Colorful Tiger slugger Norm Cash is sorely missed

This 1973 TOPPS baseball card caught the fancy of the author when he was a boy.

This 1973 TOPPS baseball card caught the fancy of the author when he was a boy.

I first became interested in the Detroit Tigers because of this 1973 Topps card.

I was struck by the Tigers’ home uniform, with the Old English “D” set against a resplendent white. No team had a better uniform than that. The name, “Norm Cash,” also intrigued me. That sounded like a cool name – quick and slick and hip.

Finally, I noticed Cash’s pose on the card. There was something rhythmic, almost lyrical, about his practice swing, and the way that he seemed to finish off the upper cut with a flourish. It just looked like the classic swing of a power hitter.

With Cash serving as the springboard, I began to research the rest of the Tigers of the era, players like Dick McAuliffe, Aurelio Rodriguez, Willie Horton, Al Kaline, Bill Freehan, Mickey Lolich, and John Hiller. This team of respected veterans intrigued me, to the point where I began to replay the Tigers’ 1972 and ’73 seasons in the imaginary games of baseball that I played on our front patio.

Of this group of accomplished veterans, Norm Cash was easily my favorite. I envied his left-handed swing, which I came to learn was quick and compact, because I had always wanted to be a left-hander. I also liked the fact that he played first base, which was my favorite position.

Motivated for all of these reasons, I eventually began to look further into Cash’s story. He was a native Texan who never played competitive baseball until he reached college. In 1955, he turned down an offer from the Chicago Bears, who wanted him as a running backs, instead signing with the White Sox. But the Sox would never see the full benefits of his powerful bat and graceful glove. Sox owner Bill Veeck packaged Cash with catcher Johnny Romano and third baseman Bubba Philips and sent them to the Indians for a quartet of players headlined by Minnie Minoso.

Cash never played a game for the Indians. Near the end of spring training, Indians GM Frank Lane foolishly sent Cash to the Tigers for marginal third baseman Steve Demeter. Almost immediately, the Tigers made Cash their primary first baseman; he platooned with the right-handed hitting Steve Bilko, the former minor league standout with the PCL’s Los Angeles Angels. After putting up a .903 OPS as a rookie, Cash blossomed into stardom in 1961. In a season that marked the peak of his career, he led the American League in hitting (.361), on-base percentage (..487) and OPS (1.148). Under ordinary circumstances that would have put him in the running for league MVP honors, but not in an historic year that featured expansion-level pitching. Cash had to settle for fourth place in the MVP race, behind Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, and Jim Gentile.

Cash never again approached his 1961 numbers, but he remained a very good player during a decade that saw hitting decline and pitching rise. Over the next 10 years, Cash’s OPS dipped below .800 only once. He consistently hit 20 to 30 home runs a season, while displaying good hands and footwork at first base.

Never was Cash more important than during the Tigers’ hallmark season of 1968. Not only did he provide his usual dose of power and run production, but he also displayed his leadership skills to full effect. “Cash was always the ‘go’ guy,” said Jon Warden, the rookie left-hander who pitched mostly out of the bullpen in 1968. “He was sort of the leader. [Al] Kaline was our Hall of Famer, but Kaline wasn’t a holler guy, he wasn’t a rah-rah guy. I’ll tell you, the fifth game of the World Series, we’re down three games to one. And Cash is in the locker room saying, ‘We got em right where we want them. They’re so tight over there, you couldn’t drill a nail up their rear ends.’ He said, ‘This is gonna be great for us, because we’re gonna win one for the home team.’ ”

The Tigers not only won Game Five, overcoming a 3-1 deficit, but then pulled out victories in Game Six and Seven to close out one of the most stirring comebacks in franchise history.

Cash provided the Tigers with a constant flow of humor and positive vibes. “He would just be so upbeat and loose,” said Warden. “Because our guys were a little tight, but Cash would come in, and he liked the sauce, he liked to drink. He’d come in sometimes if Denny [McLain] was pitching that day, and he’d say to him, ‘You hold ‘em till the fifth inning, and I should be done throwing up by then, and then I’ll hit a home run for ya.’ A lot of times, it would be the seventh or eighth inning, and boom, a three-run bomb, and we’d win the game. But he liked to party. He ran both ends of the candle.”

Cash’s hard-charging lifestyle was just one of several habits that made him one of the game’s most distinct characters of the early expansion era. Let’s consider a few items from Cash’s file:

– Disdaining the use of a helmet during his at-bats, Cash wore a soft cloth cap that featured a protective liner on the inside. He continued the practice when baseball attached a grandfather clause to the 1971 rule that made helmets mandatory. When asked about it, Cash explained that he simply felt more comfortable wearing the cloth cap. Fearless to the end, he was one of the final major leaguers to wear a cap at the plate. Only two players wearing caps during their at-bats outlasted him. They were former Tigers infielder Tony Taylor and Red Sox backup catcher Bob Montgomery, who was the last man to bat without the protection of a batting helmet.

– “Stormin Norman” admitted to using a corked bat, including his career-best season of 1961. Although most of the media focused on 1961, it was evident that Cash used a corked bat at other times. During a 1970 game, umpire Jake O’Donnell saw something strange with Cash’s bat. He noticed that the bat was flat on one side, where it should have rounded. He also saw that it contained a place for cork to be inserted at the end of the barrel. That was also illegal. O’Donnell allowed Cash to remain in the game, but he threw the bat out of competition.

– Cash’s batting habits also garnered attention in 1973. Facing Nolan Ryan in the midst of one of his two no-hitters that summer, Cash decided to walk to the plate without a bat, instead carrying a wooden leg from a table. Cash had every intention of using the table leg, but umpire Ron Luciano told him to discard the makeshift stick in favor of a regulation bat. A regular bat didn’t help, as Cash grounded out weakly in his final at-bat of the game.

Table legs and corked bats remained part of Cash’s legacy with the Tigers through the early 1970s. In 1973, Tigers skipper Billy Martin began to platoon Cash extensively, sitting him against most left-handers. Later that summer, the Tigers placed Cash on waivers and watched as Charlie Finley and the A’s placed a waiver claim. When Cash asked Finley to give him a guaranteed contract for the 1974 season, the penurious Oakland owner balked loudly. Cash refused to go to the A’s, instead returning to the Tigers.

Cash’s hitting then fell off badly in 1974. On August 7, the Tigers, by now an aging team that had fallen out of contention, did what was once unthinkable. They released the popular Cash, ending his 16-year career and his 14-year tenure in Detroit.

At that point, Cash should have settled into a long life on the old-timers circuit. He did do some work as a broadcaster and also played in a professional softball league, but his retirement did not last as long as it should have. First came a massive stroke in 1979. He made a remarkable recovery, but then on October 12, 1986, Cash was walking near his boat when he slipped on a dock and fell into the waters of northern Lake Michigan. Unable to keep himself afloat, Cash drowned in the cold waters. According to an autopsy, he had a blood alcohol level of 0.18, making him legally intoxicated at the time of his death.

Cash was only 51. For me, and for many others, his death represented a loss of innocence. Here was a fun-loving, outgoing guy, beloved by teammates and fans, taken from us because of alcohol, just over a decade after his playing days had come to an end.

Even more than 25 years later, I still think about Cash a lot. I miss Stormin’ Norman. I wish I had more than just his baseball cards.

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About Bruce Markusen

Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY. He is the author of seven books on baseball.