Nolan Ryan was one out away from pitching his second no-hitter in as many months on Jul. 15, 1973 when the Detroit Tigers’ Norm Cash strolled to the plate carrying a table leg instead of a baseball bat.
The umpire was not amused. “You can’t use that up here,” he gruffly informed the prankster.
“Why not?” the wisecracking Texan drawled. “I won’t hit him anyway.”
Retrieving a piece of regulation timber from the dugout, Cash popped up to the shortstop to end the game. Trotting past the plate umpire, he quipped, “See, I told you.”
That was Norman Dalton Cash, a born comedian who kept teammates, sportswriters and fans in stitches but who also could hit home runs and the occasional high average.
Born in 1934, the West Texan grew up on a cotton farm near tiny Justiceburg (2010 population 75) south of Lubbock. He credited hard physical labor from an early age with developing his stamina and strength, especially in his powerful wrists. “I drove a tractor from the time I was ten,” often “ten to 12 hours” a day.
His college of choice was Sul Ross State in Alpine, where he excelled on the gridiron instead of the diamond. His senior season the big halfback broke the school rushing record with 1,255 yards, a feat that attracted the attention of the Chicago Bears, who picked him in the thirteenth round of the NFL draft.
But Cash turned down a career in professional football to play major-league baseball. Signing with the Chicago White Sox right of out college, he spent most of his two Windy City seasons watching from the bench.
In December 1959, Cash was part of an eight-player swap that sent him to Cleveland. But before seeing a single inning of action with the Indians, he was traded to Detroit for a washed-up veteran who lasted just four games with the Tribe.
Norm Cash, however, found a permanent and happy home in the Motor City. For 15 years, the power-hitting first baseman was a productive cog in the Detroit machine and the most popular member of the ball club, a fact made official by a vote of the fans. Cash got off to a good start with the Tigers hitting a respectable .286, 16 round-trippers and batting in 63 runs. But 1960 was merely a warm-up for what he would describe as his “freak season (when) everything I hit seemed to drop in, even when I didn’t make good contact.”
In 1961 Cash went on a 159-game rampage smacking career highs of 41 homers and 132 RBIs. His .361 batting average was the highest in the American League not only that year but for the entire decade of the Sixties. The Tigers outscored every team in the major leagues on their way to a 101-61 record yet still finished eight games behind the hated Yankees.
As if to put an exclamation point on the incredible campaign, on Jun.11, 1961 Cash became the first Tiger to knock a home run out of mammoth Tiger Stadium. And to prove it was no fluke, he cleared the right-field roof three more times in his career.
Speaking candidly after his playing days were over, Cash said, “I owe my success to expansion pitching, a short right-field fence and my hollow bats.” He not only admitted to corking his bats but explained to Sports Illustrated exactly how he did it.
Despite a hard-drinking lifestyle that would have wrecked anyone else’s body, Cash always showed up at the ball park ready to play. Roommate Denny McLain said he routinely violated curfew and “could not make 9:00 a.m. workouts because he threw up until 10:00 a.m.”
Cash’s comical stunts were the stuff of legend. One of his favorites, which he pulled several times, was to advance a base during rain delays. Noticing something was not quite right, the second base umpire asked, “What are you doing over there?”
“I stole third,” was Cash’s answer.
“When did that happen?”
“During the rain.”
In 1962, Cash’s average dropped 118 points, the most ever for a batting champion. He never broke .300 again but did retire with a lifetime batting mark of .271 and 377 home runs, second only to Hall of Fame teammate Al Kaline on the Tiger all-time list.
Cash was given his release with a phone call in the middle of the 1974 season, his fifteenth with the club, at the age of 39. “I thought at least they’d let me finish out the year,” he recalled with understandable bitterness.
Like so many athletes before and since, Cash did not handle retirement well. He was plagued by financial and serious health problems, including a stroke that paralyzed part of his face and caused him to slur his words. And, of course, he kept on drinking.
On the night of Oct. 11, 1986, Norm Cash left a restaurant on Lake Michigan to check on his boat. He slipped on the wet dock in his slick cowboy boots, hit his head as he fell and slid unconscious into the water. His body was not found until the next morning.
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