Todd Hartley: Better than the norm
Let me tell you a little something about Norm Cash, an old baseball player – most notably for the Detroit Tigers in the early ’60s – and the best friend and worst enemy Sammy Sosa has right now.
Cash was a fairly undistinguished .270 hitter over the course of his career, but in 1961 he got his act together and won the American League batting title with a .361 average. He never hit better than .290 in any season after that.
Norm Cash was also, admittedly, a cheater. Oh, he was a good cheater; he never got caught. But years later he owned up to the fact that he had used a corked bat during the ’61 season.
Cash was most certainly not the first player to tamper with his lumber. He was definitely not the last. But he was probably the only one to win a batting title with a corked bat.
How does one cork a bat? One drills a hole about 6 inches deep in the very top of the bat, fills about 5 inches with cork and packs sawdust and glue into the last inch. Then one sands the top of the bat until it looks as if it hasn’t been tampered with.
In theory, this will make one’s bat lighter and give one an advantage at the plate.
Want to know how I know how to cork a bat? I saw it on TV. In fact I think I’ve seen it a number of times.
Showing folks how to cork a bat on TV is an old tradition, one that started when Norm Cash did it.
By cheating, not getting caught and then having the audacity to explain how it was done on TV, Cash contributed to the notion of baseball cheaters as lovable outlaws, charming rogues who are just having a little fun. Embarrassed outlaws and rogues, to be sure, but nothing really dangerous.
This is where Sosa can thank Cash, because after Sosa got caught with a corked bat last Tuesday, roguish charm might be the only thing that can save his reputation.
In one moment of wood shards and failed subterfuge, Sosa cast doubt on what has been a certain Hall of Fame career. Baseball pundits everywhere immediately put mental asterisks next to all the astounding statistics he has amassed over the last few years, and the court of public opinion stripped him of his good-guy label.
Sosa proclaimed that the bat was in use during a game only because of an honest mistake, and X-ray scans of 76 other Sosa bats confiscated from the Cubs’ locker room showed they had not been tampered with. But the damage was done. He had been caught red-handed, and now there was nothing to do but apologize and wait for his suspension.
It’s safe to say that the baseball world will never forget Sosa’s transgression. In fact, the video of his bat exploding on a grounder to second will likely play forever. But it remains to be seen what sort of long-term effects this will have on Sosa’s reputation.
Everyone but my mother accused pitcher Gaylord Perry of cheating during the course of his long career, and yet he’s enshrined in Cooperstown. Graig Nettles became a national laughingstock when a bat of his broke and superballs came bouncing out. Still, half the guys my age from the New York area wish to this very day that they were Nettles.
Sosa is far more popular than either Perry or Nettles was, so there is a chance he will just crash that much harder. But it is my opinion that ultimately his reputation will be all right, though damaged, in the eyes of the people who matter most: the fans.
As far as the statistics geeks are concerned, well, that’s another story, one which Sosa can blame Norm Cash for.
There is no evidence that shows any correlation between corked bats and hitting success, with one exception: the glaring statistically anomaly that is Cash’s 1961 season. Cheating, he hit .361; playing it straight he hit .270. That’s all the proof most people need.
Let’s not forget, however, that 1961 was also an expansion year, which led to inflated numbers throughout baseball. And if 1961 seems familiar for some reason, it’s because that was the year of the greatest statistically anomaly of all time: Roger Maris’ 61 home runs.
So before the backlash gets too severe and Sosa’s place in the Hall of Fame comes into question, remember that it’s not all about the cork in your bat, because no amount of cork will help you hit over 60 home runs in a season unless you’re worthy of Cooperstown to begin with.
[Todd Hartley used to fill his bats with lead just to give pitchers a sporting chance. His column appears on Fridays in The Aspen Times. E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org]