“To be voted the most valuable player on the worst team in the history of major league baseball is a dubious honor for sure. But I was awarded a 24-boat with a galley and sleeping facilities for six. After the season ended, I docked the boat in Ocean City, New Jersey, and it sank.”
Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn – 1962 NY Mets (40 wins-120 losses) MVP
Today (December 8, 2916) is the 55th anniversary of the day the New York Mets acquired future Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn from the Chicago Cubs. It’s also the first anniversary of Baseball Roundtable’s initial blog post about Ashburn – truly one of the great characters of our national pastime. BBRT has come across a few additional facts and tales about Richie Ashburn – also known as Putt-Putt, Whitey and the Tilden Flash. With that in mind, BBRT is presenting an expanded look at the career of this talented Hall of Famer – a career that is rich not only in statistics, but in uniquely entertaining stories. So, read on if you’d like to learn more about the player who led all of MLB in base hits in the 1950s and is also credited with hitting a foul ball that broke a female fan’s nose and then (in the same at bat) rapping a second foul ball that hit her as she was being carried from the stands on a stretcher.
Ashburn’s MLB career covered 15 seasons with the Phillies (1948-59), Cubs (1960-61) and Mets (1962). The 34-year-old outfielder was nearing the end of his MLB career when he joined the Mets (in fact, his 1962 season with the Mets would be his last in the major leagues), but he brought significant credentials to the expansion franchise. Ashburn was a four-time All Star, two-time batting champion and had led the NL in walks four times, on-base-percentage four times, hits three times, triples twice and stolen bases once. BBRT Note: For a look at MLB’s expansion drafts – and the early and interesting picks, click here.
Richie Ashburn was noted for his speed, bat control and sparking outfield defense. In his fifteen-year MLB career (12 with the Phillies), he achieved a .308 average and collected 2,574 hits (2,119 singles), but only 29 home runs. He topped 200 hits three times, hit over .300 nine times, stole 234 bases (topping 25 in three seasons) and legged out 109 triples. Here are a few stats that caught BBRT’s eye:
- Ashburn’s 1,875 hits were the most by any player in the 1950s. (Nellie Fox was second and Stan Musial third.) Ashburn led the league in hits three times during that span
- Ashburn played more games than any other player in the 1950s – 1,523 – leading the league in games played twice
- The speedy center fielder also recorded more outfield put outs than any other MLB outfielder in the decade (4,496) – leading the league in OF puts outs in eight of the ten years
- During his career, Ashburn led the NL in outfield put outs nine times, OF assists three times and OF double plays three times
- 27.6 percent of Ashburn’s career home runs (eight of twenty-nine) were inside-the-parkers
- In 14 of his 15 seasons, Ashburn hit more triples than homers.
For the Mets, Ashburn proved a valuable pick-up – literally, since after the season, he was chosen as the MVP of the 40-120 Mets, who finished 60 1/2 games behind the Giants. (The Mets’ dismal performance has been suggested as part of the reason for Ashburn’s decision to retire.) In his final season, Ashburn was also the Mets’ only All Star team selection. He finished the year with a .306 average in 135 games, collected 119 hits (102 singles) and 81 walks (for a .424 on base percentage) and surprised a lot of people with a career-high seven home runs. The 1962 season was, in fact, the only year in which Ashburn didn’t hit more triples than round trippers.
Richie Ashburn is the only player in MLB history with four seasons of at least 500 outfield put outs.
But all of this (not to mention Ashburn’s 3 ½ decades as a Phillies’ broadcaster), is not the sole reason BBRT is featuring him in this post. The fact is, Ashburn’s career is “rich” in unique baseball stories.
- Ashburn began his minor league career (at the age of 18) as a catcher with the Utica Blue Sox of the Class A Eastern League. Ashburn’s father had groomed him as a catcher, figuring that position offered the fastest path to the major leagues. Ashburn, however, proved too “fast” for that path. The story has it that on one groundball hit to the right side, Ashburn tossed off his mask, came out from behind the plate and didn’t just back up the play at first base, but beat the runner there and took the throw for the putout. It wasn’t long before Ashburn was moved to the outfield.
In his two minor league seasons, Richie Ashburn hit .342, with 245 singles, 38 doubles, 18 triples and four home runs. (305 hits in 243 games).
- On August 17, 1957, as the Phillies took on the Giants in Philadelphia, Ashburn lined a foul ball into the Press Box behind third base – hitting Alice Roth (wife of the Philadelphia Bulletin’s sports editor Earl Roth) in the face, breaking her nose. The game was stopped momentarily as Mrs. Roth was attended to – and eventually taken from her seat on a stretcher. Play resumed and on the very next pitch, Ashburn hit another foul ball – which hit the now prone, stretcher-bound Alice Roth in the leg.
- Ashburn made it to the Phillies as a 21-year-old in 1948 and was the only rookie on the NL All Star team. Ashburn hit lead-off, collected two hits (singles, of course), stole a base and scored a run in the NL’s 5-2 loss. Ashburn hit .333 in 117 games his rookie campaign (a broken finger cut into his playing time), collected 154 hits (131 singles), played outstanding defense and led the NL with 32 stolen bases. He finished three in the Rookie of the Year balloting – won by Braves SS Alvin Dark.
- On June 12, 1958, Ashburn – known for heads up play in the field – helped engineer a shortstop-catcher-third base-center field double play. The Phillies were playing the Dodgers and, in the bottom of the third, the Dodgers had 1B Gil Hodges at the plate with RF Carl Furillo on at third base and C Johnny Roseboro at second. Hodges grounded to Phillies’ SS Chico Hernandez, who threw to the plate to get Furillo, Roseboro had made a move toward third and catcher Joe Lonnet fired to third baseman Willie Jones. Meanwhile, Ashburn had come in from center field (behind the retreating Roseboro) and took a throw from Lonnet – tagging Roseboro to complete a 6-2-5-8 double killing.
Yellow Tango, Outfield Tangle
In his final MLB season (as a Met), Ashburn found himself playing in center field, often behind second baseman/shortstop Elio Chacon, who did not speak English. Despite Ashburn’s calls of “I got it. I got it.”, there were times when Chacon would range into center field, resulting in a misplay or collision. Finally, Ashburn picked up the phrase “Yo la tengo” – the Spanish equivalent of “I got it.” The problem appeared solved – until a game in which a fly ball was headed for the no-man’s land in short left-center. Ashburn rushed in, pounded his glove and confidently declared, “Yo la tengo.” As expected, Chacon pulled up. Unfortunately, left fielder Frank Thomas continued charging in, colliding with Ashburn, while the ball fell in between them. As they got to their feet, the story goes, the non-Spanish-speaking Thomas asked “What the *** is Yellow Tango?”, while Mets’ manager Casey Stengel just shook his head in the dugout. BBRT note: The incident is credited as being the inspiration for the name of the alternative rock band Yo La Tengo – originally established by long-time Mets’ fan Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley.
After retring as a player, Ashubrn enjoyed a long career (more than three decades) as a Phillies’ broadcaster and also wrote baseball columns for the Philadelphia Bulletin and Philadelphia Daily News. (Ashburn passed away on September 9, 1997 – heart attack – after broadcasting a Phillies/Mets game in New York.) He was inducted into the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia Hall of Fame in 1997 and the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame in 2004.
In 1998, the Phillies established the Richie Ashburn Special Achievement Award recognizing a member of the Phillies’ organization for exhibiting the loyalty, dedication and passion demonstrated by Ashburn during his career (both on- and off-the-field) with the Phillies.
Richie Ashburn’s MLB Record
Games Played – 2,189; hits – 2,574; average – .308; doubles – 317; triples – 109; home runs – 28; runs – 1,322; RBI – 586; stolen bases (234); walks – 1,198.
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