Mike Norris and the Moral Winter

Mike Norris at his home in Oakland, Calif. (photo by Owen Watson)

Mike Norris at his home in Oakland, Calif. (photo by Owen Watson)

The first inning was always the hardest. This one was off to a particularly wild start, with leadoff hitter Willie Randolph having to duck under a high fastball before Ken Griffey skipped away from a ball thrown at his feet. The only thing that mattered to the guy on the mound, however, was that Randolph had finally struck out looking and Griffey had flown out to right field. When Dave Winfield stepped into the box for the Yankees on that cool day in late May, 1983, the Oakland Athletics were already up 2-0 and the Bombers had two outs.

To say the first pitch to Winfield got away would be an understatement; much fairer to say it was one of those pitches that seems to go intentionally awry. In this case, the lanky right-hander on the mound seemed like he had taken dead aim at Winfield’s head with a small cannon firing projectiles about the mass of an apple. Fortunately for Winfield, he saw the pitch just in time. Because he reacted late, the ball barely missed hitting him flush in the face, and he collapsed in the dirt of the batter’s box.

He wasn’t down for long.

After he sprang to his feet, he threw his bat straight up into the air, stomping toward the mound with eyes as big as coffee cups.

“Motherf***er, I oughta kick your little skinny *ss!” he yelled while being grabbed from behind by the A’s catcher, Mike Heath. He wheeled around.

“But I’m gonna start with your *ss first.”

He took the catcher by the neck with his left hand and lifted him off the ground, feet dangling just above the turf. The 175-pound pitcher on the mound could only imagine his tiny neck in the same situation. As Winfield tossed the catcher to the infield grass, the benches met on the field and brawled. When the dust settled, only Winfield was ejected, and the Yankees would go on to win the game 4-2 on the back of a three-run Graig Nettles home run in the seventh inning off of the skinny right-hander who had brushed Winfield back.

With the excitement of the game’s melee, no one bothered to note that Winfield’s bat, thrown to an impressive height, had fallen to stick straight up out of the turf, like a large toothpick.

Mike Norris, screwball extraordinaire, was that skinny pitcher on the mound in Yankee Stadium three decades ago. He pitched parts of 10 seasons with the Oakland A’s from 1975 to 1990. In 1980, he should clearly have won the American League Cy Young Award. He didn’t, and that is a main reason why we’re here, discussing a man who should be well known within baseball circles, and probably outside of them.

His career was a series of fateful intersections and happenstance. Not only did he have a season that any current or former major league pitcher would dream of having, but he crossed paths with countless greats, pitched at a time when recreational drug use and professional sports were colliding, and experienced firsthand a country and game unsure of how to handle social and racial inequality. His tale may be branded a cautionary one, but that is too simple a label to put on a story that highlights many of the problems that still plague baseball and haunt this country. His stories speak for themselves, and I’m presenting them just as they were told to me.

The 19-year-old from the Bay Area watched through the taxi window as the rows of corn rolled by outside Burlington, Iowa, in 1973. Just a few months before, he had been drafted by the Oakland Athletics with the final pick in the first round of the January amateur draft out of City College in San Francisco. Now, at a ballpark 150 miles from Des Moines, he was about to report to his first professional baseball assignment. He reflected on the path that brought him to that moment: the rutted field he played on as a boy in the Fillmore District, the rough-and-tumble kids that made up his Little League and high school teams (including a catcher who continued to play after a wire in his catching mask broke and punched a hole in his cheek), and finally, the pinnacle: a $25,000 signing bonus from Charlie Finley.

As the taxi pulled up outside the ballpark, the young man noticed that a little boy was waiting outside the gates. The boy, he assumed, had heard that a new ballplayer was coming to the Single-A Bees, and would be eager to meet a right hander who had shown plus velocity and a sharp breaker on his way to a 7-0 record as a high school senior.

When the pitcher got out of the cab, the boy followed him around to the trunk of the taxi where the bags were stowed, staring strangely at the seat of the young man’s pants. As the ballplayer turned to go back to the window to pay the cab driver, the little boy kept trying to run around behind the young pitcher to look at the seat of his pants. No matter how many times the young man tried to face the boy, the boy would inevitably try to get behind him. Finally, confused, the ballplayer asked the taxi driver, “What’s wrong with this kid?”

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

The taxi driver shook his head and said, “He’s looking to see if you have a tail.”

That was the first experience Norris had in the minor leagues, and it would be telling of his few years touring the Midwest and Deep South in Single- and Double-A as a professional baseball player of color in the early 1970s.

“When I signed that contract,” Norris would say to me in a crowded café in Oakland 40 years after his first day at Class-A Burlington, “I was taught that I had to be twice as good as any of those white guys, or I wasn’t going to make it. I digested that, but didn’t keep it in the front of my mind—that wasn’t good motivation.”

During that year in Burlington, he put up incredible pitching lines every fifth day, posting a 2.21 ERA and 1.10 WHIP over 110 innings. He even chipped in with the bat to the tune of a .452 on-base percentage over 45 plate appearances. However, despite his stellar play on the field, the confluence of racism, low pay, and being far away from home made his time in the Midwest League difficult.

“Had it not been for my roommates Claudell Washington and Derek Bryant, I don’t know if I would’ve survived,” Norris told me.

It was in the Southern League, after being promoted to Double-A Birmingham, that Norris had an all-too-familiar experience for many in the Deep South. Looking to grab a quick bite to eat in a diner across the street from the hotel where the team was staying in Savannah, he was seated wordlessly by the waitress upon entering. Trying to get the waitress’ attention after he decided what he wanted to order, he was continuously ignored. Finally, he started to point out to the waitress that he had been waiting longer to order than people who had sat down after him, to which the waitress flatly stated:

“N**ger, you been bothering me ever since you came in here.”

Norris had never been called that to his face before getting to Birmingham. “It was like a dull butter knife that wouldn’t go through you, that just stuck in you,” he said, remembering.

Norris stood up from his seat in the diner and started to argue with the waitress, losing his temper. As the argument got heated, the waitress reached under the counter and pressed a button. Something told Norris to leave the diner, to get out, but he was hurt, livid. He stayed to make his point.

Within two minutes, a squad of state troopers arrived, sirens blaring.

“That’s the n**ger! That’s the n**ger!” the waitress yelled, pointing at Norris.

One of the troopers approached him.

“What’s your name, boy?” The trooper asked. “You one of these ballplayers here, boy?”

“Mike Norris. Yes, sir.”

“You staying at that hotel there across the street, boy?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I want you to come with me, boy.”

After exiting the diner, the trooper grabbed Norris’ arm roughly and looked him in the eye.

“Now you listen here, boy. I want you to take your black *ss back on over across the street where you come from, and you are not to come back into this restaurant anymore while you’re here.”

“Yes, sir.”

Norris walked across the street, and back to the team hotel.

After the series in Savannah was over, the team bus headed down to Jacksonville and Orlando. The Suns and Twins were affiliates of Kansas City and Minnesota, respectively, and the round trip bus rides from Birmingham were oppressively hot and exhausting due to the lack of air conditioning on the bus and the tortoise-like speeds on the freeways. Returning to Birmingham after the long road trip to Georgia and Florida, the players decided something: they wanted a day off. Norris thought about the prospect of a night away from the fan who was known to sit in the right field stands with a black cat and watermelon, shouting racial epithets to players of color on the field.

The Birmingham A’s really needed a rainout.

Unfortunately, the skies were clear, so they took inspiration from a 1970 event in the Class-AA Texas league, when the Dallas-Forth Worth Spurs intentionally flooded the field of their opponents, the Amarillo Giants, to try to force a postponement. Fortunately for Norris and the Birmingham A’s, their owner didn’t have a helicopter to dry the field off, as was the case with Amarillo, and they succeeded in securing their day off. (Ron Shelton, who played second base for the Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs in 1970, would later write and direct Bull Durham, providing the background for the iconic rainout scene.)

“The water was ankle deep the next day when we showed up to the ballpark,” Norris said, recounting how they almost irrevocably damaged the field.

Over the course of the past four months, Norris has told me the stories of his life in professional baseball. Before our first meeting, I didn’t know what to expect—perhaps he would be a private man, not interested in reliving the sometimes painful memories of an up and down career. In the middle of that first three-hour meeting, after my initial fears of his potential silence were proven unfounded, it dawned on me: his stories weren’t just about his career, or just about baseball. His is an historic perspective on baseball’s moral winter at all levels of the game.

With Norris, we have a look into the underbelly of what the game was and what the game is – its beauty, its mercurial joy, and yes, its scars and hastily bandaged wounds that remain fresh and newly opened. He forces us to ask the question: is the game, on a societal level, better off than it was 40 years ago? As a former leader of the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program in the Bay Area, and a player who saw three different decades of professional baseball, Norris has experienced the evolution of the game at all levels.

During our most recent meeting, I asked him what he thought of some of the current issues the game is facing: the shrinking number of African-American ballplayers in the majors, the prohibitive costs of playing the game for kids from underserved communities, and the lack of a union for minor league players.

He looked down for a moment, shook his head, and said:

Jackie Robinson is turning over in his grave.”

References & Resources

Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.
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Jim S.
7 years ago

Superior writing.

7 years ago

We need Mike Norris in baseball. Even if it’s a continuation of this series.

Thanks Owen!

Detroit Michael
7 years ago

You can write another Mike Norris article, if you’ve got more material. We aren’t tired of the topic yet.

Jason S.
7 years ago

I agree. More please.

7 years ago

Probably would have won the Cy Young if he had a) pitched on the east coast; b) had any offensive support; OR c) hadn’t played for a manager who has so little confidence (granted, rightfully so) in his relievers that he left his starters in long after they had nothing left.

If there are more articles on Norris, I would enjoy speculation on how much Martin was to blame for ruining the arms of Norris and the other members of the Fab 5 pitchers.

7 years ago

24 complete games in a season? Jeezum crow, the entire American League had just 61 last year, and no team had more than seven.

7 years ago

1980 Oakland staff logged 94 complete games!!!!!!!! All 5 starters (Norris, Langford, McCatty, Keough and Kingman) had at least 10. Followed that up with 60 complete games in 1981. Basically Billy Martin burned these guys out at an early age. Compare that to today when a pitcher seems to just want to get through the 6th inning. I always enjoy watching a pitcher throw a complete game masterpiece. Doesn’t happen much anymore. Wish there was more of a middle ground.

7 years ago
Reply to  littlelucas

Here’s the average no. of innings per start:

Langford: 8.8
Norris: 8.6
Keough: 7.8
McCatty: 7.16
Kingman: 7.04

While McCatty had “only” 11 CG games that year, the following, strike-shortened season, 16 of his 22 starts were CG.