Karl Olson was an outfielder who began to show a great deal of promise coming up through the ranks in the Red Sox farm system, until a stint in the military during the Korean War years seemed to derail his career. He was an only child, born on July 6, 1930 in Ross, California.
Karl’s first memories of baseball, though, come from his father hitting him fly balls in one of his aunt’s empty lots that separated the two houses, even though his father was gone for the bulk of the summer month, as a fisherman.
He played in junior high, in American Legion ball, and at Tamalpais High School. He started playing varsity ball as a sophomore. Another future major leaguer, Joe DeMaestri played shortstop and Karl played third base, and the two played together for a number of years. When Joe completed high school, Karl moved over to shortstop. He was a fast runner, specializing in the 220-yard dash in high school and was good at the broad jump and basketball, too.
DeMaestri signed with the Red Sox, and it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that he would sign Karl, too. The minute he knew that he was going to be a ballplayer, or wanted to be a ballplayer, the only team he had an interest in, was the Red Sox.
He graduated from high school in June 1948 and, while still 17 years old, signed a Triple-A contract with the Red Sox affiliate in Louisville. He was sent to San Jose in the California League in time to get into 70 games that year. It was Class C baseball, and he hit .297 in 276 at-bats, and became an outfielder.
In the spring of 1949, Karl went to Florida to train with Louisville and was assigned to play in the Double-A Southern Association with Birmingham. In 77 games, he hit six home runs and had 33 RBIs, but it was his batting average that suffered at .246. He was sent to Single-A Scranton and had a tough time there. He went home after the season and was pretty down on himself because he felt he should have done a lot better. His average was a bit better with Scranton (.259) but he hit just one homer and drove in 35 runs.In 1950, he got sent to Birmingham and that’s where he had one of my better years. Just 20 years old, in his second year with the Barons, he suddenly broke out, batting .321 with 23 homers, 14 triples, and an even 100 RBIs. He played a full season, 545 at-bats in 147 games.
After the 1950 season, His three-year deal with Louisville was up, and it was time to re-sign, though the Korean War was under way and there was concern that a number of players his age might get taken. He was offered another contract, but at a lower salary, despite the excellent year he’d had in Birmingham.
Mike Higgins was the manager in Louisville, so Karl worked under him for the third year in succession in 1951. This was Triple-A now, but after the first 63 games, he was hitting a virtually identical .320 and had accumulated 31 RBIs. For the second year in a row, he was beaten out by Jimmy Piersall for an outfield position. The Red Sox beckoned him up in July and he was in Boston somewhere around a month, just long enough to get pension time in. His first game in a Red Sox uniform was an exhibition game against the New York Giants at Fenway Park, and Olson hit an opposite-field home run into the bullpen in right field. He appeared in five games for Boston, debuting on the last day of June, 1951. With the Red Sox taking first place right after the All-Star break, Olson never got much playing time, with Williams, DiMaggio and Volmer in the outfield. Then he got his induction into the Army and had to go home.
Karl served in the 78th Infantry, stationed at Ford Ord (Salinas, California), for 11 or 12 months. Like many ballplayers, he was placed on a service team. He appeared in 90 games for Fort Ord, but when the team advanced to an all-tournament playoff in Wichita (Olson hit .420 for Fort Ord), he sprained his ankle and was unable to take part. He never saw combat in Korea, and was sent home about a month before his time was up.
There was quite a reception for him the day he returned to the Red Sox, shortly after the 1953 All-Star break, after missing almost exactly two years. He said he considered himself the luckiest guy in the Army because of how often he played baseball and, consequently, never got out of shape. At the time he was taken into the Army, he had been, one of the hottest outfield prospects in the Red Sox organization. But he would never fulfill that promise, and had a hard time playing major-league ball after two years of less competitive play. His average in the 57 at-bats he put together after returning from the service, was a disappointing .123.
The Red Sox were cautiously content to have him back in 1954. He was what was termed a “roster-free participant” because of his time in the service. Ted Williams broke his collarbone on the first day of spring camp in 1954 and so Karl saw a lot of playing time early on. By the time the spring season was over, though, Olson was hitting .300 and had worked in all three outfield positions.
Early in 1954, he hit into a triple play. On April 24th, at Griffith Stadium, he was up in the third inning with runners on first and second. He tried to bunt to advance the runners but popped up to Washington pitcher Mickey McDermott instead. McDermott threw the ball to the shortstop, who doubled off Tommy Brewer at second base, then fired to first to nip Billy Goodman. During the season, he got into 101 games, hitting .260 in 227 times at bat with 20 RBIs.
The Red Sox were hoping that all the time in the service rust had rubbed off and that Karl could contribute in 1955, but he saw much less action. With an outfield of Williams, Piersall, and Jensen, there just wasn’t much work to be had.
After the season, the Red Sox packaged Karl with pitchers Dick Brodowski, Tex Clevenger, and Al Curtis and outfielder Neil Chrisley in a November trade to Washington for infielder Mickey Vernon, pitchers Bob Porterfield and Johnny Schmitz, and outfielder Tommy Umphlett. The Senators projected him as their starting center fielder for 1956.
Karl worked as a milkman or dairy farmer in Oakland during the winter. Just as he was ready to return, he was hospitalized with pneumonia in February and it set him back. He hit .246 in 313 at-bats, with four home runs and 22 RBIs. He began 1957 with Washington, but on the last day of April found himself a Detroit Tiger. He appeared in eight games for the Tigers, with two hits (and one RBI) in 14 at-bats, but after Detroit signed Steve Boros, Karl was sent to the minor leagues.
That was it for him. Though he was signed by Culiacan in the Mexican League in November, it was effectively the end of his career. Things weren’t the same. He really struggled and it was getting to him. His big-league contact was sold to Charleston in the fall of 1957 and because he was no longer enjoying playing, he retired.Karl and his family had moved to the Lake Tahoe area and with his brother-in-law, purchased two hamburger restaurants. The area was more of a seasonal destination at the time, and it was hard work, seven days a week and long hours. During the winters, they closed down the Hamburger Heaven restaurants and Karl did carpentry.
Being just a few days short of the five years’ major-league service time he needed for a pension, he had withdrawn all his pension money. But then a letter arrived informing him that he was being credited the two years he’d been in military service.
Five years in the hamburger business hadn’t brought the Olsons a lot of success, so when a contractor friend learned they were selling out, he invited Karl to come in as a partner in his contracting business. He ended up being a building contractor for 25 years.
Late in life Karl did not spend much time following sports, though he watched the Red Sox and the Giants occasionally. He sold off his construction company and moved back to the Lake Tahoe region, where he enjoyed retirement immensely.
Karl Olson died of a stroke on Christmas Day, 2010, in Reno, Nevada.