Thursday, March 23, 2006

Norm Cash Made Baseball Fun

It was my birthday, 1974, yet I wept.

I cried like a baby, the morning of the day in which I would celebrate my 11th year on earth.

August 6, 1974: a dark, dark day for me -- and the Tigers, as far as I'm concerned.

That was the day the team released Norm Cash. They just cut him -- letting him go rather unceremoniously. Only 11 years old, and I was already wondering if baseball would be so good again.

That same day, the Tigers traded Jim Northrup to the Expos.


Stormin' Norman Cash: a Tiger from 1960-74


But it was the -- ahem -- cashiering of Cash that brought on the tears. Stormin' Norman Cash -- the power-hitting first baseman -- was my first favorite baseball player. I liked him for the same reason I liked Alex Karras of the Lions and, eventually, Harold Snepsts of the Red Wings: For some reason I always gravitated to the loopy, off-center, fun-loving player. And Cash was the first Tiger who fit that bill. Come to think of it, he may be the only one. For surely nobody exuded as much sardonic behavior as Norm Cash did.

Oh, where do I begin? There were the windshield-wiper sunglasses he wore during spring training. The Texan drawl. The moonshots into the upper deck in rightfield -- sometimes over the roof. Once, when Cash was spiked by the catcher sliding into home and in terrible pain, he still managed to doff his cap to the adoring crowd as he was being carried off on a stretcher. He also used to, ocasionally, playfully loop his finger inside the belt loop of the runner on first base in a joking move to keep him from taking much of a lead. He had his own TV show for awhile, which was awful but it was his so naturally I watched it. Against righthanded pitchers, Cash wouldn't wear a helmet -- just a protective plastic liner inside his cap. I always thought that was the coolest thing.

Cash was acquired from the Indians for Steve Demeter between the 1959 and 1960 seasons, and if you just said, "Who's Steve Demeter?," you'll agree that it was one of the best trades the Tigers ever made.

Cash was also the main protagonist in one of the goofiest -- frankly, dumbest -- plays I've ever seen on a big league baseball diamond. The Royals' Ed Kirkpatrick was at the plate -- this was 1970 -- and Joe Sparma was pitching. Kirkpatrick hit a chopper that Cash fielded between the
mound and the first base line. Kirkpatrick slowed to a stop as he approached Cash, who was holding the ball near the base line. It figured to be an easy out. Yet Cash clumsily and lazily waved the ball toward Kirkpatrick and ... missed him. Kirkpatrick immediately knew Cash had whiffed, and he hustled toward the vacant first base bag. He made it easily as Norman stood there sheepishly with the ball before handing it even more sheepishly to Sparma. That was my Norman.

But Cash wasn't a real baseball goofball -- not by a long shot. He hit nearly 400 homers as a Tiger, and was a pretty darn good fielding first sacker. He also had that monster year in 1961, when he hit .361 with 41 HR and 132 RBI. I must add that I just typed those stats without looking them up, because I know them by heart. The next season, Cash's BA fell -- free-falled, really -- to .243. Years later, Cash admitted that he used a corked bat in that '61 season, which makes sense because he never came close to those numbers again. But at age 36, Cash cracked 32 dingers, nipping on the heels of the White Sox' Bill Melton all year for the homerun crown
(Melton hit 33).

One of the last homeruns Cash hit, I was there to see. It was against Boston, and the pitch before it happened, a couple fans in front of us shouted, "WHO NEEDS CREDIT? WE HAVE CASH!"

Indeed.

Cash was cut, at age 39, with just seven homers in 140+ at-bats in '74. He was clearly not in the team's plans, as the Tigers had let their 1968 and 1972 World Series and AL East-winning teams grow old with few capable young replacements. Hence the trade of Northrup. The Tigers' inability to groom farm talent led to an awful spiral downward, culminating in last place finishes in 1974 and 1975. They wouldn't have another winning season until 1978.

Unfortunately, life after baseball wasn't as kind to Norm Cash as life was during it. He suffered a stroke sometime in the late 70's, early 80's while he was a TV analyst for the Tigers on the old ON TV channel (remember THAT?). Then, in October 1986, in Beaver Island, Michigan, Cash slipped off a dock and drowned. Tests done on his body indicated he may have been inebriated when he fell.

I cried that time, too -- inside.

4 Comments:

Blogger Big Al said...

Cash was a very underrated player, who should have been better remembered outside of Detroit. Sadly, he's closer to a footnote in MLB history for a couple of reasons. He never again came close to those flukey 1961 stats and his prime years were played in pitching's golden era. 30+ HR's in the mid-late 60's would be the equivalent of hitting 45-50 now.

Makes you wonder what kind of power stats Stormin' Norman could have put up if he had been born 10-20 years later.

10:52 AM  
Blogger Greg Eno said...

Indeed, and I'm sure he would have been a DH for a few years, too.

11:41 AM  
Blogger Ozz said...

I remember the first time I was bummed out about a player leaving the Tigers, because he was my favorite player at the time. He was my first 'favorite' Tiger.

One night, while I was in my bedroom sorting out some baseball cards, my sister came in to tell me that the news just reported that the Tigers traded Steve Kemp. I thought she was just messing with me! Of course, she wasn't.

At least the trade worked out in our favor! It's too bad Kemp's post-Tigers career wasn't quite as successful as his brief Detroit run.

9:25 PM  
Blogger Greg Eno said...

Yeah, Kemp-for-Lemon was a good trade, for sure.

10:36 PM  

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