“Hope springs eternal.” The phrase is dusted off every year around the time of baseball spring training, when grass turns green, days grow longer and ballplayers begin to stretch their underused limbs.
Hope can continue to spring, if not eternally, at least into your 80s, as Dean Larson continues to demonstrate. The Topekan plans to take to the freshly mowed ball fields again this year — just as soon as state and local orders permit seasons to begin amid the coronavirus pandemic — and despite recently turning 81, he doesn’t plan to hang up his glove and cleats any time soon.
Larson continues to add to an impressive list of accomplishments that include a couple of softball world championships and recent inclusion in the Minneapolis (Kansas) Sports Hall of Fame, dedicated to preserving the sports history of North Ottawa County.
Larson is a graduate of Ada High School, which in 1965 was consolidated into Minneapolis High School. He was notified of his inclusion in the hall of fame earlier this year, and was scheduled to be inducted at a ceremony May 23 in Minneapolis.
A standout basketball player at Fort Hays State from 1958-62, Larson is already in the university’s hall of fame. He played competitive amateur basketball in Topeka for years while raising two children with his wife, Sharon.
Although he loved the outdoors and remained physically fit as retirement drew close, softball wasn’t exactly on Larson’s radar. Not until, one day, he received an unexpected invitation.
“In 2004, a guy asked me if I would have any interest in playing ‘senior softball,’ ” Larson recalled. “I said, ‘What’s senior softball?’ ”
The invitation sparked a new passion that sends Larson around the country, competing in senior tournaments. He is a mainstay in Topeka’s Senior Men’s Monday Softball League 60+ that plays at Felker Park.
Larson is a big believer in the importance of physical activity, and he saw softball as a chance to compete again.
“You’ve got to be physically active, whether that’s walking on a treadmill or lifting weights or whatever you can do,” he said. “You can keep yourself physically able for a lot longer in your life if you’ve got yourself in good condition.”
The Topeka league was just the beginning.
In 2009, a man was scouting for players for a 70-and-over team in Kansas City. He saw Larson play and recruited him for his traveling team made up of players from the Midwest. This team plays in the Kansas City Metro Senior Softball League, which is the largest league in the nation for senior softball. So in 2009, Larson added practicing and competing with this Kansas City team to his routine.
Larson plays primarily shortstop and third base for these teams, and he made enough of a name for himself that his services were sought in 2016 by an elite outfit from the Illinois side of St. Louis called the Illinois Senior Redbirds. The manager asked him to play with that team in a tournament in Florida. That got him started playing with that team in the 75-and-over bracket in national tournaments.
And this past summer, the Illinois Senior Redbirds staked their claim as the best 75-and-over team in the nation, with Larson as one of the catalysts.
In June 2019, they went to the Quad Cities Softball Players Association (SPA) tournament in Iowa and won it. Then they went to Columbus, Ohio, in early August and won the SPA World Championship. Larson was named MVP.
In September, they went to Dalton, Ga., where they won the SPA World Series of Softball. The Redbirds were the first team to ever win both championships in the same year.
Although he now is 81, Larson may continue to play with the 75-year-old bracket Redbirds. He said there are fewer 80-and-over teams.
Larson plays about 14 games a year in Topeka, plus about 50 games a year in Kansas City. Add in tournaments around the country, and Larson plays more than 100 games a year.
All that requires a very understanding spouse.
“Sharon goes with me for every trip. She’s been a big sports fan all her life, and she helps me keep it all going,” he said.
Larson is not the only 80-year-old Topekan for whom hope springs eternal. Other octogenarians in the league last year included Deane Burgess, Dave Cairns, Dick Edington, Harold Harris and Tom Ortiz.
“We’re all very thankful that we have physical abilities to do this, because we all have friends that are our age, or even younger, that have trouble walking or doing what they would like to do,” Larson said. “We understand that God has given us good fortune of being able to still be playing softball at our ages.”
Larson was named after “Dizzy” Dean, a St. Louis Cardinals pitching phenom in the 1930s. Larson lived out a dream of playing in the major leagues recently by twice attending the Kansas City Royals fantasy camp. One year, he pitched an inning of a game against former Royals players from the 1985 World Series-winning team. He gave up two hits, but didn’t allow a run.
“I was chosen by Dennis Leonard to pitch the first inning. I felt real good that I was able to get through that inning without them scoring a run.
“To have the fantasy of being able to play on a major league team was really unusual. Each day we spent a couple of hours with the former players. They made it a lot of fun. There were guys of all ages, 25 and up. To be somewhat competitive at my age, I felt good about that.”
Larson hopes to be back on the field this year, and every year for the foreseeable future.
“As long as I’m physically able, I’d like to keep this up. I feel like my ability is good enough to keep playing. I think my mental ability is there. So I’d like to keep doing it as long as I can.”