SABR

Norm Cash

This article was written by Maxwell Kates.

Norm Cash would have loved it. The story drew upon metaphors including baseball, the Old West, and camaraderie. Its title, City Slickers, was evocative of the relationship between the burly cowboy and the legions of brewers, auto manufacturers, and teamsters who became his fans. Billy Crystal, who played the protagonist Mitch Robbins, later directed and produced a motion picture about the 1961 American League baseball season, using Tiger Stadium to portray Yankee Stadium. In a poignant scene in City Slickers, an elderly cattle driver named Curly teaches Mitch the meaning of life. Moments later, “Mitchy the Kid” delivers a calf, which he names Norman. Sadly, Norm Cash never had the opportunity to see City Slickers. It was released in theaters in 1991, five years after he drowned in a tragic accident. But just who was Norm Cash? He was a larger-than-life first baseman from Texas who lived, drank, and played hard, sang country-and-western songs in the clubhouse, and could be depended upon in clutch situations. This is his story.

Norman Dalton Cash was born November 10, 1934, in Justiceburg, Texas. A railroad junction southeast of Lubbock, Justiceburg boasted a population of 25, according to the 1925 population census. Fittingly, its most famous citizen wore 25 as his uniform number for most of his professional baseball career. Cash’s dominant childhood memories were of helping on the family farm:

“My dad’s life was hard work…he had 250 acres of fertile land, and we grew cotton on 200 acres. I drove a tractor from the time I was 10. Sometimes I drove it 10 to 12 hours.” Working with a hoe on the farm also allowed him to develop his wrists. Ironically, those who knew Cash during his youth remember his athletic abilities not on the baseball diamond but on the football gridiron. In 1954, during his senior year at Sul Ross State College in Alpine, he set the school rushing record with 1,255 yards. Following graduation, Cash was drafted in the 13th round as a halfback by the NFL’s Chicago Bears. Instead, he chose baseball, signing with the Chicago White Sox as an outfielder on May 21, 1955. Earlier, Cash had married his childhood sweetheart, schoolteacher Myrta Bob Harper, on January 24, 1954.

After two seasons at Waterloo—and all of 1957 in military service—the left-handed hitter and fielder was promoted to Comiskey Park midway through the 1958 season. Cash was soon converted to a first baseman and, after some seasoning at Indianapolis, he was recalled by the White Sox in 1959. Playing backup to Earl Torgeson, Cash batted .240 and fielded .984 in 31 games. The White Sox, led by speedy infielders Luis Aparicio and Nellie Fox, raced to the summit of the American League standings, hitting 46 triples and stealing 113 bases in posting 94 victories. The “Go-Go Sox” outdistanced second-place Cleveland by five games to capture their first pennant in 40 years. However, the Sox were badly overmatched in the World Series by the Los Angeles Dodgers, losing the fall classic in six games. To upgrade the Chisox offense in the off-season, team president Bill Veeck added veterans Roy Sievers, Gene Freese, and Minnie Minoso to a lineup that already included Ted Kluszewski. However, he was forced to mortgage his future prospects, including Earl Battey, Don Mincher, Johnny Callison—and Norm Cash. No match for Kluszewski and Torgeson, Cash was sent to Cleveland with Bubba Phillips and Johnny Romano in the seven-player Minoso deal on December 6, 1959.

Although Cash wore a Cleveland cap on his 1960 Topps baseball card, he never played an inning for the Indians. On April 12, as the Tribe headed north from Tucson at the conclusion of spring training, Cash found himself traded yet again. This time, he was dispatched to Detroit in exchange for third baseman Steve Demeter. Detroit General Manager Rick Ferrell was dumbfounded when Frank Lane, his Cleveland counterpart, offered Cash for Demeter, unsure if he meant “cold cash or Norm Cash.” While Demeter’s career with the Indians consisted of merely four games, Cash became a fixture at first base in Detroit for 15 years. Lane was not through making controversial trades with the Tigers. Five days later, he sent Rocky Colavito to Detroit for Harvey Kuenn, and later in 1960, the two clubs swapped managers, Joe Gordon going to Detroit for Jimmie Dykes.

Cash’s teammates took an immediate liking to him. A comedian both on the field and in the clubhouse, he once tried to call time after being picked off first base. In another instance, Cash was stranded on second base during a thunderstorm. Once play resumed, however, he returned to third base. The umpire was baffled.

“What are you doing over there?”

“I stole third,” he answered.

“When did that happen?”

“During the rain.”

On several occasions, he gave a muddy infield ball to the pitcher instead of the game ball so the hitters could not see it as well. Al Kaline remembers: “Whenever you mention Norm Cash, I just smile. He was just a fun guy to be around and a great teammate. He always came ready to play. People don’t know this, but he often played injured, like the time he had a broken finger.”

Sonny Eliot, Detroit’s wacky weatherman, describes Cash as “just old-fashioned likable,” comparing his physical form to a kewpie doll from a state fair. “Whenever he came to bat, I would yell ‘Hey kewpie doll,’ and he’d turn around and laugh.”

It was another Southerner and recent transplant to Detroit who presented Cash with his nickname:

“I was in Baltimore [for six years] and there was a fellow there named Norman Almony,” remembers Ernie Harwell. “Everybody called him Stormin’ Norman. When Norman Cash lost his temper once in a while, I gave him the nickname Stormin’ Norman. I don’t think he liked it at first, but after a while, he started treasuring it.”

After a respectable 1960 season in which he batted .286 with 18 home runs, Cash captivated the baseball world in 1961. Although playing in the shadow of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, Cash posted some of the most outstanding offensive single-season statistics in American League history. The man Harwell nicknamed “Stormin’ Norman” led the junior circuit with 193 hits and a .361 batting average. Cash also established personal marks of 41 home runs, 132 RBI, and eight triples. Even more astounding, he hit .388 on the road. Facing Washington’s Joe McClain on June 11, Cash became the first Detroit player to clear the Tiger Stadium roof, hitting a home run that landed on Trumbull Avenue. Another roof-clearing blast that season against Boston’s Don Schwall struck a police tow truck. He was equally skilled at first base, fielding a sterling .992 as he caught dozens of foul balls before they could fly into the stands. With Kaline’s .324 batting average and Colavito’s .290 complementing Cash in the lineup, the Tigers, led on the mound by Frank Lary and his 23 wins, challenged the Yankees for the American League pennant. The Bengals were within a game and a half of the Bronx Bombers on September 1 before retracting to finish eight games behind with 101 victories.

Was Norm Cash destined to become a one-year wonder? Even at the time, he knew his ’61 season was “a freak. Everything I hit seemed to drop in, even when I didn’t make good contact. I never thought I’d do it again.” After Lary injured his leg in the 1962 season opener, and Kaline broke his shoulder during a nationally televised game in May, it became clear that the Tigers would not challenge the Yankees again. The season was equally disappointing for Cash, who batted only .243. The 118 points shaved from his 1961 average remains the record for decline among batting champs. Cash ultimately found his swing, batting .342 in an autumn exhibition trip to Japan, but by that point the regular season was long over. Still, the 1962 season was far from a write-off for the affable Texan. Cash hit 39 home runs, including three more roof shots, as the league runner-up to Harmon Killebrew’s 48. His .992 fielding percentage was identical to his 1961 average.

Cash never again cracked the .300 plateau. Years later, when Mickey Lolich asked why, Cash replied that “Jim Campbell pays me to hit home runs.” Indeed, Cash’s career total of 373 home runs for the Tigers remains second only to Kaline’s 399. However, it soon became evident that other factors besides the maturation of expansion pitching compromised Stormin’ Norman’s batting average. Cheating in baseball was as much an issue in 1961 as it remains today, and Sonny Eliot remembers why Norm Cash called that season “the Year of the Quick Bat.” 

“We used to sit in the old Lindell A.C.,” a popular bar near Tiger Stadium. “We’d just rib the hell out of him. ‘Did you put cork in the bat? If not cork, was it lead?’ Or whatever it was, we’d just rib him.” He struck out frequently, and fans expecting another batting title consistently booed Cash for the balance of his career. Even his wife joined in the chorus on occasion. Stormin’ Norman knew that inherently, the jabs were good-natured. After all, when Mayo Smith removed Cash from the lineup during a slump, the manager was also booed. Although he was not bothered by the sounds of tens of thousands of boos, “when one or two guys get on your back, they drive you nuts.” For their appreciation of his congeniality and humor, Cash was crowned King Tiger in 1969 by the presidents of individual Tigers fan clubs for his congeniality. George Cantor, a Tigers beat writer at the time, described Cash as “the most popular man on the team,” who knew “all the best watering holes” throughout the American League. 

Although Cash stifled the cork in 1962 and thereafter, he soon found himself fighting a much larger battle against alcoholism. Denny McLain described his roommate as “a modern medical miracle,” who abused his body so mercilessly that he “should [have turned] it over to the Mayo Clinic.” Stormin’ Norman violated every curfew rule in the book, but he somehow arrived at the ballpark every day, “not only eager to play, but madder than hell if he didn’t.” Granted, Cash rarely showed up on time; he “could not make 9 a.m. workouts because he threw up until 10 a.m.,” according to his roommate. McLain credited hustle and determination as the secrets to Cash’s big-league longevity, although the bespectacled right-hander did admit he was often bewildered “how he managed to remain upright” when he took the field. Still, McLain admitted that “I always felt better about everything when I looked over and saw Stormin’ Norman at first base.” As pitcher Jerry Casale once recounted, “On a team with so many friends, there was no one nicer than Norm Cash.”

Cash was nothing if not consistent for the balance of the 1960s. He was the only American League hitter to slug 20 or more home runs each year from 1961 to 1969. In 1964, he set a record among Detroit first basemen by fielding an outstanding .997. On July 9, 1965, Stormin’ Norman hit an inside-the-park home run against the A’s at Municipal Stadium in Kansas City. The blast must have ignited Cash’s non-corked bat, as he decimated American League pitching with 23 home runs and 58 RBI in 78 games after the All-Star break. His second-half exploits earned him Comeback Player of the Year honors, and in 1966, he was invited to the All-Star Game. Cash once again led AL first sackers in fielding with a .997 percentage. Meanwhile, the Cash family was expanding, as Norm and Myrta welcomed son Jay Carl on April 28, 1963, and daughter Julie Lee on December 28, 1964.

Stormin’ Norman proved to be the exception on the 1968 Tigers as he was fighting an early-season slump. On July 27, the 6-foot Cash was barely hitting his weight, batting .195 on a team cruising to its first American League pennant in 23 years. In dramatic fashion, he hit a torrid .332 in his last 54 games to finish the season at .262. Included in his 11 home runs and 32 RBI in August and September was a three-run blast against Oakland on September 14. The winning pitcher of the 5–4 decision was Denny McLain—his 30th win of the season. Cash led Detroit’s batsmen in the World Series, hitting .385 against St. Louis pitching. After being Bob Gibson’s record-setting 16th strikeout victim in Game 1, Cash redeemed himself the following afternoon, homering off Nelson Briles in an 8–1 complete-game win for Mickey Lolich. With the Tigers facing elimination in Game 6, Cash enjoyed another productive day at the plate, scoring two of the 13 Detroit runs, tying the Series at three games. This set the stage for a historic Game 7. The Tigers were unfazed at the prospect of facing a pitcher, Bob Gibson, who specialized in winning Game 7. In the clubhouse after practice, manager Mayo Smith encouraged his players, saying that Gibson “can be beat, he’s not Superman!” To this, Cash rejoindered, “Oh yeah? Just a little while ago, I saw him changing in a phone booth!” Tigers hitters proved to be Kryptonite. With two outs and no score in the seventh inning, Cash ignited a Detroit rally with a single off Gibson and later put the Tigers ahead, scoring on Jim Northrup’s triple. The final score was 4–1, and the Detroit Tigers were world champions.

After playing in the field for only 114 of his team’s 162 games in 1970, Cash enjoyed a renaissance season playing in the Renaissance City in 1971. So torrid was his first half that spectators across major-league ballparks voted him to start the All-Star Game on July 13. Played in Detroit, it drew 53,559 spectators.

When the dust cleared on the 1971 season, the Tigers had won 91 games but finished 12 games behind Earl Weaver and the Orioles. Stormin’ Norman clubbed 32 round-trippers—one shy of Bill Melton’s league lead—while driving in 91 runs and batting a respectable .283. His offensive record was enough to win his second AL Comeback Player of the Year Award. It would have surprised nobody to hear Cash proclaim, after accepting the honor, “I hope I win this again next year.” Cash was, however, named to the All-Star team once again in 1972, his fourth and final year in the midsummer classic. (Cash played in both 1961 tilts for a total of five All-Star Game appearances.) His offensive output may have slackened in 1972, but the Tigers vaulted ahead in the standings to win their first American League East Division title.

A player known for his pranks, Cash saved his most famous stunt for the twilight of his career. It occurred on July 15, 1973, as the Tigers entertained the visiting California Angels. Not one Detroit batsman had hit safely off starting pitcher Nolan Ryan. With two away in the bottom of the ninth, the Ryan Express had fanned 17 as his Angels led 6–0. Potentially the final hitter of the game, Cash strode to the plate substituting a table leg for a bat. Home plate umpire Ron Luciano forbade Cash’s creative use of equipment. Cash protested, “But Ron, I’ve got as much chance with this as I do with a bat.” As Jim Northrup remembers from the third-base dugout, Cash reluctantly retrieved a bat—and grounded out against his fellow Texan. The no-hitter was Ryan’s second in as many months; as Cash returned to the dugout, he turned to Luciano and said, “See, I told ya.”

The 1974 season was a transitional one for the Tigers. For only the second time in franchise history, Detroit finished the season in last place. Stormin’ Norman received a fateful telephone call from General Manager Jim Campbell on August 7. Batting only .228 with seven home runs and 12 RBI, Cash was let go. “I thought at least they’d let me finish out the year. Campbell just called and said I didn’t have to show up at the park.”

Norm Cash was a player who knew his baseball career would not last forever. As a player, his off-season occupations included banking, ranching, and auctioning hogs. In the early 1970s, Cash hosted a local variety show in Detroit called The Norm Cash Show. In 1976, he teamed with former October archrival Bob Gibson as broadcasters for ABC’s Monday Night Baseball. Although Cash continued to display his brand of humor, it was not appreciated by all. On-air remarks such as equating entertainment in Baltimore with going “down to the street and [watching] hubcaps rust” earned Cash his dismissal from the network. In 1978, he made his film debut with a cameo appearance in One in a Million: The Ron LeFlore Story. In a scene filmed in Lakeland, Florida, Cash was standing with Kaline, Freehan, and Northrup to watch LeFlore in his first spring training after being released from Southern Michigan Prison in Jackson. When the others marveled at his speed, Cash chimed in with “He can’t be too fast, the cops caught him.

Divorced from Myrta, Cash married his second wife, Dorothy, on May 22, 1973. They moved upstate from Detroit, first to Union Lake, where Cash worked as a sales representative for an automobile machinery manufacturer. When asked, Cash remarked that “it’s good money…but to tell the truth I’m looking for something else to do.” Sadly, the good times did not last long. As Detroit automakers’ supremacy took a hit from Japanese imports, Cash’s financial windfall proved to be short-term. His health began to deteriorate; he suffered a massive stroke in 1979. As Ernie Harwell remembers, he was “out of commission for quite a while.” Fortunately, by 1981 he was healthy enough to broadcast Tigers games for ON-TV, a subscription television service that leased time from a Detroit UHF station to show its programming. He and Hank Aguirre provided color commentary alongside Larry Adderly’s play-by-play. By 1983, partial paralysis of his face made him slur his words, and he could no longer continue. In 1986, Cash returned to Tiger Stadium to participate in the Equitable Old Timers Game. Fans were shocked to see the first baseman a shadow of his former self. He could no longer field routine infield balls. A throw from third base hit him in the head before bouncing away. Cash handled the situation with humor, but privately he was embarrassed by the incident. What nobody realized at the time is that the appearance would be his last at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull.

Scott McKinstry remembers Sunday evening of the Columbus Day weekend in 1986 being a gray, misty one. “I was standing at the lighthouse…on Lake Michigan looking out over the water to where boats head out from Charlevoix to Beaver Island.” The weather forecast echoed the somber mood that would all too soon be shared by Tigers fans. Earlier in the day, Cash left his condominium to meet Dorothy and a friend for dinner at the Shamrock Bar on Beaver Island. Those present could affirm that Cash had been drinking. After dinner, he returned to the dock to check on his boat. Unable to navigate the slippery pier in his cowboy boots, he fell into the water and could not pull himself out. The next morning, he was found floating in 15 feet of water in St. James Bay. Norman Dalton Cash was pronounced dead on October 12, 1986. He was 51 years old. Tragedy would hit the Cash family a second time in 1987 when Norm’s son, Jay, committed suicide.

Like Buddy Holly before him, the Texas legend of Norm Cash lives on. Ernie Harwell recalls receiving an autographed photo from Cash inscribed with his trademark humor: “To the second best broadcaster in the big leagues. The other 25 tied for first place.” Gary Peters, who broke in with the White Sox with Cash, remembers his former teammate’s diverse collection of hobbies, which included horseback riding, fencing, waterskiing, dancing, and playing the ukulele. Whitey Herzog, Cash’s roommate in 1963, once claimed that “there was nothing Norm Cash couldn’t do.” Describing Cash as his roommate, however, might have been an exaggeration; Herzog recalls the experience as “just like having your own room.” On April 23, 2005, the sandlot in Post, Texas, where Stormin’ Norman played Little League ball, was rededicated in memory of Garza County’s most famous athlete as Norm Cash Field.

Perhaps the most vocal and outward posthumous tribute to Cash came in the final hours of the ballpark whose first base he called home from the Eisenhower administration to two days shy of Gerald Ford taking the oath of office. A sellout crowd of 43,556 jammed Tiger Stadium on September 27, 1999, for the final game against the Kansas City Royals. Several Tigers switched uniform numbers to pay homage to players who starred before them. Rookie Robert Fick switched his number 18 for 25 to honor Cash. But Fick went one step further. The Tigers enjoyed a comfortable 4–2 eighth-inning lead when Fick crushed a Jeff Montgomery fastball for a grand slam. In true Norm Cash fashion, the ball nearly cleared the right-field roof. Fick said that he “looked up in the sky and thought of my dad,” who had passed away the year before. “I know that he had something to do with all this.”

So did Norm Cash.

This article first appeared in Sock It To 'Em Tigers--The Incredible Story of the 1968 Tigers (Maple Street Press, 2008), edited by Mark Pattison and David Raglin, and later appeared in Go-Go To Glory—The 1959 Chicago White Sox (Acta, 2009), edited by Don Zminda.


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