Richie Ashburn - The Throw that Won the Pennant
March 31, 2009
by William Szczepanek
Richie “Whitey” Ashburn was one of the Philadelphia Phillies “Whiz Kids” in the early 1950s. He has a lifetime .308 batting Average and led the NL in hitting twice. Ashburn was a contact hitter with 2,574 hits, mostly singles. He had more hits than any other player in the decade of the Fifties. Ashburn was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1995.
My fondest memories of Richie were the Baseball clinics he held on WGN-TV. He invited fellow players to instruct kids on the fundamentals of hitting, throwing, fielding, running, and sliding. These basic fundamentals are seriously missing in today’s Little League instruction where many coaches encourage kids to play better baseball by applying a football mentality, telling them to get angry, get pumped and play aggressively. Most, with real baseball knowledge, understand that the game needs to be played under control and that adrenaline rushes need to be overcome with mechanical consistency and focus. These fundamentals were conveyed by Richie and his colleagues through explanation of not only how to execute, but why the methods worked.
While the Philadelphia Phillies have had some recent success in World Series play, that hasn’t always been the case. In 1950 it had been 35 years since the Phillies were in contention. In this year however they had a young team that continued to surprise and wasn’t taken seriously until August when they appeared to be pulling away in the National League race.
The team was composed of primarily young players who would prove that they had what it takes. As the pressure of the late season wore on the Brooklyn Dodgers closed the gap to only one game with one final game of the season remaining. The Phillies had watched a 7 ½ game lead on September 19th vanish. The Phillies lost 8 out of 10 while the Dodgers won 8 out of 9.
On October 1, 1950 with 33,073 present in Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, Robin Roberts, the 24 year old, Phillie right hander, faced Don Newcombe who was all of two months older. It was Robert’s fourth start in nine days. These two tired pitchers went into the ninth inning with the game tied 1-1. The Phillies were retired in the top of the inning by Newcombe.
Roberts took the mound for the bottom of the ninth. Cal Abrams walked. Pee Wee Reese singled. With the game on the line Duke Snider singled to center. The Brooklyn crowd cheered as Abrams rounded third with the winning run that would force a playoff. The ball was fielded by Ashburn on a single bounce and his throw cut down Abrams easily. Ashburn’s throw kept the Phillies in the game. Now, it was up to Roberts. With men on second and third he walked Jackie Robinson to fill the bases. He got Carl Furillo to pop up and Gil Hodges to fly out to right. In the tenth Dick Sisler hit a 3-run homer to win it for the Phillies, but what is remembered the most was the throw by Ashburn. It wasn’t a tremendous play, just a difficult play that had to be made. There will always be the question of what would have happened if Abrams had not tried to score. The bases would have been loaded with no outs. But, that’s baseball.
Ashburn and the Phillies went on to lose to the Yankees in 4 games in the World Series, but Ashburn will always be remembered for his fielding. As far as his ability to catch the ball Ashburn holds the record for most seasons leading the league in outfielder putouts with 9 years from 1949 through 1958. Playing in only 140 games due to a knee injury in 1955 and on a streak of 731 consecutives games, Mayo Smith, so as not to risk further injury, decided to rest Ashburn 91 games short of the record then held by Gus Suhr. The injury also prevented Ashburn from once again winning the putout title.
One of only two players to ever lead the league in putouts, assists and double plays in the same season twice, he is considered by many to be the second-best fielding center fielder in baseball history after Willie Mays.
You can check out Ashburn's stats at Baseball-Reference.com.