Jon Warden pitched only one season in the major leagues, his career derailed by arm trouble and wildness, but he has been making baseball fans laugh loudly ever since debuting as an ESPN contributor on “Cold Pizza.” Not merely a funnyman, Warden is an engaging storyteller and an insightful analyst; he told some of his stories during a visit to Cooperstown last weekend to participate in the third annual Hall of Fame Classic.
Warden, who hopes to make a return to coaching for a team in the Frontier League in 2012, discussed the recent death of a beloved teammate, the colorful ways of former Tigers first baseman Norm Cash and his involvement in the Major League Baseball Players’ Alumni Association.
Markusen: Jon, I wanted to start out on a serious note. A guy you played with just passed away. A pretty good ballplayer and an interesting personality. What was it like playing that one season with Jim Northrup?
Warden: It was a shame. He was 71. I was at the funeral. He was cremated the week before but then they had a memorial and I went out there. Kaline, Horton, McLain and Price, all the guys were there. Jimmy was very opinionated. He never held back. He told you what he thought. If he didn’t like you, he told you.
But I’ll tell you one thing about him. I was a rookie that year (1968). After my career was over—my career was short—Jimmy never failed to call me and let me know, “Hey, Jon we got a card show with the 1968 guys. What’s your fee?” I said, “Jimmy, I don’t have a fee. I was just a one-year guy.” He would say, “Hey, let me tell you, you were part of a great team. We’re all getting a thousand dollars. We’re all getting the same. By golly, don’t you ever forget you were part of that team. Don’t ever undersell yourself.” He always looked out for me. He’d call, ask me how I’m doing, or that we might have something going on.
He was a great player. You don’t know how valuable he was in ‘68. Kaline missed 40 games when Lew Krausse hit him and broke his hand. Jim Northrup came in. He was always a streak hitter. But he had four grand slams during the season, including two back-to-back in Cleveland, and then he hits one in Game Six of the World Series, during that 10-run inning…. Jim Northrup, and everybody knows it, was a big, big part of that team. It’s a big loss, man. It’s a bad way to have a 1968 get-together, but there were seven of us there (at the funeral).
It’s been a terrible year for baseball. You know, (Bob) Feller, Ryne Duren, Duke Snider, Harmon Killebrew, Paul Splittorff. And now Jimmy Northrup. It’s a long list. It’s just that we’re all getting older. You’re burying your friends, and it’s not fun.
Markusen: It reminds you of the passing of time, unfortunately. One follow-up on Northrup. After he passed away, Denny McLain said that Northrup would get on guys’ cases if he saw them fraternizing with the opposition. Was that something you noticed? Was he real strict about that?
Warden: Oh yeah. He would say, “You want to play on that team? Go play on that team.” And also he overheard Billy Martin talking one day and telling a writer, “I’d love to manage the Yankees some day.” And Northrup called him out and said, “If you don’t want to manage this team,” although he used some other (choice) words, “then get the hell out of here. Don’t manage the Tigers.” He said to us, “Guys, they’re the enemy.” He hated to lose. He hated to lose. A great competitor. A great guy. Treated me great. I loved him. I stayed in touch with him. As a matter of fact, I took a picture of him, Opening Day three years ago at Comerica Park. I had a picture of my daughter and I taken with Jimmy. He was in a wheelchair, but he always had them blue eyes, and those eyes were always smiling. He was a good guy.
Markusen: You mentioned Billy Martin. I understand that Northrup did not care for Martin.
Warden: Oh, not at all. That was oil and water, buddy. That was separation there. Northrup had a passion, and so did Billy Martin, no doubt. They were almost too much alike. They just clashed.
Markusen: Both old school guys?
Warden: Yes, old school guys. But I never knew if Billy mistreated Northrup, I never knew the whole story of whatever happened between them that caused that friction. But boy, they didn’t get along at all.
And he and (backup catcher) Jim Price never got along. But Price came to the memorial service. And Denny McLain. I mean Denny and Northrup had a lot of words in ‘68. But Denny had gone and visited him just during the last couple of months of his life. So I think as you get older, there’s those frictions and those personality conflicts, all of a sudden you realize that life’s short. So come on, drop the façade. You know, let it go. Those family feuds and stuff. Come on and drop it. You want to see your sister and your kids and your mom and dad and your brother. It’s the same thing in baseball. That’s your other family; that‘s your extended family. That team. And Northrup was a big part of it.
I’ll tell you something else. Mr. (Mike) Ilitch [the Tigers’ owner] was there at the service. And Jimmy ripped Mr. Ilitch in the papers. You know, more than once, about how he didn’t know how to handle a ball club. This was when they were losing a hundred games, Jimmy said that the (Detroit) Red Wings were the cash cow [for Ilitch], and that the Tigers were a stepchild. He said, “Either pony up and put a team on the field, or sell the team to somebody that wants it.” But Mr. Ilitch—bad news travels fast—and he showed up and I went over and talked to him a little bit. He respected the job that Northrup did for the team.
Jimmy made his opinions known, freedom of the press, freedom of speech. He was never one to hold back.
Markusen: Another guy who didn’t hold back, a very colorful personality, one of my favorites from those Tiger teams, was Norm Cash. Do you have a favorite Norm Cash story?
Warden: Well, I’ll tell you, Cash was always the “go” guy. He was sort of the leader. 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.”
And Mayo Smith, who was not a good manager—he was a great manager for that team because he just sort of left us alone, we had a very veteran team, and he just let us play—and he made some bodaciously crazy moves, and they all would work out. And in that fifth game, I’ll never forget Cash, one of the things about that I’m reminded about him, is that he would just be so upbeat and loose. 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 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.
Markusen: Everybody liked him on the Tigers?
Warden: Oh, everybody loved him. He would be such a great guy to have at something like this (the Hall of Fame Classic). He was from Texas, he’s got that Texas personality, he loves everybody. You know, very good with the fans. Never thought he was any better than anybody else. Norm Cash, like at our fantasy camp with the Tigers, he would just be a phenomenal hit.
It’s a shame that he drowned and had the accident when he did. He had a lot of good years left to live. But you know, stuff happens. But, yeah, Norm was a great guy.
And you know what, look at his stats. Look at his numbers. He had a pretty good career, man. 350, 360 home runs. You talk about a guy who was knocking three hundred something balls out of the park, and in a pitcher’s era, when McLain had a 1.79 ERA and Gibby’s got a 1.12.
Boy, Cash, was very unassuming. He didn’t look like a ballplayer. You would have thought he worked at IBM or something. But he had the quick wrists, and if you tried to throw the fastball by him, he could pop that bat, and it was gone.
I’ve got one of his bats; he gave me one of his bats. And I’ve kept that to this day. I’ve had offers, of a thousand dollars, $1,500. And I’ve said, no, no. It means more to me. This is something that’s gonna stay with my family. This is part of my history, and something that I can hand down to my kids. Different things that I’ve come across along the way, all of this stuff, my kids will get it. If they want to sell it, then they can sell it. I don’t sell anything.
I collect stuff, I’ll be getting some autographs this weekend. Hang out with the guys, you know, it’s a lot of fun.
Markusen: Finally, Jon, what are you up to these days? Tell us what you’re doing.
Warden: Well, I travel around the country and do a lot of alumni events, that this (the Hall of Fame Classic) is part of. We did a fantasy camp for four years here at the Hall of Fame; I was involved with that all four years. We do a fantasy camp at the All-Star Game for MLB, and I help coordinate that. I do the “Kangaroo Kourt” and act as the camp commissioner. So I do a lot of traveling; I’m out of the house about 125 days a year. And we help raise a lot of money for different charities.
I didn’t have a long career by any means, but I feel very fortunate to get to do what I did, and get to play on a great team. So I love giving back, and raising some money for the less fortunate people.
I was just at Ryne Duren’s tournament on Monday in Long Island. We went and visited the V.A. Hospital there, and there were some young kids there this year who came back from Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the other players said to me, “How are you doing?” And I said, “I got a bad knee.” Well, this kid says, “My whole body hurts today.” He looked as healthy as you and I. But he got shell-shocked, the vibrations sort of shook his whole body, his equilibrium. Your heart goes out to those guys.
I did a thing in San Antonio, it‘s called “Hope for Heroes.” And here these guys come down into the dugout, and you would have thought I was, you know, Sandy Koufax. And these guys couldn’t have been more tickled to some ex-ballplayers. (Former Angels and Phillies outfielder) Jay Johnstone was involved in this. And we’ve got a lot of good guys involved, like (former Indians and Seattle Pilots pitcher) Gary Bell, who lives in San Antonio.
And here’s a (soldier) whose left arm is gone, and another guy his face is burnt, his ears were gone, but he threw out the first pitch. He has a wife and two beautiful kids. This guy sprinted to the mound, and he couldn’t be any more excited. They fought for our country. Shame on me for griping about my knee bothering me. And these guys are blind in one eye, or burnt, this guy, his whole face was burned. But to see the attitude they have, and they’re over there fighting for us for our freedom.
But, yeah, I do a lot of those charities, and it’s heartwarming. Makes you feel good.
Markusen: Jon, you always put things in perspective. Thanks, I appreciate it.