Tuesday, October 24, 2006

1968: A Baseball Fan’s Coming of Age - chapter 7

In Search of Norm Cash
Whenever anyone asks, “Are you happy with what you did with your life?” I must honestly answer, “Almost.”
I was never unhappy with my chosen profession, but, as a young boy, it wasn’t what I REALLY wanted to be. I harbored the longing desire to replace Norman Dalton Cash as the first baseman of the Detroit Tigers.
Of course, there were a few problems attached to that dream. I wasn’t remotely good enough to do that and … well; everything else essentially flowed from that.
However, it never stunted my desire. It was akin to taking a shower and fantasizing with my air (and water) guitar being as proficient as Eric Clapton. While I ruled the close proximity of that shower head, once I stepped away from the friendly confines, reality took root. The inability to read music was akin to the failure to hit a fastball; it meant you searched elsewhere to earn your daily bread.
But the time Cash retired his Tiger uniform, I had stopped playing baseball and was trying to find a “real” job (as my father would term it) – one that actually filled a bank account and put food on my table. My vocation would be sports¬writing; my avocation would be day-dreaming about that first base opening.
But who WAS the man Tiger announcer Ernie Harwell labeled as “Stormin’ Norman?”
Although he was raised on a ranch in Justiceburg, Texas, Cash attended Post High School (1947-51) a few miles north on U.S. Highway 84. He was regarded as perhaps the finest all-around athlete to ever attend that school. Post, the county seat of Garza County, was known for being a unique colonizing effort from Michigan cereal magnate Charles William Post, who wanted to develop some 200,000 acres of ranchland in west Texas in 1907.
According to the online site, Handbook of Texas, Justiceburg is in southeastern Garza County, some 55 miles southeast of central Lubbock and 110 miles northwest of Abilene. The town site was originally known as LeForrest (also spelled Le Forest) and had a post office using that name from 1902-05.
In 1910, rancher Jefferson Davis Justice purchased the land, and granted the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad right of way. LeForrest was renamed Justiceburg in honor of this development and in 1911, the railroad became a part of the landscape. The railroad, now part of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe network, still runs through Justiceburg.
It never grew much in its history; according to records, the population was somewhere between 25-76 residents – most of whom were descendants of Jefferson Davis Justice. According to the 2000 census, the population of the Justiceburg ZIP code area (79330) was 60.
There was once a viable schoolhouse and depot, but they were long ago abandoned, as were many of the homes. East of U.S. 84, there still sits an active church while those homes, which still are occupied, are located west of that highway.
On April 23, 1995, the people of Post dedicated Norm Cash Field in memory of the city’s most famous athlete. It would be the home of the Post High School baseball team and where Post Little Leaguers would perform.
There is no formal Norm Cash Museum; there is only a display about him in the Sports Room of the Garza County Historical Museum in Post.
Mentioned in the T. Lindsay Baker book “More Ghost Towns of Texas,” the run¬down state of many structures gives the area the feel of being a “ghost town.”
I was just interested in one ghost.
There’s not much out in that part of America – lots of Mesquite trees, a rolling lilt to the terrain and plenty of weather-beating sun. One could not imagine living that kind of life unless it was ingrained in one’s blood and soul. Communities were distant even as measured by the flight of any crow.
I was living in small-town south Texas at the time when a day trip in my car was going to take me to the Panhandle on business for a regional press association. Up through San Antonio, past Brady, next to Coleman to Sweetwater and a straight shot on U.S. 84 from Snyder to Lubbock. Two hours after that, I would finally settle in Amarillo – a destination as far removed, and remote, from the brush country of my home.
In plotting the best route, I stopped at the stretch between Snyder and Post and the name “Justiceburg” first became visible. It was almost unseen on the map, hiding behind the well-folded crease of the AAA version of Texas. Still, I recognized it immediately and its importance to my child and young adulthood.
“My Gosh, I’ll be able to honor Norm Cash at last,” I told myself and went digging (unsuccessfully) for any old baseball cards hidden inside old scorecards and shoe boxes (where such things go to an eternal resting place).
As I crept closer during that day, the anticipation increased. How would it be? Did I have enough time to see the Tour de Cash that surely had to exist? After all, didn’t these people KNOW how damn important Norm Cash was to the world?!?
Outside of the ranching community of Snyder, I stopped at a convenience store, actually the ONLY convenience store, I asked if this was the right route to Justiceburg. The clerk looked at me as if I asked for directions to Timbuktu or Katmandu. I shrugged off the lack of assistance to being a stranger in a strange, strange land.
In about 17 minutes, I reached my point of worship, but, quickly, I stepped on the brakes as I saw very little in the way of proper homage. Luckily, there was no procession following me to see the birthplace of a great baseball player. I was quite alone in tilting this windmill.
There was a sign, a church with a few mailboxes in front and an abandoned convenience store. I drove up to the store, hoping that someone was in the process of converting it into the Norm Cash Memorial Museum or something akin. Silence and loneliness was all I saw.
I drove around the only crossroad that marked the community in all directions. I saw no signs, no plaques, no statues, no nothing. It was nothing more than a blink of the eye on the road and the tear in my eye showed my extreme disappointment.
I returned to that empty store parking lot and scribbled a note on a piece of paper – “N.C. 25 1968.” I pinned it to a piece of barbed wire on a fence separating some grazing pasture. I figured someone had to do something in terms of memories.
As I continued toward Amarillo, in between hearing about grain and livestock reports, and the newest from Texan George Strait on the only radio station available to break the silence, I thought about my profound sadness. How could these folks not understand; I did. They would be the poorer for it; not me.
However, chasing ghosts was not a productive use of one’s life, I decided.
Going from West Texas to a major industrial Midwestern city must have been more than normal culture shock for a country boy like Cash, but throughout his career, he maintained the “folksiness” that would be his lasting trademark. He wore cowboy boots to the game and entertained everyone with country-western tunes.
“Norm lived to play baseball,” said outfielder Jim Northrup. “I never saw him down; he was always upbeat with a smile on his face. Norm had more fun than anybody.”
Cash then went to San Angelo College (1951-53, now known as Angelo State University) and starred in football and baseball at Sul Rose State University (1953-56) in the Davis Mountains community of Alpine.
In 1955, he was drafted as a running back by the Chicago Bears but another Windy City team, the baseball White Sox signed Cash to a contract. He made it to the parent club in 1958 but played only 71 games in two seasons with the South Siders, showing none of the power that would come.
In 1960, Detroit acquired Cash from Cleveland (who earlier traded for him) in exchange a utility infielder named Steve Demeter. Cash played the next 15 seasons for the Tigers; Demeter had five more at-bats in the big leagues. Seldom have any trades in Major League Baseball history been so one-sided.
In 1961, Cash had statistics that became totally unrealistic to duplicate – hitting a league-high .361, smashing 41 home runs, driving in 132 and scoring 119 in just 535 at bats. Unfortunately he finished fourth in the voting for Most Valuable Player behind two Yankees on a magical mission in the ’61 season. Mickey Mantle was second with 54 home runs to Roger Maris’ MVP winning total of 61 round-trippers.
Neither had the overall numbers that Cash produced but New York finished eight games ahead in the standings despite Detroit’s 101 victories. No team has won more games and finished further behind than the 1961 Tigers.
“Nineteen sixty-one was one of those magical years that some of us have,” noted Hall of Fame teammate Al Kaline. “Later, I think Norm got a little carried away trying to hit homers, but overall he was a tremendous ballplayer and a great friend,”
“It was a freak; even at the time, I realized that,” Cash was quoted later in his life. “Everything I hit seemed to drop in, even when I didn’t make good contact. I never thought I’d do it again.”
Tiger ace hurler Mickey Lolich once told a reporter that he asked Cash why he never hit for a higher average after the 1961 season.
“He (Cash) told me, ‘Jim Campbell pays me to hit home runs,’” Lolich explained, referring to the Tiger general manager during Cash’s tenure. “Norm then said, ‘I can get hits if I want to, just watch tomorrow.’ The next day he went 3-for-4.”
For his career, Cash hit .271 with 377 home runs, 1,103 RBI and 1,046 runs scored. Of his 1,820 hits, 241 were doubles and an astonishing 41 were triples for a first baseman. He was a four-time All-Star (1961, 1966, 1971, 1972) and was a vastly underrated fielder. In the ‘68 World Series, Cash was the team’s leading hitter at .385 with 10 hits and five RBI.
There are enough Norm Cash stories to keep a standup comedian busy for hours – many of which are as ribald and the man himself could be. He was known to party hard and play harder.
Of all the tales tom be told, the most famous Cash story comes from the July 15, 1973 affair between Detroit and California toward the end of a Nolan Ryan no-hitter, fanning 17 Tigers in the process at Tiger Stadium.
The most famous Cash prank occurred July 15, 1973, when Nolan Ryan pitched a no-hitter for the California Angels at Tiger Stadium, striking out 17.
“In his last at-bat, Norm walked up to the plate with a table leg from the locker room,” Northrup related. “The plate umpire, Ron Luciano, says, ‘You can’t use that up here.’ Cash says, ‘Why not, I won’t hit him anyway.’ He then gets a bat, strikes out on three pitches, and walking away he says to Luciano, ‘See, I told ya.’“
When he retired, Cash was still in the public eye, hosting his own show on the Windsor, Canada station CKLW-TV. He had a short stint as a color commentator for Detroit games and was also a manufacturer’s representative.
However in 1979, Cash suffered a stroke that left his face partially paralyzed and caused his speech to be somewhat slurred.
Then on the night of October 11, 1986, at the age of just 51, Cash was walking back to his cabin cruiser, appropriately named the Stormin’ Norman, docked at Beaver Island in Lake Michigan. It is thought that he slipped off the dock and fell into the lake, and subsequently drowning.
To those of us Tiger diehards and secret worshipers of Number 25, the news hit hard in the gut.
“He always had his own style, but you always knew he was going to be there to play,” Campbell eulogized, upon learning of Cash’s death. “He might have gotten his nights and days mixed up now and then, but I’ve never known a ballplayer who got as much fun out of playing baseball. He was one of the greatest players to ever wear a Tiger uniform.”

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