If I were to make a list of my 10 favorite cards of all time, this one would make the cut, and not just because Norm Cash was one of the game’s truly original and comedic characters.
There is just so much fodder for discussion with this card. We can clearly see that Cash is wearing a cap while at bat, and not a helmet. Like veterans Bob Montgomery and Tony Taylor, Cash was one of the last holdouts in responding to Major League Baseball’s 1971 rule that made helmets mandatory. Under the rule’s grandfather clause, Cash continued to wear a cap with a protective fiber liner, foregoing the helmet until his retirement in 1974. (Montgomery, who retired after the 1979 season, was the last major leaguer to go to bat without a helmet.)
Cash’s cloth cap is very noticeable on this card. So is his bat, with more than half of its surface covered in pine tar. According to baseball rules, hitters cannot have pine tar more than 17 inches up from the knob. Clearly, Cash has exceeded that limit here. Cash’s willingness to flout the rules should not come as a surprise; this is the same man who admitted to using a corked bat for much of his career.
The 1972 Cash card also represents an oddity. All the other regular player cards in that set are profiles, portraits, or other kinds of posed shots that were taken before games or during spring training workouts. Cash’s card is the only one that shows the player in actual game action; as he eyes his third base coach with a grimace, Cash is clearly in the midst of an at-bat from a 1971 game. So as 1972 Topps goes, this card is an absolute rarity.
By the time the card was released, “Stormin’ Norman,” as he was dubbed by Ernie Harwell, was well established as one of the American League’s most senior first basemen. Originally drafted by the White Sox, he spent some time in the military before being traded to the Indians as part of the deal for Minnie Minoso. Then, in one of Frank “Trader” Lane’s greatest mistakes as a general manager, he traded Cash to the Tigers for a third baseman named Steve Demeter, who would play in all of four games for Cleveland before his major league career ended. The Tigers said thank you very much to one of the most one-sided deals of the 1960s.
After debuting for the Tigers in 1960, Cash put together one of the most phenomenal “career” seasons of all time. Though overshadowed by the headline-making home run race between Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, Cash did his best to make his own case for the American League MVP. He won the batting crown with a .361 average (no AL player would match that during the dead ball ’60s) and put up career bests in every major offensive category, highlighted by 41 home runs, a .662 slugging percentage and a .487 on-base percentage.
Cash later revealed that he played the entire season, along with a good portion of his career, with a corked bat. (It was clearly against the rules, but the scientifically inclined will argue that corking the bat actually does nothing to improve a batter’s hitting prowess. The lessening of the mass and the increase in bat speed cancel each other out.) Cash would drill a hole in the top of his bats, then fill the cavity with a weird mix of cork, sawdust and glue. The doctored bat became his weapon of choice, though no umpire (or opposing team, for that matter) actually caught him in the act.
While Cash never matched his 1961 numbers, he became a mainstay at first base for the Tigers. Throughout the 1960s, Cash provided Detroit with just the right combination of power at the plate and agile glove work in the field. He was one of the core players on the 1968 world championship team, which rallied from a three-games-to-one deficit to upset Bob Gibson and the Cardinals. He hit .385 over the seven-game classic, driving home five runs and slugging an even .500.
After the glory of 1968, Cash and the Tigers experienced a downturn over the next two seasons. With some skeptics questioning if Cash had any value left at the age of 36, he enjoyed a huge bounce-back in 1971, hitting 32 home runs (second only to the White Sox’ Bill Melton) on the way to claiming Comeback Player of the Year honors. In so doing, Cash became the first man in history to win the comeback award twice.
Fresh off his season of renewed power, Topps released his 1972 card during the spring. The summer of ‘72 would see the Tigers return to postseason play, this time in the form of the best-of-five American League Championship Series. Thanks to the quirks created by the unbalanced schedule that resulted from the players’ strike, the Tigers finished a half game ahead of the Red Sox for the AL East crown. Even though the Tigers had played one more game as part of the truncated schedule, the Red Sox were not given an opportunity to play an additional game and possibly match Detroit’s record.
Cash’s numbers fell off in 1972, but he saved his best output for the Championship Series against the A’s, when he put up an OPS of .820. Despite Cash’s efforts, the Tigers lost to the eventual world champions in a heart-wrenching five games.
Those 1972 Tigers became one of the favorite teams of my youth. I used to play imaginary games bouncing a ball off of our glass kitchen door and onto our front patio. The ‘72 Tigers would usually be one of the teams, with their old reliable lineup featuring Cash, Dick McAuliffe, Ed Brinkman and Aurelio Rodriguez around the infield; an outfield drawn from the quartet of Willie Horton, Mickey Stanley, Jim Northrup and Al Kaline; Bill Freehan behind the plate; and Gates Brown filling the DH role. Off the bench came Tony Taylor and Ike Brown.
The 1972 season marked Cash’s final appearance in postseason play. The following year, Cash found ways to make headlines in a fashion that could best be described as bizarre. With Nolan Ryan in the midst of throwing his second no-hit performance in 1973, the free-spirited Cash decided to walk to the plate without a bat, instead carrying what appeared to be a strangely-shaped piece of wood. Legendary Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell described the item as a piano leg during his play-by-play of the game, but it was actually a table leg, taken from a piece of furniture in the Tigers’ clubhouse.
The owner of an offbeat (perhaps even deranged) sense of humor, Cash had every intention of using the table leg; he actually saw one pitch from Ryan while holding the table leg in his hands. After that first pitch, home plate umpire Ron Luciano (a colorful figure in his own right who usually saw the humor in most situations) realized what Cash was actually holding. As dictated by the rules, Luciano told Cash to discard the makeshift stick in favor of a regulation bat. “I can’t hit him with a regular bat,” Cash argued with Luciano, before making his way back to the dugout to retrieve one of his actual bats.
Even with a real bat, Cash could do nothing more than manage a weak pop-up to the shortstop, sealing the no-hitter for Ryan.
During a game at Comiskey Field in Chicago, Cash was on second base for the Tigers when rain forced the umpires to stop play. Once the rain delay ended, Cash took his place on the basepaths—atop third base. When the umpire questioned his placement at third, Cash explained that he had stolen the base during the rainstorm. He then sheepishly made his way back to where he belonged.
Cash had a contagious sense of humor that made him enormously popular with teammates. He seemingly got along with everyone. He also had a love for alcohol, particularly beer. When Billy Martin became the manager of the Tigers and brought Art Fowler along with him as his pitching coach, Cash found himself with two steady barstool companions. I imagine that trio closed down a few saloons in downtown Detroit during their years in the Motor City.
Given his generally gregarious, free-spirited ways, it was no surprise that Cash took his outgoing talents to television. In the early 1970s, he hosted his own weekly “The Norm Cash Show,” on a station in nearby Windsor, Ontario. The program became a hit in Detroit.
After the Tigers released him late in 1974, ending his playing days, Cash continued to dabble in broadcasting. He also played in a professional softball league, which seemed somewhat fitting for a country boy slugger. All the while, Cash spun stories from his days with the Tigers.
I’d like to say that Cash kept telling his stories and pulling pranks for many years. But his health declined. In 1979, he suffered a massive stroke, which affected his speech and his broadcasting career.
Then, on Oct. 12, 1986, the 51-year-old Cash slipped and fell off a dock while boating in northern Lake Michigan. He tumbled into the cold waters, could not keep himself afloat, and drowned. As if the ending wasn’t tragic enough, an autopsy determined that Cash was legally drunk at the time of the accident. The alcoholism that marked much of his life had cost him his life.
That was more than 25 years ago. Even after all these years, I still miss Norm Cash.
If there’s any consolation, it’s having his 1972 Topps card, which keeps stirring those fond and funny recollections of Stormin’ Norman.