Rick Ryan

Norway High School won the first of twenty Iowa State baseball championships in October, 1965, with a team that included an array of talented freshmen such as Dick McVay and future major league All Star coach Bruce Kimm.  But before those gifted athletes could mature into the professional stars they later became, the team was fortunate to be led by a cadre of upper classmen who could understand and implement the Norway system, with its emphasis on pitching and defense, at the most elite level in the state.

There would, ultimately, be nineteen more titles for the school before it closed in 1991, but that first one was – in many ways – the most special.  The Fall 1965 title put tiny Norway on the regional baseball radar, and showed the town and the team the ‘art of the possible’ on the diamond.  While every player on the roster contributed to that first championship, there was one, a senior pitcher, whose skill fostered extraordinary performance expectations, and forced him to shoulder the hopes of the school and the community every time he took the mound.  Fortunately for Norway, that pitcher was up to the task.

Rick Ryan was born in 1948 in Grinnell, Iowa.  He attended many schools during his elementary years as his father,  Lowell , moved ‘up in the ranks’ as a coach, teacher and administrator in the Iowa school system.   In the fall of 1963 Rick entered his sophomore year in Atkins. However, he moved to Norway in mid-November when Lowell was hired as their new superintendent.  Ryan played one year for coach Pinky Primrose at Norway, until the latter left for Cedar Rapids in 1964, and was one of the more experienced players that greeted new coach Bernie Hutchison that fall.  

In 1965, Rick stood at the apex of what is meant by the term ‘student-athlete’.  A straight-A student with an interest in mathematics and science, he also posted an 8-0 record on the mound that fall, with battery-mate Mickey Berger (and batted .333 while hitting in the cleanup spot in the order).   In the district championship elimination game, he walked only two while striking out nine in a 2-1 Norway victory over Walsh (Ottumwa).  Later, in the state final, he blanked Spalding (Granville) on two hits (with nine more strikeouts), and celebrated Norway’s first state high school baseball title.

The tall red-head handed the pitching mound over to Dick McVay and Terry Brecht when he graduated with the class of 1966.  He wasn’t done with baseball, however, and while awaiting matriculation at Central College in Pella, he played both Legion and town team baseball with his friends.   He graduated from Central in 1970 (with a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry).  While in college, Ryan’s ability earned him a chance to play in the Basin League in the summer of 1968 (a high-level amateur league in South Dakota – the “Missouri River Basin” – and whose alumni included future major league stars such as Jim Palmer and Kent Tekulve, as well as many others), and in 1969 he played for the Peoria Pacers in the Central Illinois Collegiate League (CICL).

The CICL was commonly considered to play at a level on par with the “AA” level in the professional ranks, and when Ryan took the mound in 1969, the infield defense behind him included a young third baseman named Mike Schmidt.  Schmidt, of course, is ensconced in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, and whose 548 career home runs is (as of 2011) the fifteenth highest total ever posted in major league baseball history.
Ryan’s play in those elite leagues, the Basin and the CICL, coupled with his four years of starring on Central’s baseball team, convinced the Cincinnati Reds to draft him in 1970 (the same draft in which the organization selected future players Pat Zachary and Ray Knight), but Rick declined the Reds contract offer.  Ryan opted for free agency, and during the fall on 1970 he entered graduate school at the University of Illinois.  However he was unable to play baseball in the spring and summer of 1971 as he fulfilled his obligation to the  Iowa National Guard.  In the fall of 1971, he married Sarah Drexler  and decided to return to graduate school.  Five years later in 1976 he completed his  PhD in Biochemistry. 

After graduate school, Rick did a Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Wisconsin, followed by a Junior Faculty Research position at the University of Minnesota.  He then decided to move to industrial research, starting with  Amour Dial, in Scottsdale AZ, where he did skin biochemistry for two years.  The next 15 years were spent with Monsanto Corporation in several research and management positions.  While at Monsanto he also earned an additional graduate degree, a Masters in Business Administration. After departing Monsanto, he used this additional training to help start up two early stage life science companies, and also worked with Millipore Corporation overseeing their Drug Discovery and Development business.   In December 2010, after thirty-plus years in the life science industry, Rick ‘retired’ from the business world.  He and Sarah (who will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary in 2011) are embarking on the next journey in their lives.  Their story is not yet complete, but Rick Ryan’s place in Norway baseball history is absolute.