Olson recalls baseball days of old
A twinkle still comes to Karl Olson’s eyes as he recalls a time when he was one of the boys of summer.
To Olson, who spent five seasons with the Boston Red Sox, Washington Senators and Detroit Tigers in the 1950s, those are times long gone. Now 71 and living in Zephyr Cove, he prefers to come out with his wife, Pat, and watch their grandsons play ball. Or to simply enjoy the views of Lake Tahoe and Carson Valley, their home for more than 40 years.
“We try not miss any of their games,” Olson said last Tuesday while at Douglas High School to watch his oldest grandson, Erik Olson, play first base for the Tigers against McQueen. “We’ve been watching Erik since Little League. We’ve watched him grow up and now he’s got his brother, Keith, coming behind him. Keith is 13, I think he’s already 6-3. I wouldn’t be surprised if he hits 7 feet.”
This is a man who enjoys talking about his family more than himself. Olson had a major league career that spanned 279 games between 1951 and ’57. There would have been more games except he had to swap his Red Sox uniform for that of the U.S. Army and the Korean War between the end of the 1951 season and late in the ’53 season.
Olson might also have seen more time on the diamond if he hadn’t faced the challenge of trying to crack an outfield in Boston that featured Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio, Jimmy Piersall and later Jackie Jensen. He has no regrets about that, though. Nor was there any hesitation when he signed with the Red Sox after his 1948 graduation from Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley, Calif.
His idol, after all, was Ted Williams.
“Ted Williams helped me a lot. It was quite a privilege playing with that man,” Olson said. “He really was something else. He had the quickest pair of hands that I’ve ever seen and his eyes were just … he could count the stitches on the ball when it came in. He’d be sitting there on the bench telling us to look for this and look for that. We’d be having problems keeping up and listening to him.”
Olson spent his first minor league season in San Jose, then split time in ’49 between Scranton and Louisville. He hit .321 with 25 home runs for Birmingham in 1950 and got his call up to the Red Sox late in ’51.
His best year in Boston was 1954, when he played 101 games, batted .260 (59-for-227) with 12 doubles, two triples, one home run and 20 RBIs. He was also credited with 10 assists as an outfielder.
Olson was traded to the Senators as part of a nine-player deal after the 1955 season. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound right-hander made his Washington debut on April 17, 1956 and it was a memorable one.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, an avid baseball fan, threw out the first ball that day at Griffith Stadium. Don Larsen of the New York Yankees opposed Camilo Pascual of the Senators in a matchup of quality pitchers. This was a time when batting helmets were still optional. And Olson was the starting center fielder for Washington.
“I went 3-for-5 with two home runs,” Olson said. “Of course, Mickey Mantle hit a couple of pretty good ones, too.”
Mantle hit a solo home run over the center field wall in the first inning that landed on the roof of a building across Fifth Street — an estimated distance of 465 feet away. Then in the sixth, Mantle hit a three-run home run over the center field wall, a 438-foot shot in a game the Yankees won 10-4.
“That was the highlight of my career,” Olson said of his opening day performance. “President Eisenhower threw out the first ball, so that was a thrill. It would have been more fun to win, but it was still quite an experience.”
Mantle went on to win the Triple Crown that year: he hit .353 with 52 home runs and 130 RBIs to lead the American League in each of those categories. At the end of that ’56 season, Larsen pitched his historic perfect game in Game 5 of the World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Olson wasn’t quite so fortunate because an injury limited him to 106 games that season (he batted .246 with four home runs and 22 RBIs). He played eight games for the Senators in 1957 then was traded to the Detroit Tigers.
“At the end of 1957 they sold my contract to the minor leagues,” Olson recalled. “I didn’t feel like going back. We had three boys, so I figured it was time to get something else going and see what the real world was about.”
The Olson family moved to Lake Tahoe’s South Shore in 1959 and went into the restaurant business.
“We had two restaurants — Hamburger Heavens — one at the Y and the other in Bijou, so we slung hamburgers there for about five or six years,” Olson said. “It was tough because in those days, it was strictly tourism up at the lake, so we’d work seven days a week, 16-18 hours a day for four or five months and then blow it all in the winter. Nobody would come up in the winter, except for maybe Washington’s Birthday or times like that. Otherwise you could shoot a shotgun down Highway 50.”
The Olsons moved to the Carson Valley in 1967 and Karl took up a new profession as a general contractor.
“I think I was the fourth contractor down here,” he said. “Look at how this area has changed.”
His sons all grew to become standouts at Douglas High. Erik’s father, Cary, played for the Tigers’ 2A state championship basketball in 1972 and has been inducted into the school’s Basketball Hall of Fame. Terry was a four-sport star at Douglas who later played baseball for a brief time in the Texas Rangers organization. Jerry played basketball and baseball for the Tigers.
Now, Erik is finishing up a senior year in which he has played football, basketball and baseball. He was an all-league selection as a wide receiver in football and forward in basketball.
“He’s got a good glove and good hands,” Olson said of his grandson. “Any sport he’s in, he plays hard. He’s a good inspirational guy to have around.”
Karl Olson is doing quite well himself, too.
“I’ve been very fortunate. I still go hunting with Jerry,” he said. “I bring a a trailer up to Gerlach and park it three months out of the year, so I spend quite a bit of time up there. But I’m not a killer anymore, I don’t get many birds. I’ve had my share of that anyway. I just have a lot of fun just going out walking and using Jerry’s dogs.”
Does he still follow major league baseball?
“Not so much anymore,” Olson said. “I don’t know, it’s just a different atmosphere and most of the old-timers I talk to, they kind of have the same feeling. I think we played for the fans, and I don’t think these guys are playing for the fans anymore. Really, they’re more concerned with how many millions they’re making.”
Even the game itself seems different.
“Baseball was different then. We had eight teams in the American League and eight teams in the National League,” he said. “There are great players now, but it was like a different caliber. There wasn’t the specialty. A pitcher would go out and throw eight, nine innings. You had relievers, but not like you have now. You have the long relievers, you have the set-up men, and then you’ve got a guy who will pitch the eighth inning and then you got your finisher to come in to pitch the ninth. There wasn’t anything like that in those days. It was just good old knock down, hard baseball.”
Then that twinkle in his eye returned.
“Watching Mickey Mantle and all those guys … Brooks Robinson … there were great players in those days,” Olson said. “It was really a privilege just to have played.”