Nolan Ryan pitched two no-hitters for the Angels in 1973. Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

High comedy: The day Norm Cash failed to get a leg up on 'Ryan Express'

So you've dreamed about facing Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, the guy with the 100 mph fastball. Here's how two of the best hitters in the big leagues described hitting against "Big Tex":

“I’ve never been afraid at the plate,” Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson said, “but Mr. Ryan makes me uncomfortable. He’s the only pitcher who’s ever made me consider wearing a helmet with an ear flap.”

“I was a good breaking ball hitter, said former Twins star Tony Oliva, a .304 career hitter, "but when Nolan threw his breaking ball, I didn’t see it.  He was that good.”

In his 26-year career in the majors, Ryan set dozens of pitching records — most strikeouts (5,714), most 300-strikeout seasons (six), most 200-strikeout seasons (15), most career one-hitters (12) and, of course, most no-hitters (seven).

With the mediocre California Angels in 1973, Ryan had his most dominating season, striking out a major league record 383, winning 21 games and pitching two no-hitters.

In his second gem that year, at Tiger Stadium in Detroit on July 15, resistance by batters was futile. Hitting against Ryan that day was like “eating soup with a fork” — an epic line Pirates slugger Willie Stargell used to describe batting against Ryan’s childhood hero, Sandy Koufax, and Steve Carlton.

One of the unfortunate Tigers, a former batting champion and world-class bag of laughs, endeavored to use extreme means against one of the best pitchers in baseball history.

Let’s just say Norm Cash didn’t have a leg to stand on.


Norm Cash won the 1961 American League batting title with a .361 average, but by 1973, he was on his last legs in the big leagues. Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Network.

Although they finished the season four games above .500, the defending AL East champs weren’t exactly the 2019 Minnesota Twins. Only one Detroit regular, 30-year-old outfielder Willie Horton, finished the season with a .300-plus batting average. In April, 23-year-old Royals righty Steve Busby no-hit Detroit.

Ryan, who no-hit the Royals on May 15, was coming off a bad outing against the Orioles. In a 7-1 loss to Baltimore that dropped his record to 10-11, he gave up six runs and eight hits in six innings.

When Ryan warmed up in the bullpen at ancient Tiger Stadium, pitching coach Tom Morgan spotted a penny. Pick it up, he told Ryan, “just for luck.”

By the end of the third inning, Detroit clearly was getting “The Ryan Express” at his peak. The 26-year-old right-hander had struck out seven — three looking — before the Sunday afternoon "Cap Day" crowd of 41,411.

Ryan’s curveball was fabulous, but his fastball was simply ridiculous. “Every [one],” Angels catcher Art Kusnyer told the Detroit Free Press, “went zzzzzzrooom!” The catcher said home plate umpire Ron Luciano thought either Ryan’s curve or fastball should be made illegal.

“You look at that guy,” California manager Bobby Winkles said afterward, “and sometimes you wonder how he can ever lose.”

With the Angels leading 1-0 in the fourth, Ryan breezed through the Tigers, a predominantly left-handed-hitting lineup, striking out the side. Ryan fanned the side again in the seventh.

But in the eighth, with Angels up 6-0, he began to tire. Ryan said his pitching arm felt like it typically did a couple of hours after a long game. Still, he retired the Tigers in order, notching his 17th strikeout.

After Ryan retired the first hitter in the bottom of the ninth, Gates Brown lined to shortstop Rudy Meoli, who went up on his toes to snatch the ball about a foot over his head — the only serious Tigers threat of the game.

Up came Cash, a 38-year-old first baseman who enjoyed having fun on — and off — the ballfield. “There were times on the road when that SOB put me to bed,” Brown told the Free Press years later, “and he would go back [out].”

“Life of the party,” Tigers Hall of Famer Al Kaline called his longtime teammate.

Cash, who won the AL batting title in 1961 but was now a .237 hitter, had already struck out twice against Ryan. He figured he had no chance, so the Tigers' life of the party strolled from the clubhouse to the plate with...a table leg that reportedly had been sent to him as a joke. Longtime Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell mistakenly called it a piano leg.

In grainy footage of the at-bat, Luciano looks down at the slab of wood and appears to laugh. He ordered Cash to chuck it. Where was ESPN when we really needed it?

Cash wondered why he couldn’t use the illegal lumber: “I won’t hit him anyway.” Using a real bat, “Stormin’ Norman” meekly flied out to left to end the game.

“Best stuff and best control I’ve ever had,” Ryan told reporters afterward.

“Best I’ve ever seen him,” Tigers manager Billy Martin told the Los Angeles Times.

A Detroit sportswriter called Ryan’s performance “one of the most impressive one-man shows in baseball history.” But Cash’s comedy act —recalled fondly by teammates decades afterward — went uncovered in the local newspapers the next day.

Weeks later, though, Detroit held a “Norm Cash Day” before a sold-out Tiger Stadium. Local baseball writers gave a bat to Cash, then Detroit’s all-time leader in strikeouts by a hitter.

Naturally, it was full of holes.

A longtime editor at ESPN and The Dallas Morning News, Banks has written for The New York Times, Civil War Times, America's Civil War, Military Images and other publications. He lives in Nashville.



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