Mr. Crash of the Tigers

That's what they call Detroit's Norm Cash, whose surprising slugging is a big reason for the team's high position. Cash still relies on the bench for advice on how to play first base
July 09, 1961

Norman Dalton Cash is a cattle rancher who runs Herefords on his father-in-law's spread near Eldorado, Texas. His brand, in cattleman's language, will very likely be called the Circle Double-C; in any other language, it's a baseball. That, of course, is the most appropriate brand young (26) Mr. Cash could have chosen. He bought his first calves with $7,000 in World Series money earned as a member of the 1959 Chicago White Sox. As the best hitter in the American League—at the moment—and first baseman for the league-leading Detroit Tigers, he'll probably add a good-sized herd to his holding this year.

The other afternoon he sat in the Detroit dugout, squinting out at the batting cage, where Minnie Minoso of the White Sox was taking his flamboyant cuts at the ball. Hanging from an upper deck in Tiger Stadium, a banner moved gently in the breeze; on it was lettered "Mr. Crash!" This is a nickname Cash has fallen heir to this year with very good reasons. As of last weekend he led the American League in hitting (at .373), was second in runs batted in (with 68), and third in home runs (24). He is also one of only three batters who have ever hit a baseball completely out of Tiger Stadium.

"Sure is a long way from Justice-burg where I was raised," he said, wonderingly. "You got to be lucky to get here. You figure I was raised 15 miles outside a town had only 80 people, two service stations, one general store and a post office. And the post office was in the general store. My daddy was a dryland cotton farmer. I could have been chopping cotton all my life."

He did chop cotton for a long time—which may account for his extraordinary wrists; he flicks his bat around as easily as most men would swing a switch.

"My family didn't even know what shape a baseball was," he said. "They do now. But I got started playing soft-ball. I never saw a hard-ball game until I was a sophomore at San Angelo Junior College. First it was hard for me to hit. I couldn't wait long enough, after hitting Softball pitchers."

Cash went from San Angelo Junior College to Sul Ross State College in west Texas. He went on a football scholarship; in his junior year he was drafted by the Chicago Bears (their 13th pick) as a future possibility.

"I gained around 1,500 yards that year," he said. "But I figured I was too little to play pro ball. I only weighed about 175. Anyway, a White Sox scout signed me to a major league contract after my junior year. He was a real nice guy named Mel Preibisch."

The path from Justiceburg to Detroit led through Waterloo in the Three-Eye League, Fort Bliss for a year in service, Indianapolis, Chicago and Cleveland. During his baseball journeys, Cash got the reputation of being a good hitter against right-handed pitching and a mediocre outfielder. AI Lopez, the White Sox manager, suggested that he buy a first-base mitt in 1958, and Cash invested $22, wisely. ("He didn't have the arm for the outfield," says Lopez. "And he was left-handed, too, so I figured he'd be better off at first base.")

Trade win

When Cash finally reached Detroit last year (in a straight trade with Cleveland for an infielder named Steve Demeter, who promptly subsided into the minor leagues), he played first base with considerable zeal but little skill. He was used only against right-handed batters, but still hit 18 home runs, 16 doubles and batted in 63 runs.

"I projected that performance," says Bob Scheffing, who became the Tiger manager this year. "He did it in 353 times at bat. Give him 550 times at bat, you have to figure him for maybe 25 home runs, 90-odd runs batted in. That's one of the reasons why we played him this spring. Besides, he was the best first baseman we had. We had to go with him."

In spring training, Cash took an intensive course in the intricacies of fielding a batted ball. His instructor was Phil Cavarretta, who had played first base in the major leagues for 22 years.

"He was doing three things wrong," says Cavarretta. "He was committing himself too soon on ground balls, so that if he misjudged their direction his momentum carried him by the ball. On low throws to first, he was swiping at the ball with his glove and looking away. And he was trying to catch the ball with one hand. He's got small hands and he has to use both of them."

Ground work

Cavarretta hit endless ground balls at Cash during the spring and he threw low, skipping balls to him to teach him to make the pickup. "Man, he had bruises on his shins, his kneecaps and all over his body," Cavarretta says. "But he never quit. He's not a bad first baseman now."

Cash still watches Cavarretta to find out where to play during a game. "I've got a lot to learn," he says. "Sometimes I'm not sure where I should be with men on base, so I always watch Phil and he motions to me where to go. If I don't understand, I take time out and ask him. I'd rather make an ass of myself that way than cost the club a run."

No one gave Cash instructions on batting. He didn't need any. "Watch him," Scheffing said recently when Cash was in the batting cage. "He's got the quickest bat I ever saw. And he's got a compact, controlled swing. Reminds you of a golf swing. His right arm is straight when he hits the ball. If he misses, you never see him spin around and fall down. He's always balanced. They said he couldn't hit left-handers, but only the real good ones give him trouble. And they give everyone trouble, don't they?"

Cash himself does not worry much about left-handers. "The big trouble I have with them is the strike zone," he says. "The ball's coming in from a different angle and I have to adjust to it. I swing at more bad pitches against lefthanders, I guess. But I dink around up there against them and get my share of hits, somehow."

Cash is a solidly built 190 pounds now. He looks very much like a famous fellow Texan, Doak Walker. He has the same sloping shoulders, thick arms and powerful legs and the same sharp, greenish-brown eyes. The sudden fame that comes with an outsize production of home runs has disrupted his life considerably; he appears more puzzled by it than impressed. The other morning he was eating a late breakfast in the coffee shop at Detroit's Sheraton-Cadillac Hotel. The waitress had given him only a cursory glance when he sat down; he has not been famous long enough for his face to be well known. Sherm Lollar, the White Sox catcher, walked in, and Cash grinned at his ex-teammate.

"Hi, Garbage Feet," Cash said, then turned to his companion. "OF Garbage Feet taught me all I know about playing first base."

"Don't worry about the feet," Lollar said. "It's the hands. You got the good hands, the feet take care of themselves."

Luis Aparicio came in and smiled at Cash. "What's the matter?" he said. "You losing your power? No home runs last night."

The waitress came back with Cash's order. Aparicio stopped her. "You know who this is?" he said. "This is Norm Cash."

She put down the ham and eggs and looked at Cash doubtfully. "Are you really Norm Cash?" she asked. "He's just kidding, isn't he?"

"No," said Cash.

For the next 20 minutes he signed autographs, stopping once to ask how to spell Dorothy.

"I guess I got to get used to it," he said later, on the way to the ball park. "Kids on my lawn at 7:30 in the morning, waiting for me to come out of the house. Everything's different now. Even batting. The pitchers got my head bobbing like a cork up there at the plate. I don't mind being brushed back but I don't like them throwing at my head. I guess they think they're justified."

He still digs in at the plate with determination, bean ball or no. Watching him in the batting cage that day, Scheffing said, "That boy is no flash in the pan. With the eyes and the wrists and the swing he has, he'll be a hitter all his life. All his baseball life."

PHOTOIN CIVVIES, CASH LOOKS LIKE TEEN-AGER PHOTOEVEN AGAINST LOW PITCH, CASH'S SWING IS PERFECTLY BALANCED ON IMPACT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)