December 5, 2023

When Cash Was King of Comedy

July 15, 2023 by · Leave a Comment 

Norm CashNolan Ryan debuted with the Mets in 1966 but he didn’t make a name for himself till he was traded to the Angels after the 1971 season.  He pitched his first no-hitter on May 15, 1973 against the Royals.  Two months later, he followed up with another one against Detroit.  It was not quite as impressive as Johnny Vander Meer’s back-to-back no-hitters in 1938, but two in one season is a feat accomplished by only three other pitchers: Virgil Trucks, Allie Reynolds and Max Scherzer (make that four pitchers if you count Roy Halladay, who threw a post-season no-hitter to accompany his regular season no-hitter in 2010).

July 15, 2023 is the 50th anniversary of Ryan’s second no-hitter.  It is also the semicentennial (yes, that’s really a word) of a curious incident that happened in the waning moments of the game.

Back in the days when pocket watches were common, fans would have said Ryan was wearing ‘em (the Tigers) on his watch chain.  With two outs in the ninth, the Tigers were not only hitless, but 17 of them had gone down on strikes.  It was Ryan’s largest total of the season and only one away from the AL record and two away from the MLB record.  The Angels’ defense had not been challenged by any ball in play.  Tiger DH (this was the first year of the AL DH rule) Gates Brown had the closest thing to a good day with two walks (Ryan issued four). Despite Ryan’s dominance, the outcome of the game was not a given, as the Angels were leading by just 1-0 after seven innings.  After the Angels plated five runs in the top of the 8th inning, Ryan had some breathing room.

In the bottom of the 9th, Mickey Stanley grounded out and Gates Brown lined out.  Thus the baseball gods decreed that Norm Cash was potentially the last out of the no-hitter – or a potential spoiler.  Coming up for the fourth time, Cash had struck out twice and grounded out.  At age 39, his wrists, strengthened by chopping cotton in his youth, had lost some snap and a Nolan Ryan fastball was more of a challenge than it would have been in his salad days.

A Sunday afternoon Tiger Stadium Cap Day crowd of 41,411 was on tenterhooks as Cash strode up to the plate.  Before he assumed his stance, he turned to umpire Ron Luciano and said, “Aren’t you going to check my bat?”  In Cash’s previous plate appearance in the 6th inning, Ryan had requested that Luciano check the bat for cork.  Cash had boasted of using a corked bat when he won the AL batting title in 1961, but he had been “clean” for a long time.  Perhaps Ryan hadn’t received that memo.

Or maybe Angels pitching coach Tom Morgan, who was a teammate of Cash with the 1960 Tigers, had suggested it.  As a member of the Angels inaugural year pitching staff in 1961, Morgan had pitched against the Tigers and was surely aware of the cork controversy.  Appropriately enough, Tiger Stadium was in the Corktown section of Detroit (the neighborhood name derived from Irish immigrants from County Cork who had fled the potato famine).

When Luciano checked the “bat,” he did not need 20/20 vision to detect that Cash was swinging not a bat but a table leg (some witnesses thought it was a piano leg).  Though known as something of a joker himself, Luciano could not let Cash swing a table leg.  The rule book didn’t specifically ban table legs but it was pretty clear that they didn’t comply with the rules.  Cash insisted that it would make no difference (indeed, he popped to short after he switched to his regular model bat).  Game over, no-hitter No. 2 secured, the Nolan Ryan legend adds another chapter.  For good measure, it was the second time that season the Tigers had been no-hit in their home park (Steve Busby of the Royals tamed the Tigers on April 27).

The Ryan-Cash showdown made for one of the more bizarre endings in no-hitter history.  But what would have happened if Cash had not asked Luciano to check the “bat,” and neither Luciano nor Angel catcher Art Kusnyer had noticed the table leg – and Cash somehow managed to get a base hit.  I suspect Cash would have been called out after the fact by Luciano, and more than likely Tiger manager Billy Martin would have stormed the field and had a tizzy.  Eventually, buttoned-down Commissioner Bowie Kuhn would have buttoned up his stuffed shirt and interceded on behalf of the integrity of the game.

Cash was really tempting fate when he pulled his stunt.  Had Ryan taken offense, he might have chosen to retaliate at a future date.  As a veteran who had never worn a helmet, Cash was one of a vanishing breed of major league batters who was allowed to wear a mere liner under his cap.  The next meeting of the Tigers and Angels might have been a good time to switch to a helmet, yet when the two teams met on August 17 in Anaheim, the game (a 10-2 complete game victory for Ryan) went off without incident.

Had a ballplayer attempted such a stunt several decades before, it would have gone down in baseball lore as one of those weird pre-video incidents perpetrated by some primeval character of the game…right up there with Babe Herman, Germany Schaefer, or Rube Waddell.  You could read about it but you couldn’t see it on film.

Didja hear?  Some guy on the Tigers took a table leg up to bat the other day!

Yeah, I was there, it was a leg from a billiard table.

Nah, it was one of those old bottle bats.

You’re both wrong.  It was a barrel stave.

Well, it would have been like Babe Ruth’s called shot.  Did he do it or not?  With no video record of it, the dispute continues today, more than 90 years after the fact.  Today a called shot would be subject to countless replays from every camera angle available.  If he was pointing, what was he pointing at?  Or was he just stretching his arm?  Maybe there would be a consensus, maybe not.  If the batter refused to comment, speculation would be rampant.

Video technology has advanced a lot in the last 50 years but even in 1973 it was good enough to document the Cash incident.  Generations of fans born after 1973 can view it on YouTube today.  You can even listen to Ernie Harwell’s ninth inning call of the no-hitter.

What the video cannot tell us is whether Cash’s stunt was a joke or a psych job, a way of disrupting Ryan’s concentration.  Cash had a longstanding reputation as a joker, and most commentators attributed the table leg incident to his warped sense of humor.  Today there’s no telling what they would make of it on Sports Center with one pundit declaring we need more characters like Cash and another harrumphing that he has no respect for the game.

Of course, Nolan Ryan is still around if anyone cares to ask him about the incident.  So is Art Kusnyer, his batterymate.  Unfortunately, Ron Luciano is gone.  Known as one of the most flamboyant and entertaining umpires in the majors, Luciano also suffered from depression and took his life in 1995.

Of course, the ultimate source would have been Cash himself but he took the secret to his grave – a watery grave.

Much like Dean Martin, Cash was almost always seen with a drink in his hand.  Opinions differ as to whether he imbibed as much as it appeared or if he nursed his drinks.  Given the numerous anecdotes about his heroic sobering-up efforts before ballgames, one is inclined to think he was really knocking ‘em down.

That Cash could continue to play till age 40 is a tribute to his constitution.  Even a man with good genes is mortal, however.  Just five years after “retiring” (the Tigers released him) on August 6, 1974, Cash suffered a severe stroke.  He was never the same again but that didn’t mean the party was over.

On October 11, 1986, Cash took the Stormin’ Norman, a 33-foot cabin cruiser that was christened with his nickname, out on Lake Michigan.  It was the last day of his life.

Now it would be poetic justice if a storm had sunk Stormin’ Norman while he was at the helm of the Stormin’ Norman, but that is not what happened.  His journey from the waterfront town of Charlevoix on the Michigan mainland to Beaver Island in northern Lake Michigan was uneventful.  He met his wife and a friend for dinner…and drinks, four of them, according to the patrons of the Shamrock Bar.

After dining and imbibing, he went down to the dock to check his boat.  Now most sailors wear some sort of flat, rubber-soled footwear, usually sneakers or deck shoes, something to prevent the wearer from slipping on wet surfaces.  But Norm Cash was not like most sailors.  As the product of a West Texas upbringing, Cash was fond of cowboy boots.  And that was his footwear on that fatal day.

There were no witnesses, but as near as anyone could tell, Cash slipped on the dock, hit his head, and fell into the water.  His body was found in the bay the next morning.  His footwear might have been partially responsible.  A bigger factor was likely his 0.18 blood alcohol level.

Cash might have died in the chilly waters of Lake Michigan (please, no jokes about cold Cash), but he remained a true Texan to the end: He literally died with his boots on.

A pity we’ll never be able to question Cash on the barrelhead.  We’ll never know if he was swinging a table leg, a piano leg, or an ostrich leg.  And we’ll never know how he procured it, whatever it was, during the ninth inning of a no-hitter in progress at Tiger Stadium.


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