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Scott Mansch: Slugging Lew Olson's baseball legend still shines in Windom

Lew Olson is still a legend in Windom whenever the old-timers talk about baseball.

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WORTHINGTON -- In the 1973 amateur baseball draft, Kansas City used its first-round pick to select a pitcher named Lew Olsen.

It says here the Royals would have been a lot better off selecting Lew OLSON.

“I don’t know about that,” Olson says with a laugh. “I don’t think I was first-round material.”

Ask any longtime baseball fans in our area and elsewhere in Minnesota and here’s the answer one will likely receive: Big Lew had the right stuff, all right.

Olson is a Windom native who grew up to be a marvelous all-around athlete in his hometown. The 1973 Windom High graduate was offered many NCAA II scholarship offers as a football running back and basketball point guard.

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But his game turned out to be the long ball.

“I don’t know why,” he says. “But I loved hitting. It really tripped my trigger.”

Olson played basketball and baseball at Mankato State (now Minnesota State) before developing into a summer slugger for amateur ball teams. First in Windom -- he led the Pirates to several state tournaments in the 1970s -- and then at Dundas.

It was with the Dukes that Olson became a legendary slugger and hard-throwing pitcher.

The cool nights of August -- this time of year -- is when Lew’s thoughts turn to the state tournament.

“That’s when I miss it,” he smiles. “But really, my shoulder’s toast. I can’t throw anymore and my legs are gone. So I don’t even worry about it.”

A swift, slender outfielder when playing for the Pirates, Olson grew into a Killebrew-like slugger while playing at Dundas.

“I knew a bunch of the guys at that time and I was just looking to play with them,” he says. “It wasn’t a conscious decision that I wasn’t going to play in Windom, but more that I wanted to play with those guys.”

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Not a bad decision. In his 11 seasons with Dundas, the Dukes won two state titles (1982 and 1988) and were regarded as one of the state’s best clubs.

In 1982, Lew had a season for the ages. He played in 39 games and belted 36 homers. In the state tournament he went deep three times and also picked up two wins and a save while pitching to earn MVP honors.

What happened that season?

“I don’t know,” he says softly. “It was ridiculous.”

In the state finals against Jordan, Lew was intentionally walked twice. The next time up he homered.

Another time he was in a bar and someone asked Lew if he’d ever hit three homers in one game.

“I say ‘no,’ ” Lew says. Then another smile.

“And the next day I hit three two-run home runs and we won 6-2. And I did that (three homers in one game) three times that summer. But Dundas isn’t a real big park.”

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Well, OK, but homers are homers.

Olson used a 35-inch, 32-ounce bat. He did not choke up, even with two strikes.

“But I did change my approach,” Lew says. “I wasn’t taking a big rip and I didn’t want to over-stride, but I made sure to get my hands moving so if it was a strike I could hit it.”

Because he was fed a steady diet of breaking balls, he learned to hit them -- a long way.

“I can’t really explain it,” he says. “I think I hit 29 my first year in Dundas and high-20s the third year.”

How many total home runs did he hit for Dundas?

“I don’t really know,” Lew says. “I remember those three years, but nothing else.

“I loved to hit.”

Olson’s father, Arnie, played amateur baseball in Windom and other area towns until he was 38. Often, little Lew tagged along and was the bat boy.

“I got exposed to the game a lot and I think I learned a lot, because if you pay attention and you’re around the game that much, there’s stuff you end up doing instinctively just because you’re around the game so much,” he said.

His father was also a gentleman. So when Lew or younger brothers Jay and Jeff were playing ball, complaining to coaches was just not considered.

“He never said a word,” Lew said. “He wouldn’t talk to coaches and ask them this or that. He never said anything about playing time or anything like that.”

Arnie Olson was a lot to be proud of.

“Absolutely,” Lew says.

He considers himself lucky to have grown up in Windom, playing for coaches such as Jack Kelly (baseball, basketball) and Ron Meyer (football).

“Tremendous guys and great athletes,” Olson says. “Ron was one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, and Jack, he had an edge, but if you played for him he’d do anything for you. It didn’t matter if you were a star player or a guy off the bench.”

Lew Olson of Windom never got a chance to play pro ball. He got heavy while slugging homers for Windom and Dundas, and admittedly didn’t have the speed necessary to earn a contract. His size didn’t detract much from his ability to throw the baseball.

A few scouts talked to him over the years. Once he was pitching at Dundas.

“I was 36 years old,” Lew says with a smile. “They had me at 88 mph.”

That’s a few years ago, when arguably the radar guns weren’t as accurate as today. What if Lew had gotten a pro offer?

“It was OK,” he says. “I enjoyed playing ball for a lot of years, for great coaches and with good guys. I made a lot of lifelong friends playing ball.”

These days, Lew is retired. A bachelor, he lives in an RV with his young lab -- spending the spring and summer in Sioux Falls and the winters down south. His folks, Arnie and Delores, are both gone. And so is his younger brother Jay, also a great ballplayer who died far too young at 33 because of heart arrhythmia.

So I know what you’re thinking: What about the Lew Olsen of California, who was picked by the Royals No. 9 overall in the first round of the 1973 amateur baseball draft? He pitched for six seasons in the minor leagues before his career ended because of arm trouble.

Certainly that Olsen has excellent memories. But so does the Lew Olson from Windom, a slugger who should live long in Minnesota amateur baseball lore.

Scott Mansch is a part-time writer for The Globe. He appreciates tips and story ideas and can be reached at smansch5rockets@gmail.com

Scott Mansch photo
Scott Mansch

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