Legs spread, arms cocked, hands choked up on the wooden bottle he calls a bat, Richie Ashburn, last year's National League batting champion, awaits the first pitch of the new season. Chances are he'll bounce it over the pitcher into center field, or bloop it to left, for that is his way. In the 11 years he has worn the candycane uniform of the Philadelphia Phillies, Ashburn has bounced, blooped, sliced, scratched, poked, bunted and, to be fair, lined 2,067 base hits.
For his talents, which include not only hitting but fielding and a few others, like leading the league in walks and stolen bases, Ashburn, at 32, is paid about $40,000 annually. In manner, speech and dress, he could easily be mistaken for Yale '48. His hair and eyebrows are light blond, his body lean and hard. His height is an inch under six feet, his weight is 179. He has been married for nine years and has four blonde-haired daughters, ages, 7, 4, 2 and one. During the warm baseball months the Ashburns live in a rented home in Rosemont, a Philadelphia suburb of fine houses and cool, green lawns. Richie makes the 30-minute drive between Rosemont and Connie Mack Stadium in a cream-colored Cadillac.
Between seasons Ashburn returns to Nebraska, where both he and his wife were born. He is Nebraska chairman of the American Cancer Society. He speaks to Elks clubs and boy scouts, to business leaders and orphans. Unlike most ballplayers, he takes an active interest in politics. Last fall he helped a friend, Republican Bob Harrison, campaign for reelection to Congress. During the warm October days Ashburn turned down tempting golf games to stomp through small Nebraska towns, shaking hands with gas station attendants, drugstore clerks and grain elevator operators. When Harrison lost, Richie was keenly disappointed.
"We lost the farm vote," he said recently. "We did fine in the cities, but we didn't figure the farmers would be so dissatisfied. Of course the whole trend was against us."
What spare time he has Ashburn likes to spend at home with his girls—his harem, as he calls them. He is away from home so much, especially during the season, that when he is home the girls rarely let him alone.
"They stand around in the bathroom and watch me shave in the morning," he says smiling. "They ask a thousand questions. All I have to do is say yes once in a while."
In high school in his home town of Tilden, Ashburn was the star athlete, the hero. In 1945, when he was finished with high school, the Phillies signed him to a professional contract and sent him to Utica. Ashburn spent the following year in military service and in 1947 was back at Utica.
He did well that second year at Utica. Nevertheless, when he reported to the Phillies' training camp in the spring of 1948 Ashburn was just another uniform. Philadelphia had a center fielder, Harry Walker, who had won the batting title the year before. The job, naturally, was his.
But Harry Walker was late getting to camp that spring because he was holding out for more money. When another outfielder, Charley Gilbert, was injured, Ashburn played in most of the exhibition games. He did so well that on opening day in Philadelphia he was in center field. Walker, when he signed, was moved to left, then traded to Chicago.
It was a wonderful first year. Ashburn hit .333 and led the league in stolen bases with 32. Hitting in the majors seemed easy.
The following year was sobering. Ashburn started off cocky and overconfident, but midway through the season he was hitting below .250. Although he managed to finish with an average of .284, respectable enough, he had learned a lesson.
"I thought I knew all there was to know about hitting. I've been playing 11 years now, and I realize I still don't know it all."
Once out of his Ivy League clothes and dressed in his uniform, Ashburn is always running, running, running. His speed, great once, is still exceptional; it is his prime asset and he uses it skillfully. The threat of Richie's beating out a bunt brings the third baseman in close, making it easier for Ashburn to exercise his knack of slashing the ball by an infielder or popping it over his head. Once on first base, he is a threat to steal second—no one in baseball today has stolen more bases. And there are other ways for him to make his way around the bases. Several times last year, for instance, he tagged up on fly balls to left field and, when the incoming throw was off line, advanced from first base to second.
From second base, Ashburn is ready to score. He has scored more than 90 runs a season for the past eight years. Last season he had 98, fifth in the league. One day against San Francisco he was on second when a ball was hit through the middle. But Daryl Spencer, the Giants' shortstop, made a sprawling stop behind second base that seemed certain to prevent the run from scoring. Ashburn, however, turned third base and sped for home. Spencer righted himself and threw well to the plate, but Ashburn skidded across an instant before the tag.
THE USES OF SPEED
In the outfield, Ashburn uses his speed to similar advantage. Though a center fielder, he lacks a strong throwing arm, and his name is rarely mentioned when people discuss the great outfielders. Today, for instance, they talk of Willie Mays or Jimmy Piersall. And yet Ashburn's arm once saved a pennant for Philadelphia, and he has caught more fly balls in his career than Mays and Piersall together. Each year he catches more fly balls than anyone else—at any rate, he has led the National League in putouts in nine of his 11 seasons, and in the two seasons he failed to lead he was out with injuries for long periods of time. In the history of major league baseball only a bare handful of outfielders have made 500 putouts in one season. Tris Speaker never did, nor Joe DiMaggio. Dominic DiMaggio did it once. So did Taylor Douthit. Ashburn has done it the four other times.
It was on the last day of the 1950 season that Ashburn's arm saved the pennant for Philadelphia. The Phillies were leading the league, one game ahead of the onrushing Dodgers. The two teams were playing each other, in Brooklyn. In the last of the ninth, with the score tied 1-1, the Dodgers put men on first and second with no one out. Duke Snider cracked a sharp single to center field, and Cal Abrams, the runner on second base, headed for the plate. Ashburn fielded the ball and threw it home in time to put Abrams out by five feet. The Dodgers failed to score, and in the 10th the Phillies won the game and the pennant. Ashburn is the first to admit that his play was an easy one. But it was a play that had to be made right, and he made it.
In the years since 1950 the Phillies have gone downhill, but not Ashburn. He hit .344 in 1951, but Stan Musial was higher. He hit .330 in 1953, but Carl Furillo was higher. Finally, in 1955, he hit .338, and no one was higher. He had his first batting championship. Last year, after a driving finish in which he was challenged by three of the game's best hitters—Musial, Mays, and Henry Aaron—he won his second title with a .350 average.
Like most successful men, Ashburn has a strong will to succeed, and this sometimes manifests itself in a temper that can explode with the suddenness of a summer cloudburst. Once last year after a particularly upsetting defeat Ashburn was driving his wife and another couple to dinner when a passing car honked at him for an unnecessary length of time. Ashburn's face grew red and the muscles showed in his neck. He started after the car, briefly, then slowed up.
"If it weren't for you two ladies," he seethed, "I'd chase that guy down, haul him out and break his neck."
Last fall his anger cost him money. On the golf course, having mis-hit a seven-iron, he swore he would never hit another bad shot with the club again. Using it as a bat, he swung at a baseball, which in this case was a tree. When he returned home he tossed the bent club in his backyard. His 4-year-old daughter Jan found it and decided it was just the thing to use as a lever on the cable which held a neighbor's television antenna in place. How a little girl had the strength to do what she did the Ashburns still wonder, but the cable was snapped and the antenna came crashing down. The damage cost Richie $120.
Such outbursts of temper, however, are rare. Most of the time Ashburn is friendly and courteous. He is able to take the social obligations of fame in stride. Ballplayers of Ashburn's stature are constantly bombarded with requests for autographs, interviews, photographs, business deals, public appearances. Some players react to this with rudeness or are uncommunicative or, at best, monosyllabic. Ashburn not only treats all requests with consideration, but usually carries the conversation. A Philadelphian who approaches Ashburn hoping to shake hands is likely to be asked about his home, his job and his family.
Ashburn enjoys the life he is leading and he looks forward to many more good baseball years. He wants to make 3,000 hits, something only eight players have done. He looks forward to the birth of his fifth child in August—perhaps, at last, a son.
He has not forgotten the lessons he has learned. When he was arguing for more money this spring, and it looked as if he would have to become a holdout, he remembered another batting champion who held out and how a rookie came along and took his job. Ashburn signed quickly. He likes his job and wants to keep it.