Willie Mays .346, Richie Ashburn .344. That's the way the National League batting championship race stood with just three games left on the schedule 60 years ago.Mays was heading home to San Francisco and three games with the St. Louis Cardinals. Ashburn just finished an unbelievable year at Connie Mack
Willie Mays .346, Richie Ashburn .344. That's the way the National League batting championship race stood with just three games left on the schedule 60 years ago.
Mays was heading home to San Francisco and three games with the St. Louis Cardinals. Ashburn just finished an unbelievable year at Connie Mack Stadium in which he batted .378. His final three games were in Pittsburgh. Going into the final week of the season, Ashburn was batting only .262 vs. Pirates pitching. A big six-hit doubleheader in Philadelphia against the Pirates on Sept. 22 put him in the race as the end neared.
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"There were four of us in the race that week," Ashburn recalled in an interview some 30 years ago. "Hank Aaron, Stan Musial, Willie and myself. I remember Sports Illustrated did a big story on the batting title and they listed odds for each. I was the last of the bunch. It really got me peeved."
Friday (Sept. 26) saw Ashburn pass Mays. "Whitey" went 2-for-4 to go to .3448 while Mays was hitless in three at-bats to drop to .3440. Ashburn increased his average to .3469 with a 3-for-5 Saturday, while Mays climbed to .3445 on the strength of two hits in five at-bats.
It all came down to the final game on Sunday afternoon.
"My first at-bat, I hit a sinking liner to left field," said Ashburn. "Bob Skinner, not a real good outfielder, made a shoestring catch. I remember going back to the dugout and kind of thinking, 'It's going to be one of those days.'"
Right-hander Bennie Daniels was pitching for the Pirates. Ashburn singled to left in the third, beat out a single to third in the sixth and was walked by left-hander Bob Smith in the eighth. That walk led to a run that put the Phillies on top, 4-3. Pittsburgh tied the game in the eighth and the game went into extra innings.
Ashburn singled to center against another lefty, Bob Gross, to open the 10th. He wound up scoring the decisive run in a 6-4, 10-inning victory, coming across the plate on Harry Anderson's looping single.
Ashburn, who hit .478 after Sept. 11, was finished for the season with a .350 figure. But Mays was just getting started on the West Coast. "I figured the pressure was on him," Ashburn said. The great center fielder of the Giants needed a perfect 5-for-5 to tie Ashburn. Mays gave Ashburn a scare by going 3-for-5, which put him at .347.
"I really didn't know I won until sometime that night," Ashburn said. "I don't remember exactly when. I know the team was flying back to Philadelphia but I had driven to Pittsburgh and was continuing on home to Tilden [Neb.]." No Phillies hitter has won a batting title since.
Not only did he lead the National League in hits (215), Richie also led in walks (97). He was the first player to do that since Rogers Hornsby in 1924.
So, Ashburn became only the second Phillies player to win two batting titles. His first Silver Bat came in 1955. He had 180 hits and walked 105 times but didn't lead the NL in either category, but his .338 average was 19 points better than Mays and Musial. Richie went hitless in seven at-bats in a season-ending doubleheader in the Polo Grounds, but it didn't matter.
Phillies batting champions
1891: Billy Hamilton, .340
1893: Billy Hamilton, .380
1899: Ed Delahanty, .410
1910: Sherry Magee, .331
1828: Lefty O'Doul, .398
1933: Chuck Klein, .368
1947: Harry Walker, .363
1955: Richie Ashburn, .338
1958: Richie Ashburn, .350
Larry Shenk is author/editor of the Phillies Alumni section