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.