“The Effect of Baseball on the Development of the Community of Norway, Iowa”
Presented at the 23 Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture
Approximately twenty minutes, by car, west of Cedar Rapids, Norway, Iowa, is a town with a population that has only rarely exceeded 700 residents since 1900, yet has produced four major league players and twenty Iowa high school state baseball champions. The first, Hal Trosky, led the American League in Runs-Batted-In in 1936, and was followed by his son Hal Trosky, Jr., who made two appearances for the Chicago White Sox in 1958. Bruce Kimm became the primary catcher for Detroit Tiger rookie Mark “The Bird” Fydrich in 1976, and Mike Boddicker spent more than a decade on major league mounds before he retired in 1992.
Baseball in Norway, however, has always been much more than those four major leaguers. The high school program, which ended in 1992 when the state directed regional consolidation of some of the smaller schools such as Norway, won twenty Iowa titles in baseball between 1965 and 1991. The town team continues, as of 2011, to play a full Iowa Valley League schedule every summer, but it is the only relic of a community baseball program that began in the nineteenth century.
Since Norwegian immigrant Osman Tuttle founded Norway, Iowa – originally little more than a railstop in the midst of Iowa farmland – in the mid-1800s, the game of baseball infused the town with a shared, community identity, and the relationship between village and sport grew more inextricable across the succeeding decades.
The introduction of organized scholastic baseball in 1906 provided an additional opportunity for fathers and sons to form and share a sporting legacy, and provided Norway a degree of national notoriety when the tiny school won twenty state baseball championships before succumbing to state-imposed consolidation in 1992.
The mosaic of American history is filled with small farm and railroad towns like Norway, frontier communities built on an ethic of personal initiative and hard work. What makes Norway unique, though, is the role of baseball in the lives of the citizens, and how the seasons of a simple game have marked, shadowed, and paralleled the maturing of the community. As Shona Frese, curator of the Iowa Baseball Museum of Norway, has stated, “To study Norway baseball history is to study Norway history.”
Community, the noun, may evoke images of congenial, neighborly relationships, children growing up together, parents united by the shared objective of raising families in a “decent” place. This vision, often a product of literary reference and a touch of nostalgic amnesia, is rarely realized in towns or cities of any size, from the tiny hamlets of fewer than one hundred residents to megalopolis’ of millions.
But even if the gauzy, unrealistic image of small town community is rarely adequate to describe the real complexities of relationships among individuals, there have been instances in the growth of the United States of America in the Twentieth century in which events drive the development of a collective ethos, a shaping force strong enough to shade the physical borders with an umbrella of ‘community’. It is that ethos which, nurtured across generations, can build identity within towns, within communities, and which foster legacies that become emotional touchstones for past, present, and future residents.
Norway, Iowa, is one such community. If there were a single word to serve as both subject and predicate to describe the small village of fewer than 700 people, it is ‘baseball’. As the long-time residents have often repeated, “Norway is baseball. Baseball is Norway.” The game, as much as the railroad that founded the town and the farms that surround it, has shaped the town’s collective perspective. Even today, in 2011, two decades after the high school closed, the echoes of baseball’s influence still resonate. For the preceding century, however, the game was one of the planks used to build the rural community.
DEVELOPING THE FRONTIER
In 1854 Osman Tuttle, an immigrant from Norway, became one of the first settlers in the area now known as Benton County, Iowa, when he acquired 640 acres from the US government as part of the largesse of the Homestead Act (1862). In 1859 Tuttle offered eleven acresto the “Chicago and North-Western Railway Company” as a railroad depot on the condition that the company name the station ‘Norway’. In 1880 the town was formally and finally rechristened Norway, Iowa.
Tuttle was merely the leader of what became a migration, movement that brought more than families to Iowa. They brought the New York version of baseball as well. “The Midwest and West … shared in the excitement over baseball. Baseball in general and the New York version in particular were becoming familiar pastimes across the continent prior to the Civil War. Larger Midwest cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, and St. Paul and smaller towns such as Nininger City, Minnesota territory, Oberlin, Ohio, Davenport, Iowa, and Fox Lake, Wisconsin, all reported clubs and matches to the New York sporting journals.”  As with baseball in the United States of America, there was no singular ‘alpha’ moment of creation or specific individual that introduced the sport to Norway, although many of the young town’s returning war veterans certainly helped expand the game in the region.
Much like other agrarian rail stops of the time, the town of Norway developed a self-sustaining infrastructure, a contained society built by men who relaxed – in part – by
playing baseball. The men played, and watched, baseball, but few details were recorded about the local games in the mid-19th Century, so it is difficult to identify specific players or assess the caliber of Norway teams, but it is a matter of record that neighboring Blairstown had seven baseball teams in 1884, and played a schedule of games against Belle Plaine, Marengo, Norway and other communities. Thus, the sport had established a foothold in Norway as well.
Baseball, even in the town’s infancy, had an effect on social interaction and community growth. Weekend contests were community events, often including picnics and outdoor music (abutting one of Norway’s earliest ball fields was a small band pavilion), and not only fanned local pride but also afforded residents an interruption in the work routine and an opportunity to congregate in a purely social setting. While it would be entirely speculative to assign a value to baseball’s effects within the larger community, the games clearly fostered a corporate identity that was independent of individual occupation or wealth.
The seasonal cadence of baseball complemented the farming and school calendars as well. The typical school year included a two month Fall term followed by a two week break for harvest. The winter trimester was a full four months and also concluded with a two week break, but this time for planting. Finally, the spring term was two months, and rolled into summer baseball, before the cycle continued in autumn. The proliferation and role of the game as played in Norway – at that time, a frontier of sorts – mirrored that of baseball’s expansion and entrenchment across the rest of the country. In other words, it ‘fit’.
High school baseball began in Iowa in the spring of 1906, following the establishment of the Iowa High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) the previous year. Many of the rosters of high school teams at the time approximated those of the town teams, and were often actually filled with graduates, railroad workers, and other non-students. The teams were often not built from the student body, and there was only a skeletal rule-enforcement structure as the reach of the IHSAA did not extend to many of the dispersed communities. Lifelong Norway resident Otis Tuttle played high school baseball in 1906, and noted in 1988 that, for a time, a local Methodist minister was a catcher on his (high school) team. Tuttle graduated from Norway High School in 1907, at age fourteen, so his recollections indicate that Norway likely fielded one of those hybrid school teams of the era.
Further west, across the county, an array of small country schools also fielded teams, including the Prairie Bell School baseball team (established in 1885, southeast of Norway). Other schools that sprang up close to Norway included Pleasant Ridge, the Empire School, Mound School, Country School, Excelsior school, and Florence #6. Several external pressures shaped the ultimate consolidation of those small, truly local, schools.
The presence of the railhead in Norway, for one, encouraged farm and trade families to live closer to town (and provided some safety-in-numbers in the face of the ‘unknown’ threat posed by local, native tribes) for purely commercial efficiency. The number of small schools, each with perhaps ten to fifteen boys, and associated baseball teams that were scattered throughout the county and region began to shrink during the first decade of the Nineteenth century as commerce and families gravitated toward the growing town. Norway’s population in 2011 is approximately 600, but in the early 1900s and 1910s had reached a number greater than 1,600. It was, almost unbelievably in the context of today, a large town and a nexus for social activity.
From 1910 to 1919, the outlying schools dwindled as Norway became one of the first districts in Iowa to introduce public transportation for students. By importing boys from outlying farms, the consolidation inevitably strengthened Norway scholastic baseball program while simultaneously paring the smaller, country school teams. The aggregate effect of these changes was that baseball decisions began to shape the community:
- When farmers might make a trip into town (for games);
- What boys might do in their non-chore time (play ball);
- Where the athletic focus of the students should lie (baseball first, followed by basketball and then everything else); and
- Who was socially prominent (for athletic reasons)
The greatest single force in creating what became Norway High School was the state’s rural school consolidation effort, work that has crossed generations and is still actively shaping the education picture in Iowa today. “The consolidation of rural schools in the United States has been a controversial topic for policy-makers, school administrators, and rural communities since the 1800s. At issue in the consolidation movement have been concerns of efficiency, economics, student achievement, school size, and community identity. Throughout the history of schooling in America, school consolidation has been a way to solve rural issues in the eyes of policy makers and many education officials.”
School consolidation and grade sharing were social issues, often fiercely debated in their time by residents and educators, which have shaped Norway scholastic baseball throughout the generations and on which Norway’s collective attitudes have brought pressure to bear. The net effect, at the start of the Twentieth century, however, was to funnel the students toward Norway. The secondary effect was to also funnel the best baseball players there as well. It is ironic, then, that the periodic recurring threats to close Norway public schools, and to consolidate within Benton Community, were finally executed in 1990, near the end of that Twentieth century.
Despite palpable public disagreement and amid tangible local controversy, the Norway School district closed the high school at the end of the 1991 academic year, along with the baseball program. Many of the same terms, such as “loss of community identity” were used in public meetings and in media discourse. The government officials, however, rejected the entire argument as baseball-centric, and not in the best educational interests of the current and future students. This is common in consolidation discussion, and ultimately made no difference in the final decision. Upon that closure, the sunset of Norway’s magnificent century of baseball excellence and the ethos of Norway baseball began a slow evaporation.
THE ETHOS IS BASEBALL
Boys growing up in and around Norway in the 1930s and 1940s – and earlier – were, almost without exception, introduced to baseball before even beginning their formal education. From impromptu ‘three-on-three’ games between seven-year-olds at the town diamond (or off at some remote corner of the field once the older boys showed up to play), through high school and town teams, and even at the semi-pro level for a time, baseball – almost as surely as the planting and harvest cycles – was the metronome that kept the cadence for the community. The cycle survived economic meltdown and global conflict.
Many of the high school players played for the Norway and/or the Watkins town teams, and for various firms in the Cedar Rapids M & J League. Donald ‘Rasty’ Elliott, for years the town barber, noted in 2007 that it was commonly known that if you were from Norway, you could easily get a job with a Cedar Rapids manufacturer and play on their team.
By 1942 over 250 high schools with spring teams were organized among 32 sections and 8 districts. The Great Depression, and then the war, shaped parts of the tournament, as what had been state tournament games were more often played at neutral sites closer to the teams. The tournament games were usually all played on one day. In the early 40’s, Norway High School had not ventured beyond Benton County, staying just north and south of the Lincoln highway corridor to compete against other schools. There was exception made for the sectional tournaments in which Norway played teams from other counties.
Baseball, through this period, served as a stabilizing force for Norway. The community’s population has contracted to approximately 600 residents, so every resident was either related to, or knew well, a player on the high school (thus, the town) teams. The success of Hal Trosky, with his 1936 American League RBI crown, and the potential of his son, Hal Trosky, Junior, gave every boy a palpable performance standard against which they could measure themselves. It was not, to those boys, an impossible dream to reach the apex of the game.
In 1944 Norway won their first district title but failed to capture the state championship when they lost to Wiota 9-1. The next spring, 1945, that same team lost to Atkins in sectional play at Blairstown. The high school continued to play well throughout the rest of the decade, losing to Wayland in the 1947 district tournament at Wilton Junction, and 6-4 to Oakville in the 1948 sectional tournament at Davenport. The 1958 Norway high school team, the first under Pinky Primrose (reared in the 1940s, and part of Norway’s earlier legacy), included young players with names from the town’s past and future, including Boddicker, Himmelsbach, Frese, Schulte, Lee, Robinson, and Van Ourney, but boys who had grown up with less ‘tradition’ during the early part of the decade. So much had Norway’s baseball interest waned over the preceding ten years that the new coach, just two years out of college, was often forced to drive to the homes of some of the boys just to convince them to play. But play they did, and Primrose’s teams never suffered a losing season.
The value of that effort resonated in a way that no one could have foreseen. Watching those young athletes, the boys that Primrose pulled together for practices and games, were the next generation of high school high school stars, boys already playing together on youth squads every year.
The 1961 Norway Pee-Wee league team, coached by Lyle Kimm and Don Stumpff, Sr., included future major league catcher Bruce Kimm, future minor leaguers Dick McVay and Steve Stumpff, and John Frese, who would father future minor leaguer Nate Frese, along with Mark Miller, Terry Brecht, Don Stumpff, Jr., and Roger Boddicker. That team was undefeated in Little League in both 1962 and 1963. Fast-forwarding to the Fall 1966 high school team, the high school roster was virtually identical, and the team outscored opponents 104-8, and posted a 13-0 record. On that team were Bruce Kimm, Terry Brecht, Mark Miller, and Dick McVay, the returning starters from the 1965 champs, along with Don Stumpff, Jr., in left field; Dave Schulte in center field; Roger Boddicker in right; Randy Schulte at second base and Lee Brecht at shortstop.
The recurring presence of the same players on sports teams in such small towns is not uncommon, simply due to small talent pools, but the competence of the players in Norway was phenomenal.
Those teams represent a case-study in the self-regenerating process of Norway baseball. Lyle Kimm and Don Stumpff , Sr. were, themselves, standout players in their youth. Kimm had played on Norway squads with Art Holland, teams that followed those of Hal Trosky and Jerry Meredith, and inculcated the value of, and proper technique in, pitching and defense on the diamond. Well-grounded in the fundamentals from an early age, the boys grew into the high school program and, simultaneously, the town team. The extra playing opportunities afforded by the town team allowed the Norway boys to, effectively, double their game experience, and do so against older players from other towns.
For Norway high school players, used to batting against 26-year olds in the “Iowa Valley League” town games, the threat posed by 15-year olds in the high school contests was often non-existent. To be sure, the absence of high school football freed the best athletes to play baseball and basketball exclusively, but it was the entire ‘system’ that spawned the coming Norway High School dynasty.
The religious life of the town also intersected with the game. The presence of St. Michael’s Catholic church provided much more than a picturesque background for baseball photographers. The church itself was finished in 1893, at a cost of $15,000, and in 1903 a tenant parochial school was built. Of all the priests who served there, one was a particularly notable baseball supporter.
Father Joseph Krocheski, in bridging baseball and the Church, united the community in a way that few external forces are ever able. After his arrival in 1960, he would – on occasional –conduct ecumenical services that mixed the Lutheran, Methodist, and Roman-Catholic parishes. He also attended every youth, high school, and town ball game that he could, used church money to buy some of the higher cost baseball equipment for catching, and even worked with the younger boys on skill development. Gary Volz, a high school and town pitcher in the late 1960s and early 1970s, still chuckles when he remembers Father Krocheski – a light sheen of perspiration on his bald pate gleaming in the sun, glasses jostling, and middle-aged paunch bouncing – as he showed the boys how to better run the bases. He used baseball to scale, otherwise, impenetrable walls, and when he departed in 1969, the grateful town bought him a new car in appreciation.
Between the 1960’s and the 1980’s, “the lot” was an important training area for boys too young to play high school ball. “The lot” was located immediately south of the 1908 high school building and over time the grass area had become worn with base lines and home plate. Boys would congregate there for hours, playing baseball until they were called home for meals or the darkness asserted itself. Without coaches, the boys simply played ball, the young learning from their elders by word and example.
Other games included ‘fast rubber’ and wiffle ball. Fast rubber was played with the gym as the backstop and the Masonic Temple as the outfield, essential a version of over-the-line with a pitcher delivering the ball instead of underhanded tosses or fungos. Evidently it was not long until the windows of the Masonic Temple were boarded to save replacement costs. Wiffle ball was the diversion of choice in back yards and behind the grandstand at all high school and town team games
The biggest discriminator among the players in town came from the parents: boys were either ‘farm’ kids or ‘town’ kids. In the 1960s, the latter group included Bruce Kimm, Dick McVay, Max Elliott, the Stumpffs, and the Ryans, boys who were more easily able to spend their time playing ball, while the farm kids, many with comparable talent, necessarily prioritized baseball behind chores.
In 1969 the Tuttle family donated the electric scoreboard in memory of their grandfather, Osman Tuttle who had donated land for the town of Norway and named the town after his native county. After three years of municipal debate, and some hard feelings among those who felt that tax revenue ought to support more than baseball, lights were erected (at the cost of $15,000) and used for the first time on June 20, 1969.
Three years later, the town also had a new head coach. By the 1970s, baseball was omni-present. Boys, in doing school projects, wove the game into their classwork. At the Iowa Baseball Museum of Norway, there is a photo of an entry from a school ‘values’ poster contest in which the entrant chose to illustrate ‘sportsmanship’ with the following: “Sportsmanship – Never gets (sic) mad if strikes out or flies out or grounds out.”
In the 1980s, Mike Boddicker made it to the World Series with Baltimore, and Norway baseball made it to ESPN while racking up seven state titles. By the time the school program closed in 1991, nine alums had been either drafted or signed minor league deals, and four others had played in the major leagues.
2011 AND BEYOND
The Norway Bandits, in the Iowa Valley League, play on Tuttle Field in Norway weekly during the summer, and continue to play in the annual Watkins 4th of July baseball game (the 100th anniversary of the Watkins/Norway rivalry approaches in 2013). Today, though, instead of being filled with high school teammates, the roster is populated by college players seeking additional summer experience.
Several businesses in town sell Norway Baseball memorabilia – referent to the past, with no apparent future – and in 2006 a new scoreboard and fence were installed for the filming of the movie “The Final Season”. In 2008 Burt Day offered a building on the main street of Norway, which housed the Benton County Savings Bank until 1927, for a baseball museum. It has become the Iowa Baseball Museum of Norway, and houses an array of objects, artifacts, and information that chronicles both the game and the town. Again, in the words of Shona Frese, “If you study Norway baseball history, you study Norway history. “
In the end, Norway baseball lives most vibrantly in the collective mind and memory of aging generations. The youngest member of the 1991 champions, the last in Norway, is now thirty-three and is married with three children. His eldest is as interested in football as baseball. Anecdotally, Bruce Volz’s (C 1976, member of the 1972 champions) son is now sixteen and playing football with Chris Frese’s (C 1988) eldest boy. Both boys are quarterbacks, while their fathers were pitchers. This is the reality of 2011 and beyond, and it will – in all likelihood – change Norway’s community forever.
Baseball has had a demonstrable effect on the town of Norway, Iowa. It is difficult, even impossible, to predict an alternate pate for the community’s development without the sport, but it is almost inarguable that the town would not have such as firm grasp on the older residents. It would have been, in a word, ordinary.
 Andreassen, S. (2000). Norway, Iowa. Norwegian Philatelic Journal (Volume 6)
 Kirsch, G. B. (2003). Baseball in blue and gray: the national pastime during the civil war. Princeton University Press.
 Bard, J., Gardner, C.E., and Wieland, R.L. (2006). Rural school consolidation: history, research summary, conclusions, and recommendations. National Rural Education Association Consolidation Task Force, available on line: http://www.academicleadership.org/cgi/article/print/Rural_School_District_Consolidation