Did the corked bat help Norm Cash?

What makes a baseball bat special?

In The Natural, a 1984 film based on a book by Bernard Malamud, the protagonist is Roy Hobbs, who swings a bat he made from a tree back home that was split in pieces by a lightning strike. Roy’s “Wonderboy” bat helps him become the batting hero for a previously struggling team.

Besides Hobbs, real flesh-and-blood sluggers have wielded extraordinary bats too. Babe Ruth used one of the heaviest bats on record, and Ted Williams weighed his bats to make sure they were proper within fractions of an ounce. Shoeless Joe Jackson called his favorite bat, “Black Betsy,” and he also had a bat named “Blonde Betsy.”

Since they first started swinging the “old wagon tongue,” hitters have tried to gain every edge with the lumber in their hands. Some batters put nails in the barrel of their bats, and others flattened the barrel to help them make square contact. Those types of modifications were deemed illegal, but that hasn’t stopped players from tampering with their bats.

Norm Cash wasn’t the first man to put cork in a bat, but he ended up being known for it. Cash admitted he used a corked bat in 1961, which turned out to be the finest season of his career. Cash played 17 years in the big leagues, the last 15 in the uniform of the Detroit Tigers. In ’61 he teamed in the middle of the lineup with Rocky Colavito and Al Kaline. For one season, there may have never been a more fearsome trio in a Tiger lineup. That year, Cash used illegal bats while he had his banner season. But how much did it really help?

A good physicist will tell you that cork doesn’t help a ball go farther, it only helps a batter swing faster. A corked bat has less mass, since the barrel must be hollowed out and filled with the lighter substance. That lost mass is the key to understanding how a corked bat helps (or doesn’t help) a batter.

According to tests performed for the Mythbusters television show, a corked bat will exert half as much force on a baseball than a regulation bat. Aerodynamic specialists that spoke at the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2003, explained that the loss of mass is a handicap that any gain in bat speed cannot recover from.

Corking a bat doesn’t help, it actually hinders efforts to hit a baseball harder and farther.

Of course, there may be a placebo effect, and perhaps that was part of the reason Cash excelled in 1961. With what he thought was his own personal “Wonderboy” in his hands, Norm may have felt invincible.

Many, many hitters have been caught using a corked bat, and no one else (to my knowledge) has ever had a freak season like Cash had using a corked bat. One of Pete Rose’s bats was found to be corked, a bat he used for two seasons, hitting a grand total of two home runs. Sammy Sosa used corked bats, and so did Albert Belle, but they were helped by syringes, not cork.

The most likely reason for Cash’s phenomenal season in 1961 was the weaker pitching in the league due to expansion. In 1961, the American League added two teams: the Los Angeles Angels and the new Washington Senators. The addition of those two teams added two dozen new pitchers to the league, lowering the overall talent pool. Every time a league expands, for a short time, the quality of pitching is worse, until the talent catches up.

Cash hit .390 with a .724 slugging percentage against teams in the bottom half of the league that season. The same year, Roger Maris hit 61 homers and his teammate Mickey Mantle hit 54. It was high times for sluggers as they faced a lot of pitchers who had been minor leaguers the season before.

Old Norm was remarkably candid about his rule-bending. Years after he retired, Cash explained his methods in a magazine article. He admitted that a teammate in the minor leagues (unnamed) had taught him how to cork a bat. Cash said that he didn’t think the corked bat was the reason for his success that season. “I really saw the ball well all year,” Norm said. He fell off in 1962, suffering the biggest drop of any batting champion, and stopped corking. If he could hit .361 with a corked bat and .243 with the same corked bats, what was the use?

Others have been caught with corked bats, including Graig Nettles, who was nabbed during a game against Cash and the Tigers at Tiger Stadium. Nettles later explained that he poured chopped up “superballs” into the barrel. He hit 22 homers that season, but won the home run title two years later, apparently with a legit piece of wood.

Not much is heard of corked bats today, the batters seemed corked themselves, a league of Popeye’s swinging from the heels.

As long as there’s been baseball, batters have been trying to cheat, and in 1961, Norm Cash did his share, but it’s unclear how much the cork really helped.

2 replies on “Did the corked bat help Norm Cash?

  • Ray

    This article is ridiculus…weaker pitching in 1961 ? Yes so what happened in 1962 when Cash hit a dismal .243 ?….did the pitching become stronger in 1 season ?

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