When my colleague and fellow baseball historian Adam Darowski wrote that Richie Ashburn was a better player than he had thought, I was pleased. Like the BBWAA writers, I have my biases and one is Ashburn. But using the standard that Adam developed for the “Small” Hall of Fame that I favor, Ashburn came up quite sort. Adam set 105 wWAR as the minimum for entry to the Small Hall; Ashburn had 84.8.
Ashburn, if nothing else, was one of the most dependable players of his era. During the ten year period from 1949 through 1958, he played in 98.6 percent of the Phillies’ games. Only seven players had higher percentages over a similar period: Lou Gehrig, Billy Williams, Nellie Fox, Cap Anson, Stan Musial, John Morrill and Ron Santo.
Ashburn must have been a manager’s dream. Phillies’ pilots Eddie Sawyer, Steve O’Neil, Mayo Smith and, for a season with the Mets, Casey Stengel knew they could pencil Ashburn into the lineup and he would deliver.
A superb outfielder who played in the shadows of Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Duke Snider, Ashburn couldn’t hit for power and was considered to have a weak arm (although in the bottom of the ninth of the 1950 single game playoff for the National League pennant against the Brooklyn Dodgers and with the score tied 1-1, he threw out Cal Abrams at home plate.)
As a leadoff hitter, however, Ashburn completely bedeviled pitchers. Choking up on his bat, Ashburn used his shortened stroke to slap the ball through the infield. When he was not delivering a single, he would bunt his way on base or draw a walk, then steal second. Ashburn knew how to work a pitcher. Once he fouled off 14 deliveries from Cincinnati’s Corky Valentine before he finally walked.
Ashburn’s teammate, Johnny Blatnik told this story about his friend’s bat control:
One night in Philadelphia, there was a loud mouthed guy who was getting on one of our players, I can’t remember who it was. Rich told our man ‘Point him out to me.’ Rich went up to bat and hit the guy in the chest about five or six rows up in the stands with a line drive foul ball. That’s a true story.
Few outside of Philadelphia know that when the 1950 decade ended, Ashburn had more hits than Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Mays or Mantle.
After his playing career ended, Ashburn had the wisdom to turn down an offer to go into Nebraska politics as some urged him to do. Instead Ashburn accepted the Phillies invitation to join the broadcast team where he enamored the notoriously tough Philadelphia fans for decades.
When in 1995 the Hall finally inducted Ashburn, he said showing his famous sense of humor:
I’m flattered that so many baseball people think I’m a Hall of Famer. But what’s hard to believe is how one-hundred and fifty plus people have changed their minds about me since I became eligible because I haven’t had a base hit since then.
Ashburn’s Cooperstown plaque reads, in part:
DURABLE, HUSTLING LEAD-OFF HITTER AND CLUTCH PERFORMER WITH SUPERB KNOWLEDGE OF STRIKE ZONE. BATTED .308 LIFETIME WITH NINE .300 SEASONS AND 2,574 HITS IN 2,189 GAMES, WINNING BATTING CHAMPIONSHIPS IN 1955 AND 1958. AS A CENTER FIELDER, ESTABLISHED MAJOR LEAGUE RECORDS FOR MOST YEARS LEADING LEAGUE IN CHANCES (9), MOST YEARS 500 OR MORE PUTOUTS (4) AND MOST SEASONS 400 OR MORE PUTOUTS (9).
At Ashburn’s 1997 funeral, players and fans showed up in droves and stood in line for hours to pay their final respects to the man whose skills on the field and voice behind the mike was legendary. Some grown men, crying, left their transistor radios beside Ashburn’s casket to pay the ultimate tribute to the man they admired and loved for years.