for the Pirates.
Maras signed with the Baltimore Orioles and played his way to AAA as a right-handed pitcher.
"The only reason that Ed didn't make it to the majors, was because he happened to be coming up through the Orioles system at the same time that five future 20-game winners were," said Olson. "Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar and those guys were an awesome staff in the early '70s and Ed Maras was close to becoming one of them."
Olson was the middle link in a family of remarkable baseball skill.
Arnie's father Amo "Punch" Olson was a star pitcher for Storden's "town team"-- once pitching 18 scoreless innings in a game in 1914.
Arnie's sons Lew and Jay starred with the Dundas Dukes amateur team in the 1980s that won state championships in 1982 and 1988.
Lew Olson, who starred for the 1973 Region 2 champion Windom Eagle basketball team, had an amazing season in 1982, hitting 38 home runs in 42 games. Olson played for Dundas from 1981-1994 and had his jersey #8 retired in a ceremony at Dundas on June 24.