At first glance, there wouldn’t appear to be a much more unlikely batting champion than Norman Dalton Cash.
A career .271 hitter. Only one season of better than .300, and nothing really close to it beyond that.
Yet there it is, forever stamped in indelible ink in the record books and repeated on Retrosheet.org and baseball-reference.com, and anywhere else where they make official the history of baseball.
1961: Norm Cash, .361 batting average.
It’s the computation of Williams or Boggs or Cobb or Gwynn. Of Hornsby and Heilmann and Kell and Carew. And maybe, this year, of Ordonez, Magglio.
Tigers right fielder Ordonez is on the verge of becoming the team’s first batting champion since Cash’s anomaly. Maggs went into the weekend with a BA of .359 – nine points ahead of Seattle’s brilliant Ichiro Suzuki, another who’s no stranger to such rarified air. Ordonez hasn’t resided quite in this neighborhood before, but he’s no Norm Cash in that regard.
Of course, few were Norm Cash in any regard.
Cash, one of my favorite of all the Tigers, didn’t take any secrets with him to the grave. He died in 1986, age 51 and already a stroke sufferer by several years. But long before that, before he slipped off a dock and drowned in northern Michigan, Cash had already come clean. He wasn’t such an unlikely batting champ once he explained his magical 1961 season.
It’s generally believed by swingers of baseball bats that the lighter you can make your war club, the more whip-like swinging power you can muster. And feeling like you’re swinging a piece of balsa wood as opposed to oak is a good thing. It’s one reason why the on deck batters will occasionally slide a weighted ring – an aptly named “doughnut” – over their bat while waiting their turn. For when they remove said doughnut, their piece of lumber has the sensation of being more balsa-like.
Norm Cash did that method one better.
Hey — check that bat!
Baseball, though maybe by mistake, is rife with gamesmanship.
Certain ne’er-do-wells have been employed by ballclubs for various reasons that had little to do with their exploits on the field of play. Some have been experts at deciphering the various gyrations, self-touching, and head shakes of opposing players, managers, and coaches. The sign stealer. Teams in days past were known to pay spies to sit in the center field bleachers with high-powered binoculars and relay the catcher’s signals to the home team batter. Then there were pitchers like Gaylord Perry, who turned himself into a human lube shop on the mound, hiding Vaseline and other substances on his person – shamelessly – and doing it brazenly and with enough panache that he got himself enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Even though we’re not supposed to allow cheaters in, like Pete Rose. And Perry.
It is with such spirit of competition in mind that hitters came up with a method by which to get that balsa wood effect with their bats.
An enterprising sort thought of it. You drill a hole into the top of the barrel, maybe a couple inches deep, perhaps a half-inch in diameter. You hollow it out, then replace the wood with cork. To conceal such a misdeed, some of the original wood is then glued back on top of the cork-filled hole. You now have a lighter bat, by a precious ounce or so. Enough to get that whip-like swing.
Of course, this isn’t gamesmanship – which is done with a wink of the eye. It’s blatant cheating. What sort of hoodlum would cork a bat – for an entire season?
Norm Cash would. Norm Cash did.
He admitted it, years later. It wasn’t hard to guess that something was going on. In 1962, a year after his monster season, Cash slipped down to a .243 BA – some 118 points off his ’61 mark. He never batted higher than .283 before retiring after the 1974 season.
The other day, another former Tigers batting champion, Al Kaline, talked about the genius of Magglio Ordonez.
“I marvel at the guy,” said Kaline, who won the 1955 batting title – at age 20. And without cork. “People don’t realize how smart a hitter he is,” Kaline went on about Ordonez, another non-user of corked bats, it’s presumed. “I look at that probably more than anything else. He just makes adjustments, pitch to pitch, at-bat to at-bat.
“…It’s a thing to behold. It’s wonderful to watch.”
And all done within the confines of the rules.
Baseball, with its fetish for asterisks, should probably place a big old fat one next to Norm Cash’s 1961 stat line. All of his numbers were on steroids that season. A visit to Retrosheet.org confirms it. Home runs: 41 (career high). Doubles: 22 (2nd most in career). Triples: 8 (career high). RBI: 132 (career high, by far). Walks: 124 (career high, by far). Intentional walks: 19 (career high). Runs scored: 119 (another landslide career high).
The Statute of Limitations is up – and long ago. They can’t do anything to Norman Cash anymore. They couldn’t even when he made the admission. Besides, ’61 was the year of Roger Maris – with his assault on Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record, nudged along by teammate Mickey Mantle, who chased Maris all season before fading slightly. The M&M Boys, they called them.
Nope, you can’t change the record books. Can’t re-program the baseball data websites. Can’t expunge Cash’s .361, no matter how light and feathery his bat was that season. And why would you want to, really? He had his fun, and then learned his lesson and stopped, after just the one season. All is forgiven.
Oh, one more thing. You DO know Tiger Stadium is located in Corktown, right?
I love it.