40 years ago today the Tigers let loose ’68 heroes Norm Cash and Jim Northrup

Jim Northrup in right field on May 11, 1974 at Tiger Stadium, just about three months before being released by the Detroit Tigers.

Jim Northrup in right field on May 11, 1974 at Tiger Stadium, just about three months before being released by the Detroit Tigers.

Last week fans of the Detroit Tigers were stunned to learn that Austin Jackson and Drew Smyly were traded for pitching ace David Price. Fans and players will certainly will never forget seeing Jackson being called off the field in the middle of the game.

And although virtually every pundit and fan applauded the deal, after the contest Tiger players commented on how quiet the locker room was after having felt the sting of losing respected and well-liked teammates.

However, Tiger fans and players were never more jolted or caught by surprise then they were 40 years ago today when 1968 World Series heroes, long time teammates, and left handed sluggers Norm Cash and Jim Northrup were let loose by the ballclub.

On August 7, 1974, just two days before Richard Nixon resigned as President, 39-year old first baseman Norm Cash was given his unconditional release and 34-year old outfielder Jim Northrup was sold to the Montreal Expos. The Tigers immediately recalled infielder Tom Veryzer and pitcher Fred Holdsworth from the minors as a youth movement was already taking place. Six days earlier, fleet footed Ron LeFlore, just months removed from Jackson Prison, made his major league debut with the team.

As a diehard fan of Cash and Northrup, I was surprised and saddened as I witnessed a further dismantling of the great 1968 team that I had grown up with.

Although he was sometimes the victim of merciless boo birds who never forgave him for not even coming close to his 1961 batting championship season when he batted .361 (with a corked bat), “Storm’n Norman Cash” was not only a fan favorite, he was the most popular teammate on the Tigers according to several players I have talked with in the past.

Besides being an excellent first baseman, Cash belted 373 homers in his 15 seasons with Detroit (still second on the all-time Tiger career home run list, behind Al Kaline with 399) and was known for his comical exploits both on and off the field that kept his teammates loose and laughing.

At the time of his release, Cash had been used sparingly by Tiger manager Ralph Houk who had replaced him at first base with Bill Freehan in June. In ’74, Cash had only appeared in 53 games and batted .228 with 7 home runs.

Jim Northrup, nicknamed the Silver Fox for his streak of premature grey hair, and also “Sweet Lips” by his teammates, because he loved to share his opinions on any number of topics, was an outstanding talent for 10 years with Detroit and was one of the key reasons the team won in ’68. In a year marked by dominant pitching throughout the league, Northrup hit 21 home runs and led the 1968 Tigers in hits (153) and RBIs (90) while slamming four grand slams in the regular season and another that catapulted the Tigers to victory in Game Six that knotted the World Series with St. Louis. The following day his 7th inning triple over Curt Flood became the game-winning hit as the Tigers won their third World Championship. (Cash actually led the Tigers in hitting in the ’68 series with a .385 batting average.)

Both players were professional in taking the news, but naturally expressed disappointment to beat writer Dan Ewald of the Detroit News.

“I have no bitterness with the organization,” said Northrup, who was batting .237 with 11 homers. “We’ve been successful and I’ve been part of it, so I have no regrets. The only regret I have is that I wasn’t traded four or five years ago so I would have had a chance to play everyday somewhere.”

Cash, who had expressed hope that he could catch on with a pennant contender, (but never did) told Ewald:

“I thought they could have kept me through the end of the season. I’m pleased with my performance over the years in Detroit but not with the publicity I received here. For the job I did here, I thought I was a little underrated to say the least. But as long as I can say to myself that I did my best, I’m happy.”

In his recently released book, Al Kaline’s Last Bat Boy (Wynwidyn Press), Dennis Clotworthy, the team’s bat boy in 1974, shares a moving story about the day Norm Cash was cut. Clotworthy graciously agreed to share a portion of that excerpt here:

Cash was not one ever to be at a loss for words — normally. He was always ready with a response to any situation. He had a smile, a joke, or a smart-ass comment ready at every turn, but he wasn’t ready to say much of anything right now. I did as he asked. I pretty much knew what he would want to take with him from his locker and what he would leave behind. I proceeded to pack his bag, periodically looking over my shoulder as he slowly made his way around the room saying goodbye to all those in the clubhouse. He did not get around to all the players and coaches, as some were already in the dugout or out on the field. He did however manage to speak to most of the guys who were his 1968 World Series champion teammates. Within twenty to twenty five minutes all his goodbyes had been said, and Jack Hand (clubhouse manager) told him his cab was outside Gate 14. Cash asked me if I would carry his bag to the cab, which of course I did. He had three or four of his bats with him and he hung on to them while I carried his duffel over my shoulder. We left the clubhouse together and walked the fifty yards or so toward Gate 14. All I could muster up to say was, “Sorry you were cut Mr. Cash.” He looked at me and said, “That’s the way it goes sometimes son.” The word had spread fast and a couple of the grounds crew guys walked up and shook his hand and said, “We’re going to miss you around here Norm.” As we walked out of Gate 14, the cab was right there waiting. The driver opened the trunk and I put Cash’s duffel bag inside. Cash did the same with his bats, and turned to me and we shook hands. I looked at him and saw that he actually had watery eyes, not flowing tears, but certainly watery eyes. He said, “Thanks for being a friend and a great bat boy.” He got in the cab, and I stood there and watched as the cab drove away. It was a very sad moment for me. I really liked Mr. Cash. He was right up there with Kaline as one of my favorite Tigers.

When your heroes move on, it is never easy.

– – – – – – – – –

The soft cover edition of Al Kaline’s Last Bat Boy by Dennis Clotworthy is available for $16.99 and the hard cover for $24.99 at www.alkalineslastbatboy.com, Amazon, and eBay.