NEW YORK — He spent one season of his 52 years of baseball in New York and yet he is one of ours. And we have to laugh.
Richie Ashburn died last week. He was 70, which is no age at all.
One of the things about being a certain age is that too often we have to write about the death of people we like. Then again, we had the pleasure of their company. Richie--everybody who knew him called him Whitey--used to come to spring training in a borrowed antique car, wearing bermuda shorts, argyle socks and a flat cap, smoking a Sherlock Holmes swooping pipe and smiling. And everybody would smile.
"Baseball has lost its Will Rogers," Tim McCarver mused. To paraphrase Rogers, nobody who ever met Richie Ashburn didn't like him. Even when he was whipping them on the tennis court.
People will gather to mourn him and will be drawn to the funny stories, to the insights and observations about life and baseball that will last a lifetime as parables for all sorts of situations.
"When you build a ballpark," he said about the perpetual dusk of the unlamented Colt Stadium in Houston, "you should put in lights. Especially if you're going to play at night."
About how umpires and referees see bad teams, Ashburn explained: "They (screw) you because you're (horse manure)." And tell me that's not valid for life situations.
He played 15 years, won two batting titles and was second twice. His first two seasons in the minors, he was a catcher--until they found he was out-running batters to first base and made him a center fielder. Only 11 times has an outfielder handled 500 chances in a season. Ashburn did it five times, and nobody else did it more than once, not even Willie Mays. Ashburn's throw to the plate on the last day of the 1950 season cost Brooklyn a pennant. He was the first batter up for the Mets. That was in 1962, when he and Casey Stengel made the Mets as endearing as they were inept.
Ashburn made Marv Throneberry an unwilling folk hero. He elevated Hot Rod Kanehl. His wit relieved Roger Craig's 18 consecutive losses.
Oh, we knew he was one of the best leadoff hitters ever before he got here, but it was the Mets that provided the fertile ground for his wit. He deserved the Hall of Fame for what he did, but what he said should be on his plaque.
After batting .306 in 1962, he began his 35-year career as a broadcaster in Philadelphia, where he played a dozen years, from 1948-59. He wrote two newspaper columns a week and insisted on doing them himself. He became the most beloved figure in Philadelphia sports history--beyond Mike Schmidt, Robin Roberts, Chuck Bednarik or any of them. But he is a piece of New York.
He was given a boat as Most Valuable Met in the season of 120 losses. When it was put in the water, it sank. Somebody forgot to put in the drain plug. So it went that year. George Weiss, the Mets president, opened the vault to offer Ashburn a $10,000 raise, which was a big deal then, to play another season. Ashburn wisely declined.
"Everybody should experience something like that season," Ashburn once reflected.
"It was an invaluable experience," Kanehl said. "You'd do it again."
"Nobody," Ashburn said, "should have to do it twice."
On that team was Frank Thomas, known as Big Donkey, who missed part of the previous season with a shattered thumb. He had this gift of bringing strong-armed players to tears by catching their best throws bare-handed. Ashburn was his broker.
Thomas would stand there with his dumb look and Ashburn would say: "You think you got a pretty good arm? I got a friend here who'll catch your best shot bare-handed." Don Zimmer lost $100. Mays also lost $100, except Ashburn said Mays never paid.
Bilingual Joe Christopher taught Ashburn to holler "Got it" in Spanish so he wouldn't be run over by shortstop Elio Chacon. So Ashburn came running in from center for a pop behind shortstop and called, "Lo tengo," and sure enough, Chacon slammed on the brakes. And left fielder Thomas ran over Ashburn, which cost two runs and the game.
Throneberry came late to the Mets and the spirit of the Mets. He still thought of himself as the next great prospect in the Yankees' system and felt he was being ridiculed. Ashburn made him Marvelous Marv, the darling of the downtrodden. Even when Marv was the flashback star of a fun beer commercial, he still wasn't sure what he was.
Ashburn played straight man to Marv, fed him lines. There was the time in the decrepit Polo Grounds when Throneberry was sitting in front of his locker, permitting a leak in the ceiling to drip, drip, drip onto his bald head.
"I deserve it," Throneberry said.
"Yes, you do," Ashburn agreed.
Craig recalled what a good leadoff hitter Ashburn was. "You could throw him a perfect pitch," Craig said. "He'd foul it off and laugh at you until you made a mistake and he got a hit." Bat control, it was called.