‘Alec’ Schulte

The Norway baseball legend would have been impossible to create and sustain were it not for a vibrant local baseball tradition passed down among generations.  For every Hal Trosky there was a “Babe” Cypra; for every Mike Boddicker there was a Terry Brecht; players who, in different times and in different circumstances, might also have had their own shot at the professional ranks.  Some of Norway’s most skilled players went on to that success, even greatness, while others stayed in Iowa to play baseball.  The unifying traits of all those players, regardless of how ‘far’ they went, were their adherence to sound fundamentals and a respect for the sport that rarely permitted them to give less than their last full measure of effort.  Such is the lore of the game in Norway, and no individual better embodied that spirit, that passion for baseball and the town, than ‘Alec’ Schulte.

Sylvester F. Schulte was born on September 27, 1917, to Joseph and Frances (Walter) Schulte on their farm just outside Norway, Iowa.  A farmer’s son, it was almost inevitable that he follow his father into the lifestyle.  After Sylvester, considered a good student with an agile mind, graduated from the eighth grade, Joseph decided that that was enough school for a farmer.  The net result was that the younger Schulte never had the opportunity to play for the high school team, a talented squad that would have paired him with future minor leaguer Art Holland, Jr.

The ‘upside’ of this decision was that Schulte was free to join the town team at age sixteen.  It was, likely, somewhere in this time that he was given the nickname “Alec”.  Schulte’s son Loras, a former mayor of Norway, said his father wasn’t entirely sure as to how he got tagged with the moniker.  Most boys, and men, of that time did have nicknames, and Loras said his father felt like it might have been a shortened version of ‘smart alec’.  As to who first christened him with the name, it may have been his brothers, or possibly even teammates.  The bottom line, however, is that the name stuck.

On the diamond, Schulte was exceptional.  He could pitch, he could hit, and he was capable of playing just about any position on the field.   In 1940 Schulte’s town teammate Art Holland was a second-year catcher for the Sioux City Soos (which became the Mitchell Kernels) of the Class D Western League, an organization with ties to the St. Louis Browns.  When Mitchell first baseman Ed Grayston was injured, manager Charlie Moglia needed a mid-season replacement as quickly as possible.  Holland suggested the team give Schulte a tryout, and for one week Alec had the chance to play professional baseball.  Unfortunately for the twenty-three year old, he’d been playing only once per week, on average, with the town team in Iowa, so he was not nearly as sharp at the plate as the professionals who were accustomed to playing almost daily. 

The Kernels released Schulte, choosing instead James Barder, a player who had just been released by the Worthington Cardinals.  The stint, although brief, did give Alec a chance to face at least one former major league pitcher, and he got his first look at a major league curveball when he had the chance to hit against former Chicago White Sox pitcher Wilbur “Biggs” Wehde.  Alec may not have hit well in his no-notice tryout, but when he arrived back in Iowa, he recalled that none of the local pitchers could get anything by him for over a week. 

Encouraged by the experience, Schulte also attended a Brooklyn Dodger tryout camp, held in Clinton, Iowa, but was not signed there, either.  Regardless, Alec’s return was a boon to the Norway team.  In an epic contest against rival Watkins in the championship game, one that captured front-page headlines in the Benton County newspaper, Norway won the Iowa Valley League title in extra innings, and it was that team – and their on-field play – that convinced the community to erect grandstands at the diamond in 1942.   Those grandstands, from the time they were built until they were demolished in the 1980s, were a landmark for the town and the baseball field.

Schulte continued to play ball and farm in the early 1940s, until World War II changed everything when he was drafted into the Army Air Corps (AAC).  Due to his exceptional hand-eye coordination, the Army evaluators initially identified him as a prospective tail gunner on a heavy bomber like the B-17.  The average life-expectancy of bomber aircrew was short, with a number of popular histories listing it as approximately one week.   While not yet married, Alec was actively courting his future wife, Celestine “Dolly” Bange, and could not have been too disappointed when he was medically disqualified due to a hairline fracture in his nose. 

While that type of break may not sound serious, it posed lethal consequences in the air.  None of the U.S. bombers were pressurized, so a compromised sinus system – a problem that could lead to punctured ear drums or worse in-flight – was an immediate show-stopper for prospective aviators.  Alec’s injury, ironically, was the result of a violent outfield crash with his best friend, Cliff Pickart, a few years earlier, a collision that earned both players special mention in the newspapers.  While painful at the time, the injury forced the A.A.C. to reclassify him, and enabled him to be trained, instead, as an aircraft mechanic on P-38 fighters.  Although taught to repair engines, in a surprise move the A.A.C. then selected Schulte and six others for immediate-fill billets in Fairbanks, Alaska.  It was there, above the Arctic Circle, that Alec spent the next two and a half years.

In Alaska Schulte was soon invited to join the base team.  Despite a two-year layoff from the game, due primarily to Army training, he still went 2-for-3 at the plate in his first game.  When not playing first base, he pitched, and in his second season with the Army team posted a 9-0 mark for the team, half of their victories for the season.  In all, military baseball was a positive, especially for a young man away from home for the first time in his life.  Playing baseball likely gave him some connection with Norway for the three years he served, and ballplayers – especially good ones – were sometimes awarded some privileges not afforded their non-playing peers.

In 1945, after the war, Schulte returned to the farm in Norway.  While awaiting his formal discharge, he married “Dolly”, and they began building their family, one which ultimately grew to include eight children:  Lynn, Lana, Leah Ann (Lana’s twin, who died after birth), Loras (not only the future mayor of Norway, but also a bat boy for Jeff Pickart and the town team), Joseph, Tracey, Mary, and Jude.

Alec played Norway town baseball for fourteen years, in addition to his military service time, and in the late 1940s and early 1950s was even invited to play with the Quaker Oats team in the Cedar Rapids Manufacturers & Jobbers (M&J) league, a group that included a number of collegiate and professional players.

In 1960, the Schulte moved into town and Alec took a job as the parts expediter for the new International Harvester (IH) dealership in the area.  At the same time, Dolly took a job as an Emergency Room nurse at Mercy Hospital in Cedar Rapids, a job she held until 1976.  “IH” suffered financial problems in the late 1960s, so Alec left and went to work for a company called RAPIDS, making commercial beer coolers.  He worked there until finally retiring in 1982.

Alec Schulte was a fixture at Norway baseball games throughout the 1970s and 1980s.  Too old to play with the younger generation, he still competed in old-timers games, announced the final Norway High School game, and provided the town with a vivid memory of their baseball tradition.  He and Dolly even had a cameo appearance in the film “The Final Season”, based on Norway’s 20th state high school championship.

Years passed, and Schulte slowed with age, but Loras still remembers enjoying watching a few innings of a Cubs telecast with his ninety-year old father plus many weekly Cardinals games.  Sylvester Schulte passed away on March 31, 2010.  He was a husband, father, and baseball man until the end, and his life connected generations of citizens, and ballplayers, in Norway.