Some baseball cards provide layers of intrigue. They are interesting for a variety of reasons: the design of the card, the featured player, the type of photograph, and the background content of the photo.
All those elements come together in Norm Cash’s 1972 Topps card.
Let’s begin with the design of the card. Like all the regular player issues for 1972, it features a bawdy, vividly colored interior border, in this case a lively orange that was used for all the Detroit Tigers. The orange border, along with the twin stars in the upper corners and the shadowed lettering, make this card oh-so-’70s.
Beyond the design of the ‘72s, this is an especially appropriate image of the colorful Cash. The photograph shows him wearing a soft cap instead of a helmet. Unusually fearless at the plate, Cash was one of the final major leaguers to wear a cap at the plate, as part of a grandfather clause attached to the 1971 rule that made batting helmets mandatory for most hitters. (Red Sox catcher Bob Montgomery, who retired in 1980, would be the last player to wear a soft cap at the plate.)
Cash is also holding a bat that has a lot of pine tar and might have been filled with cork. After his playing career, “Stormin’ Norman” admitted to using a corked bat at various times throughout his career, including his breakout season of 1961. Of course, even if he was using cork during Detroit’s championship run in 1968, it didn’t do much to counter the effects of the “Year of the Pitcher,” a development aided by higher mounds and an ever expanding strike zone.
Cash also made some bizarre bat-related news later in his career. With Nolan Ryan in the midst of throwing his second no-hitter for the Angels 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 play-by-play man Ernie Harwell described the item as a piano leg, but it was actually a table leg, taken from a piece of furniture in the Tigers’ clubhouse. The owner of an offbeat sense of humor, Cash had every intention of using the table leg, but was forced to discard the makeshift “bat” by Ron Luciano, the not-so-amused home plate umpire. Luciano usually saw the humor in such things, but also realized that Cash was in clear violation of the rules.
Cash become involved in other stunts, too. While playing a game against the White Sox at Comiskey Park, Cash was the runner at first base when heavy rain convinced the umpires to halt play. When play resumed after a considerable delay, Cash was standing at second base. “I stole the base during the storm,” Cash told the umpire. If Cash couldn’t gain an advantage, at least he could extract a joke from it.
Once the games ended, Cash liked to drink, with beer being the beverage of choice. From 1971 to 1973, Cash developed a strong friendship with Tigers pitching coach Art Fowler, who also enjoyed spending time at local taverns. Sharing a similar sense of humor, the pitching coach and first baseman spent hours together away from the ballpark, sometimes joined by manager Billy Martin, who was no teetotaler himself. One can only imagine the threesome of Cash, Fowler and Martin closing a few saloons in downtown Detroit and at a few road trip stops, too.
Off the field habits aside, Cash was a damn fine player and first baseman. He could have played football; the NFL’s Chicago Bears drafted him as a star running back out of college. Cash considered their offer, but ultimately chose to play for another Chicago team—the White Sox. Two trades later, Cash found a home with the Tigers.
Cash will always be remembered for his superhuman season of 1961, when he led the American League in batting average (.361), on-base percentage (.487), and OPS (1.148). He couldn’t sustain those numbers—few mortals could have—but he remained a quality player for the next decade. Cash consistently posted on-base percentages in the .360 to .380 range, reached the 30-home run mark three more times, and generally provided the left-handed yang to Al Kaline’s yin. Unless your team already had Harmon Killebrew, you would have been more than pleased to have Norm Cash playing first base for you.
Cash was part of two teams that remain beloved throughout Michigan and much of the Midwest. In 1968, the “Battling Bengals” came back from a three-games-to-one deficit to win the World Series over the Cardinals. Four years later, an older Tigers team, featuring many of the same heroes from 1968, captured the American League East title before losing the playoffs to the eventual World Champion A’s. One of the most critical members of both teams—and arguably the most colorful—was Cash, who provided Detroit with just the right combination of humor, polished glovework at first base, and hefty power at the plate.
Cash played with the Tigers through the 1974 season before calling it quits. After his major league days, he dabbled in broadcasting, where his outgoing nature and keen sense of humor made him a natural. He also kept active by playing in a professional softball league.
I’d love to say that Cash lived a long life, but tragedy struck way too early, likely caused by his drinking. In October of 1986, the 51-year-old Cash slipped and fell off a dock while boating in northern Lake Michigan. He tumbled into the cold waters and drowned. An autopsy determined that Cash was legally drunk at the time of the accident.
Drinking is often glorified in baseball, but stories like that of Cash remind me that it is not all fun and games. By all rights, Cash should still be telling his stories today as a guest on the MLB Network or on sports talk radio.
Somehow I think Norm would have had a good story or two about his 1972 Topps card.