Detroit — Time was, we’d sit there in the top deck, second row, shooting the bull in the other home that we called “The Ballpark.” Plainly, just that, “The Ballpark.” Night games, they were a rarity. A treat. We would bask in the sunshine most every day and watch the athletes down below as we tossed out the odd comment.
The games were precious. And so were the ballplayers. Al Kaline, still a kid. Norm Cash, “Stormin’ Norman.” Frank Lary, “Taters.” Rocky Colavito, “Don’t Knock The Rock.”
The conversation would turn deep. Like:
“He’s gonna do it,” proclaimed one of the wisemen, more veteran than most.
“Nah,” said a guy down the row, a crusty cynic whose career had traveled a few miles.
“For sure,” said a third. “Soon.”
The Rook, covering the Tigers for the Associated Press, sat there feeling full of privilege and overstuffed with awe. The Tigers were romping in a pennant race. It was them and the Indians. The Yankees, in the early season, were struggling to keep up.
The Tigers had Stormin’ Norman on a rampage. The home runs would ride deep and high into the upper grandstand in right. His singles and doubles into the gap would be line drives. He was leading the American League in batting average. He was topping .350. Unexpectedly!
“Ropes,” the more experienced journalists called his liners.
“The papers ought to run a box called The Cash Register,” I mused to one of the veterans.
And as I watched and accumulated some experience myself, gazing 300 plus feet in front of me at the tar roof of venerable Tiger Stadium, I tended to disbelieve the soothsayer who predicted the event would happen: a home-run shot “over the roof.”
Too distant! Too high! Too much for the imagination!
Bad guess from The Rook.
Out of the Norm
Then it happened.
One Sunday, Norm Cash swung at a pitched baseball and propelled it where a ball had never been hit before.
The ball soared up majestically and carried forward over the three decks. It was last seen bouncing atop the roof. Then it disappeared. It must have traveled into Trumbull Avenue, where not too many years earlier there had been trolley tracks. The ball might have bounced to the Brooks Lumber Yard across the street.
Cash had done it — hit a home run over the roof.
Upstairs the supposedly staid journalists grinned and thought up words to describe history.
That memorable event happened 60 years ago last week. On June 11, 1961, in a game vs. the Washington Senators, a first-season expansion team.
The Rook, now the Vet, remembers looking down at the pitcher’s mound as Norm ran around the bases. The pitcher was a scrawny righthander named Joe McClain.
The over-the-roof shot ignited tales of another home-run hitter who was part of Baseball’s distinctive history back in 1961.
Imagine — Babe Ruth and Stormin’ Norman Cash are joined. Somewhat. In Baseball history.
The Babe hit a home run that has been glorified since 1926. It was this same week in June — the 8th — 95 years ago when Ruth hit a home run at Navin Field that was recorded as traveling longer than 600 feet. Witnesses — New York sports journalists — said Babe’s homer struck an automobile on Trumbull and ricocheted across the street, according to the Vintage Detroit website. Then, it was said, to have reached Cherry Street and rolled further to Brooklyn Street. There, a lad on a bicycle picked it up — and the struck baseball vanished into posterity.
H.G. Salsinger, sports editor of The Detroit News and an eyewitness in Navin Field that day, wrote that Ruth’s shot rolled 885 feet. Then stopped.
The difference was, Ruth did not hit that home run over the roof — because there wasn’t any roof above the outfield grandstands in 1926. It would not be until 1936 that The Ballpark was expanded. Outfield upper decks were constructed, a small third deck was built in right. The famed overhang in right was placed forward above field by 10 feet because stands could not hang above Trumbull Avenue.
Babe hit his home run over the low wall in right center.
Cash still recorded history back in 1961.
Steal of a deal
He had been a bench-warming ballplayer with the White Sox. He was dealt first to the Indians, included in an eight-player trade. Frank Lane, the preening, self-styled trade wizard as general manager in Cleveland, flipped him to the Tigers for Steve Demeter during spring training in 1960.
Demeter-for-Cash evolved into the Tigers’ biggest trade steal i—n the history of the franchise.
In Cleveland, Demeter lasted four games.
In Detroit, Cash became the regular first baseman for the next 14 seasons. He would win the batting championship in 1961. Later, he became a major factor in the Tigers’ World Series championship of 1968.
But Norman was hardly a star at the beginning in Detroit. Kaline was the Tigers’ premier player throughout his Hall of Fame career.
Not done, Trader Lane has also dumped — he believed — Rocky Colavito on the Tigers for Harvey Kuenn just before the 1960 season. It was Colavito — the American League’s co-home run champion with 42 — for Kuenn — the reigning batting champion at .353 — even up.
“I traded hamburger for steak,” Lane boasted to the Cleveland press.
And perhaps it seemed that way for a year.
The Tigers were a woebegone club in 1960. They finished in sixth place at 71-83 in what seemed foreign home uniforms. A new regime had taken control that season. Bill DeWitt, a veteran baseball executive, became general manager. DeWitt became overseer of some drastic changes.
DeWitt stripped the historic Olde English D from the front of the uniforms for a scripted TIGERS. It was a radical change, a destruction of the Tigers’ longtime tradition. Back before Ty Cobb.
And during the ’60 season in August, DeWitt dealt with Cleveland’s Lane once more.
The two clubs traded managers. Jimmy Dykes went to Cleveland and Joe Gordon came to Detroit. The only trade of managers in MLB history.
But in Detroit, we hardly got to know Gordon, a famed second baseman with the Yankees.
He quit the day the season ended to become manager of the Kansas City Athletics.
And after the season The Ballpark, also known as Briggs Stadium since 1935, was renamed Tiger Stadium.
The unpopular DeWitt was gone after his one season. John Fetzer became the Tigers’ sole owner. The congenial Rick Ferrell became general manager.
Bob Scheffing was hired as manager. And for 1961, the Tigers restored the Olde English “D” to their shirts — with our hope that it would never again change.
The Tigers started the 1961 season lacking great expectations after their dolorous record in ’60.
They remained Kaline’s ballclub — with Colavito in left field and Norm Cash at first base after a lackluster 1960 season. Norman had batted a decent .286, with 18 home runs and 63 RBIs.
Somehow, he would launch fireworks in 1961.
Most spectacular was Cash’s performance in the doubleheader that June Sunday 60 years ago.
In the first game Cash hit the shot over the roof and another home run off McClain. The Tigers actually lost the first game to Washington, 7-4. In the second game, Norman went 4-for-5 with another home run, his No. 17 of the season. The Tigers won that one, 7-6, in 11 innings on Steve Boros’ single off Dave Sisler.
At the end of the day, Cash’s batting average was .370.
“It was a freak,” Cash would tell the press later on. “. . . Everything I hit seemed to drop in, even when I didn’t make good contact.”
But he did not reveal, then, his dirty little secret.
And with Kaline setting the pace, with Colavito hitting home runs and with his RBI production, and with Cash’s batting average, the Tigers were in a pennant race.
On June 17 that season, they would move into first place alone propelled by a 12-10 victory over the Yankees.
The Tigers would remain in first place deep into July before yielding to the Yankees.
The pennant race would carry into September — the Tigers with Kaline, Colavito and Cash and Lary in close pursuit of the Yankees with Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford. The Tigers would fade in New York over Labor Day weekend but would win 101 games. Alas, there were no wild cards and playoffs then.
For history, Maris would catch Babe Ruth’s 60 with 61home runs.
And Cash would win the batting championship with a .361 average. 41 home runs and 132 RBIs.
And sometime thereafter, he would admit his dirty little secret. He confessed — as contained in his Wikipedia biography — that he had corked his bat in 1961.
Even so, he hit that baseball that was first to go over the roof. Up, up in a high trajectory — until it disappeared, out yonder.
The late Stormin’ Norman always lived his life a little bit naughty.
Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sports reporter.
Our special thanks to:detroitnews.com