Today marks the 19th anniversary of the election of Richie Ashburn into the baseball Hall of Fame. In 1995 25,000 Philadelphians travelled to see two of their favourite sons in Ashburn and Schmidt elected into the HOF, finally seeing their services to baseball recognised.
‘Putt-Putt’, as he was affectionately known by fans and teammates, had quite the career as a Major League baseball player. Amassing 6 All-Star appearances, 2 NL batting champion titles and a retired number (#1, by the Phillies), ‘The Tilden Flash’ certainly made his mark on the sport and was loved by many.
Growing up on a farm in Tilden, Nebraska, Ashburn likely had no idea of the illustrious career which awaited him. Beginning life as a Major League player in 1948 following Military Service, ‘Whitey’ quickly established himself as a fan favourite. In his debut season, Richie hit .333 over 117 games, including a career high 32 steals.
The electric whiz kid certainly made a big impression, one which he would go on to reinforce, as for the remainder of his career in Philadelphia his average didn’t drop below .266, which he posted in his final year 1959.
Over his ten years in Philly, Ashburn twice managed the best batting average in the National League, posting a .338 mark in 1955 and a .350 mark in his final year. As well as that, he was runner up in his first season of 1948, and two years later in 1951, when he posted a .341 mark and finished second to Stan Musial’s .355 average.
There was nobody in the league at the time, aside from perhaps Musial, who could hit better. The National League leader in singles four times while in Philadelphia, as well as triples leader twice, his plate vision was simple unparalleled in the City of Brotherly Love. In 1951 he posted an NL best 181 singles, a mark he would surpass when winning the title again with 176 singles in 1958, either side of leading in 1957 (with 152) and 1953 (169) and finishing second four times. He won the NL triples crown in 1950 with 14 and in 1958 with 13.
Unsurprisingly, it was just Ashburn’s ability to hit that was remarkable, it was ability to get on base full-stop. Four times in twelve years Richie was top of NL on-base percentage; posting a .441 OBP in 1954, .449 the year after, .440 in 1958 and .415 in 1960 with the Cubs. In 1954, 1957, 1958 and 1960 (as a Cub), ‘Putt-Putt’ was the NL walks leader with 125, 94, 97 and 116 respectively. Pitcher were happy to take the bat out of the hot-hitter’s hands, but his speed on the base paths was nothing to laugh at either, amassing 234 stolen bases over 15 years and 2189 Major League games.
Ashburn really was the definition of an every day centre-fielder, a role which requires durability and concentration, even if he was anything but an every day average player. Leading the NL in plate approaches four times (in 1952, 1956-1958), games played twice (1952 and 1957) and defensive games as a centre-fielder six times (1951-53 and 1956-1958), ‘Whitey’ was an ever-reliable source of passion and grit, one which spurred the Phillies and the ‘Whiz Kids’ era to a World Series in 1950 in which they were rather forgettably swept by the New York Yankees.
Nevertheless, Richie Ashburn’s final career stats were nothing short of sensational. 2,574 hits, 586 RBIs, 317 doubles, 109 triples, 29 homers, 234 stolen bases and an average of .308.
He wasn’t just statistics, however, and Ashburn provided some amazing moments for fans over the years. From the final game of the 1950 in which he gunned down Cal Abrams to set up Dick Sisler’s walk-off to win the pennant, to his home run robbery of Vic Wertz in the 1951 All-Star Game at Tiger Stadium. And of course, who could forget the famous tale of how Richie hit Alice Roth, wife of a famous Philadelphia sports editor Earl Roth, and broke her nose, before fouling of another pitch to hit her whilst being stretchered off.
Ashburn always anticipated a career behind the microphone, and he got his wish, beginning a job as a radio and color TV commentator for the Phillies. Harry Kalas joined him in 1971 following the release of former co-announcer Bill Campbell, and over the next twenty years the pair would become best friends with Kalas affectionatelymreferring to Ashburn as “His Whiteness”. Renowned for having a dry sense of humour, Richie would often drop hints to his favourite local pizza restaurant while on-air in an attempt to get a delivery.
Ashburn had intended to step down from broadcasting at the conclusion of the 1997 season. However, he sadly died of a heart attack after a Phillies-Mets game at Shea on the 9th of September, ’97. He currently rests at the Gladwyne Methodist Cemetery in Montgomery County, PA.
What Ashburn acheived over his career has been enough to inspire players young and old, in Philadelphia and further afield. There aren’t many players like Richie around and there hasn’t been many since. It’s remarkable really that it took a campaign titles “Ashburn: Why the Hall not?” to finally get him in via the Veteran’s Committee, but I doubt anyone would argue that he deserves his place among baseball’s greats.
Here’s to you, Richie.