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Thrilling finish for Ashburn in '58 batting race

Willie Mays .346; Richie Ashburn .344. That's the way the National League batting race stood with just three games left on the 1958 schedule.

Mays was heading home to San Francisco for three games against 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.

"There were four of us in the race that week," Ashburn said. "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."

Phillies batting champions
Year Player Batting average
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

Ashburn passed Mays on Friday, Sept. 26. "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 game on Saturday, while Mays climbed to .3445 on the strength of two hits in five at-bats.

It all came down to the final game 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 which 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 hit a torrid .478 after Sept. 11.

Ashburn was finished for the season, a .350 figure. But Mays was just getting started on the West Coast.

"I figured the pressure was on him," said Ashburn.

The great center fielder needed a perfect 5-for-5 effort 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," said Ashburn. "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 [Nebraska]."

So, Ashburn became only the second Phillies player to win two batting titles. His first Silver Bat came in 1955. Ashburn hit .338 to win by 19 points over Mays and Musial. No Phils player has matched him. Heck, no Phillies player has won a batting title since Ashburn.

Larry Shenk is in charge of alumni relations and team historian for the Phillies.
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