If one was asked to guess which player notched the highest single-season batting average during the entire 1960s, one might reasonably choose any of the following hit-happy batsmen active during the decade: Carl Yastrzemski, Pete Rose, Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron, or maybe Tony Oliva or Frank Robinson.
One would be wrong.
Nope, the honor of reaching the high-water mark among 1960s batsmen belongs to a muffin-faced first baseman named Norm Cash, a career .271 hitter. Swinging from the left side of the plate, Cash batted .361 that summer for the Detroit Tigers. He also achieved career highs in home runs (41) and RBI (132). “It was a freak,” he later said. “Even at the time, I realized that. Everything I hit seemed to drop in, even when I didn’t make good contact. I never thought I’d do it again.”
And he didn’t. Not even close. In fact, 1962 Cash followed up his extraordinary ’61 campaign by batting a woeful .243. The 118-point drop remains the largest season-to-season falloff of any batting champ in big-league history. But he remained one of the most productive power hitters in the game, finishing runner-up in home runs on three different occasions. He was dependable in the clutch, batting .385 in the 1968 World Series.
Tomorrow is the 79th anniversary of Cash’s birth in Texas, back on November 10, 1934. The smiling slugger was taken from us far too soon, in an accident in 1986.
When “Stormin’ Norman” came to Detroit in 1960 after two seasons with the Chicago White Sox, he reminded local sports fans of another hard-partying, blonde-haired Texas good ol’ boy from the city’s recent sporting past: Lions quarterback Bobby Layne. Cash enjoyed his nights out on the town—and any town would do – but it never seemed to affect his play. “When you mention Norm Cash, I just smile,” said Al Kaline, whose brilliance at the plate and in the field overshadowed Cash’s own considerable talents. “He was just a fun guy to be around and a great teammate. He always came ready to play.”
Cash spent 15 seasons in a Detroit uniform, 1960 through 1974. His 373 home runs, which still ranks him second to Kaline on the club’s all-time list, and batting title in 1961 are only part of the story. A gamer and a showman, Cash regularly doffed his cap to the crowd, flipped balls into the stands, and fielded his position with flair and grace. He was a master at running down foul flies hit high over his head. He was one of the few players not to wear a batting helmet during his career. He strode to the plate in his familiar bandy-legged way, a cloth cap jammed down on his head, spitting tobacco juice and twirling three bats over his head. More often than not, he made the umpire and catcher smile as he set himself in the batter’s box. Once he offered the ump a pair of novelty sunglasses with battery-operated wiper blades. On another occasion, as Nolan Ryan was one out away from completing a no-hitter at Tiger Stadium, he came to the plate brandishing a table leg.
“Normy was one of the top five ballplayers, as far as human goodness was concerned,” Lindell A.C. owner Jimmy Butsicaris once said. “He’d think nothing of taking a few balls down to Children’s Hospital and autographing them for kids. When it came time to speak at some charity dinner, Norm was always there. He wasn’t like a lot of these other guys, where the first thing out of their mouths was ‘How much?’ Ol’ Normy just said, ‘Where and when?’ when it came to giving to other people.”
When Cash retired in 1974, he had hit more home runs than any left-handed hitter in American League history except for Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Ted Williams. In retirement, he also was free to ‘fess up about his magical ’61 season. Turns out he had been corking his bats with a mixture of glue, sawdust, and cork. He played a couple seasons with Little Caesar’s pro softball and also did some work in the broadcast booth. Mostly he just continued to enjoy life, especially on his 33-foot cabin cruiser, which he named the “Stormin’ Norman.”
The partying caught up with Cash one rainy October night in 1986. After knocking back several vodka tonics inside a northern Michigan bar, he fell off a dock while trying to board his cabin cruiser. Authorities found his body the next morning face-up in 15 feet of cold water, his eyeglasses still on and the toes of his cowboy boots pointed heavenward.
Cash was only 51 when he died, but he had stuffed a lot of fun into those 51 years. “I’ve got to enjoy myself no matter what I’m doing,” he once said. “I get a kick out of playing the game. People see me this way when I’m going bad and think I don’t take the game seriously. I can’t help that. It’s just my way.”