Don Richard Ashburn was March 19, 1927 on a farm in Tilden, Nebraska. There his father owned the largest general store in town & little Richie was a childhood friend of future late night talk show star; Johnny Carson.
Richie became a star baseball player in high school & represented Nebraska playing for the American Legion team at a game in New York City where he was discovered by the scouts. The five foot ten, left hand hitting out fielder with the white hair, earned himself the nick name "Whitey".
Ashburn was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1944 and hit .312 at Utica playing A ball. He went to the US Army serving in World War II in 1945-1946. He returned to baseball the next year & hit .362 in in the minor leagues at AA ball.
He came up to the Phillies in 1948 and would come in second to Alvin Dark in the Rookie of the Year voting. He hit .333 (second in the league) posting a .410 on base % (third in the league) while leading the league in stolen bases with 32. The next year the lead off hitter, led the league in at bats, batting .284 with 188 hits (sixth in the league).
That year he began a run of leading the league in put outs as a centerfielder for a record, nine of the next ten years. Ashburn was one of the N.L’s best defensive centerfielders during his era, considered to have the best range of anyone around. He led the league in assists three times (including 23 assists in 1952) games played four times & was among tops in fielding consistently.
In 1950 he was a member of the Phillies Whiz Kids, NL Pennant team, batting .303 with a league leading 14 triples & 14 stolen bases. In the last game of the season, against the Brooklyn Dodgers, he threw out Cal Abrams at home plate in the bottom of the 9th inning. The play was crucial as the game was tied up at 1-1. In the top of the tenth he reached base with a sac bunt,& scored on Dick Sisler's three run game winning HR. The win, clinched the NL pennant for the Phillies. That year Ashburn played in the only World Series of his career batting .176 (3-17).
He would play 12 years in Philadelphia, winning two batting titles;1955 & another in 1958. In 1958 he also led the league with 215 hits, the third time in his career he topped the 200 hit mark. He also led the NL in on base % (.440%) walks (97) triples (13) & at bats (725). He was considered a slow runner, as he also led the league in caught stealing, earning himself another nick name- "put put".
Ashburn had the most hits of any player in the 1950’s with 1875. He was known as a hitter who sprayed the ball all over the field, adapting to any situation. He was not known for his power only hitting 29 career HRs. He would be among the league’s best in offensive categories like hits, walks, triples, steals, runs scored, & batting average throughout his career.
Besides the two batting crowns, Ashburn came in second in the batting race two other times (1948 & 1951) and was also in the top ten in the race nine times in his career. He led the league in hits three times, walks & on base percentage four times each, as well as triples twice. Ashburn played in seven All Star games in his career and in the 1951 All Star game, he made a HR saving catch off Cleveland’s Vic Wertz, 400 ft away from home plate at Detroit’s Briggs Stadium.
Strangely in 1957 he hit a foul ball that struck a woman (Alice Roth) the wife of a Philadelphia sports writer, breaking her nose. As she was taken away on a stretcher, Ashburn hit another foul ball that struck her on the way out of the stadium. The two developed a friendship through the years after the incident.
As the fifties ended so did his time in the City of Brotherly Love, Ashburn is still one of the most famous & beloved Phillies players of all time. In 1960 he was traded to the Chicago Cubs for Alvin Dark & Jim Woods.
That season he led the league in walks (116) & on base percentage (.415%) batting .291 in the first of two seasons at Wrigley Field. He became popular in Chicago as well, running an on air baseball instructional clinic for children of the television station; WGN viewing audience. This laid the ground work for his post playing career at the microphone as a broadcaster. In 1961 he dropped off to .257 and had his contract sold to the expansion New York Mets in December 1961.
Ashburn became an original Met & on a bad team he was one of its few standout players. He was already 35 years of age, an old veteran among a bunch of youngsters. He was the first Met batter ever to walk to the plate, batting leadoff on opening day 1962 at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, flying out to center field. In the 3rd inning he got the third hit in Mets history and then scored the team’s first franchise run when Charlie Neal drove him in with a base hit.
On April 21st, he had one of the biggest days at the plate that early in the Mets season. He was 3-4 with two runs driven in & two walks in a 8-4 loss at Pittsburgh. On May 19th in a rare '62 Mets five run come from behind win, Ashburn's 8th inning single scored Charley Neal with the tying run, sending Hot Rod Kanehl to third base, he would score on Jim Hickmans base hit in what was the winning run.
At the end of the month he was hitting .356 far ahead of anyone on his team, and up with the leagues leaders. In June he had a ten game hit streak, with five multi hit games. He hit his first HR of the year at Wrigley Field on June 10th, as the Mets went into the bottom of the 9th inning with a 4-1 lead. But Ernie Banks hit a three run HR to tie it up & the Mets lost it in the 10th. He showed a rare stretch of power during a home series against the Houston Colt 45's hitting HRs in two of the three games. On June 23rd, he hit two HRs against Houston in a 13-2 Mets win.
In July he had yet another ten game hit streak. During a five game road trip to St. Louis in that stretch he had twelve hits & scored four runs. In August he had his biggest hit streak of the year, hitting safely in 13 games in a row, 19 of 21. On August 14th, he drew four walks in a game against his old Phillies team mates.
It could be said, Ashburn was the Mets first star player, since was their first player to represent the team in an All Star game. He would also be the first Mets player to bat .300 (.306).
In 1962 he lead the team in batting as well as singles (102) walks (81) & stolen bases (12) playing in 135 games with 7 HRs & 28 RBIs.
His humor as well as his clever wit were priceless and were much needed in the clubhouse. His wore uniform number one & his locker was right next to number two, Marv Throneberry. When the press would come over to talk about Thornberry’s mishaps, Ashburn would call him Marvelous, thus the legend of Marvelous Marv was born.
One of the great stories to come out of the ’62 Mets was how short stop Elio Chacon would keep running into Ashburn on fly balls to short center. Chacon didn’t understand any English, & didn’t know what Ashburn meant when he was yelling “I got it. I got it”. The clever Ashburn, learned to say "Yo la tengo” in Spanish to call off Chacon. It worked with Chacon, but one day left fielder Frank Thomas ran into Ashburn saying “what the hell does yellow tango mean?”
During the season he told the Mets pitchers if I’d hit against you guys I would hit .400. On the last at bat of his career he hit a base hit in a game against the Cubs at Wrigley Field. On the next at bat Joe Pignatano looped a fly behind second base, the ball was caught & a triple play was turned with Ashburn getting nailed at first base. It was the last play of his career.
Ashburn was voted the 1962 Mets MVP, to which he later said “‘to be voted the MVP on the worst team in the history of baseball is a dubious honor, for sure. I was awarded a 24-foot boat equipped with a galley and sleeping facilities for six. After the season had ended, I docked a boat in Ocean City, New Jersey and it sank.''
After the 120 loss season Ashburn chose to retire. In his fifteen year career, he hit .308 (121st all time) with 2574 hits (87th all time) 317 doubles, 109 triples (128th all time), 1198 walks (54th all time) & a .396 on base percentage (75th all time) with 1322 runs scored (115th all time) & 234 stolen bases in 2189 games played. In the outfield he played 2104 games (40th all time) 1980 as a center fielder (8th all time). In center he has 5810 put outs (2nd all time) 154 assists (8th all time) while posting a .984 fielding %. (3rd best all time).
Retirement: After his playing days he became a broadcaster with the Phillies for 34 years until his passing in 1997. In that time he became best friends with fellow announcer Harry Kalas whom he worked with for 26 years.
After being on the Hall of Fame ballot for 15 years (1968-11982) he was finally inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame by the veterans committee in 1995. He has his place in baseball’s hall of fame as an announcer too, winning the Ford Frick award. He is honored in Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park, as the outfield pavilion there is named Ashburn Alley.
Ashburn was also a good friend of New York Mets announcer Ralph Kiner and the two would join each other’s broadcast & share great old stories together on the air.
Passing: In 1997 after a Mets Phillies game at Shea Stadium, Ashburn suffered a fatal heart attack in Manhattan’s Grand Hyatt Hotel on 42nd Street.
A team official had received a call from Ashburn at 5:30 AM saying he was feeling ill. The baseball world was shocked at his passing, and a huge funeral was held for him Philadelphia, he was 70 years old.