This article was written by Gregory H. Wolf
As Detroit Tigers first baseman Norm Cash prepared to dig in against California Angels right-hander Nolan Ryan, who was just one out away from a no-hitter, he looked at home-plate umpire Ron Luciano and asked with all seriousness, “Aren’t you going to check my bat?”1 Known for his unusual humor, Cash had sauntered to the batter’s box in the tense situation wielding a table leg. When Luciano, unamused by the prank, calmly informed the slugger he couldn’t use the ersatz bat, Cash supposedly replied, “Why not, I won’t hit him anyway.”2 Cash was right: he popped up and Ryan recorded his second no-hitter in two months. Ryan’s 17-strikeout performance, wrote Angels beat reporter Ron Rapoport, “left friend and foe groping for superlatives.”3 Jim Hawkins of the Detroit Free Press called it “one of the most impressive one-man shows in baseball history.”4
When Detroit and California headed to Tiger Stadium on Sunday, July 15, 1973, to play the final contest of a four-game series, they appeared to be going in opposite directions. Manager Billy Martin’s Tigers had pennant aspirations. They had captured the AL East crown the previous year, and were playing their best ball of the season. A five-game winning streak pushed them into fourth place, at 48-42, but only 1½ games behind the division-leading New York Yankees. As for the Angels, skipper Bobby Winkles had gotten the team off to a promising start and briefly occupied first place, but the club had lost its previous four games and 11 of the last 17 games to fall to fourth place at 45-43.
The pitching matchup was a contrast in styles. The Tigers’ 37-year-old righty, Jim Perry, faced off against the 26-year-old Ryan. While Perry relied on pinpoint control and ball movement, Ryan overpowered the opposition. Perry, a 15-year veteran and a former Cy Young Award winner with a record of 189-147, was winding his career down. Ryan, who had battled control problems since his debut with the New York Mets in 1966, emerged as baseball’s most feared strikeout artist the previous season, his first with the Angels. Expectations in 1973 were high for Ryan, coming off a league-leading 329 strikeouts and nine shutouts. On May 15 Ryan joined Bo Belinsky and Clyde Wright as the only Angels hurlers to toss no-hitters by blanking the Kansas City Royals and fanning 12, but had since then won just five of 13 decisions. “I don’t feel like I’ve done as much for the club as I could be doing,” a modest Ryan told the Los Angeles Times, pointing to his disappointing 10-11 record and ignoring his 203 punchouts in 180 innings.5
On a beautiful summer afternoon, with temperatures in the mid-70s, Tiger Stadium was filled with a large crowd of 41,411 spectators on Cap Day to witness one of the most dominant pitching performances in baseball history. Ryan’s first pitch to leadoff batter Jim Northrup was a knee-buckling curveball that ricocheted off catcher Art Kusnyer’s shin guard and hit Luciano’s right knee. After Northrup flied out, the “Ryan Express” went into overdrive. The 6-foot-2 Texan registered 12 of the next 13 outs by strikeout and also walked three before light-hitting Ed Brinkman grounded to short to end the fifth inning. “I’ve never seen anyone throw that good before,” said Dick McAuliffe, who whiffed in each of his three plate appearances.6
The weak-hitting Angels, who ranked 11th of 12 teams in runs scored and batting average and last in slugging percentage that season, scored the game’s first run in the third inning. After consecutive one-out singles by Kusnyer and Sandy Alomar, Vada Pinson hit a sacrifice fly to right field to give the Angels the lead. Through the top of the sixth, Perry kept the pressure on Ryan by limiting California to just four hits.
Northrup led off the sixth inning with the Tigers’ one “reasonably hard-hit ball,” but center fielder Ken Berry traced its arc and snared it in front of the warning track for an easy out.7 A tough-nosed competitor, Ryan looked for any psychological edge in his battle with hitters. When Cash came to bat in the sixth, Ryan asked Luciano to examine his bat for cork filler. A quick worker on the mound, Ryan kept rolling while his heater and curveball inspired awe. “The curve was really outstanding,” said Kusnyer, a little-used backup catcher who was a game-time replacement for the injured Jeff Torborg. “It was really going down. You could tell the hitters were chopping down on the ball.”8 According to Tigers reliever Ed Farmer, Billy Martin ordered his players on the bench to pay $5 early in the game and pull a number out of a hat predicting how many strikeouts Ryan would have.9 In the seventh, Ryan struck out the side for the third time in the game, and pushed his strikeout total to 16, just three shy of the major-league record of 19 (in a nine-inning game) set by Steve Carlton (September 15, 1969) and Tom Seaver (April 22, 1970).
The Angels blew the game open in the eighth inning when Winston Llenas, Bob Oliver, and Al Gallagher each connected for two-out singles off relievers Bob Miller and Farmer to give the Angels a commanding 6-0 lead. But the offensive fireworks had an unintended effect on Ryan. “My arm stiffened up,” he said after the game about the long delay. “I was kind of anxious to get going. I knew personally that I didn’t have the same stuff. They were hitting my pitches.”10
In an attempt to jinx Ryan, Martin remained on the dugout steps for the final two innings, reminding the pitcher of his no-hitter. Ryan ignored the taunts and sent down the final six batters in order, but whiffed just one. The final two outs were arguably the most dramatic of the game. Gates Brown hit a line drive to the shortstop, Rudy Meoli. “If it was not right at somebody, it was a hit,” wrote Rapoport.11 In fact, Ryan thought it was a hit, reported Jim Hawkins, but Meoli had shaded Brown slightly to the right and caught the ball on his toes about a foot above his head.12 After Cash’s escapade with the table, he popped up to Meoli in shallow left field. “Ryan didn’t require any super plays,” wrote Dick Miller in The Sporting News, to preserve his gem.13
Both squads seemed genuinely impressed with Ryan’s dominant performance. Frank Robinson, the Angels’ prized offseason acquisition, offered some historical perspective: “I’ve never seen anyone throw harder and that includes Sandy Koufax.”14 Ryan threw so hard that Kusnyer’s left hand was dangerously swollen and had turned purple. “It’s a bone bruise,” said the catcher proudly in the clubhouse after the game.15
“I was more excited about this one,” responded Ryan when asked to compare his two no-hitters. “You know what the pressure is and you know you don’t want to lose it.” He threw 126 pitches (86 for strikes) and completed the game in 2 hours and 21 minutes. As of 2014, Ryan, Johnny Vander Meer (1938), Allie Reynolds (1951), Virgil Trucks (1952), and Roy Halladay (2010) are the only big-league hurlers to toss two no-hitters in the same season (although Halladay’s second no-no was in the National League Division Series on October 6, 2010). Ryan’s gem was also the last no-hitter thrown in Tiger Stadium.
Nolan Ryan went on to throw seven no-hitters and win 324 games in his 27-year Hall of Fame career, yet this game has entered baseball lore because of Norm Cash’s practical joke. When Cash came to the plate in the ninth inning, Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell described the bat erroneously as a piano leg.16 Initially, Cash’s escapade did not attract much media attention, and many contemporary game reports, such as in the Detroit Free Press, did not mention it. But over time, the story gathered traction as Ryan’s stature grew. Whether involving a piano leg or table leg, the anecdote came to epitomize the impossible task of hitting a pitch. Cash’s antics moved into the realm of pop culture in 1992 when Carl, a cartoon character in The Simpsons, went to the plate with a piano leg in a special episode entitled “Homer at the Bat.”
This article appeared in “Tigers By The Tale: Great Games at Michigan and Trumbull” (SABR, 2016), edited by Scott Ferkovich. To read more articles from this book, click here.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, Retrosheet.org and Baseball-Reference.com were also accessed.
1 Ron Rapoport, “Encore! Ryan Hurls Second No-Hitter,” Los Angeles Times, July 16, 1973, III, 2.
4 Jim Hawkins, “Ryan No-Hits Tigers . . . Strikes Out 17 To Boot,” Detroit Free Press, July 16, 1973, 1-D
5 “ . . . Feels He Hasn’t Done Enough For Angels,” Los Angeles Times, July 16, 1973, III, 2.
9 Rob Goldman, Nolan Ryan: The Making of a Pitcher (Chicago: Triumph Books, 2014).
13 Dick Miller, “Ryan’s Smoke Sends Tigers Into No-Hit Blind,” The Sporting News, July 28, 1973, 15.
16 “Bat tales: our favorite stories of all-time,” Detroit Free Press, March 30, 2008. http://freep.com/article/20080330/SPORTS02/80330021/Bat-tales-Our-favorite-stories-all-time.