TILDEN, Nebr. -- When it was announced that Rich Ashburn had been voted into the Hall of Fame, the people of Tilden could not have been happier, not just for Rich, but for his elderly mother. In the course of her 91 years, Genevieve "Toots" Ashburn seems to have touched everyone here with her kindness. When husbands or wives have been been sick or in need, she has stood over the stove for hours whipping up an apple pie or a plate of her fabulous biscuits to send over. You hear it everywhere in Tilden: "Everybody loves Toots."
On this day - a cool Friday in May - Toots was in the kitchen once again cooking up a storm. A whole crowd was expected for dinner: son Bob, granddaughter Claire, daughter Bette, son-in-law Ed Cram, and a reporter and photographer from Philadelphia. Because this is how she is - which is to say, she could wear out the Energizer Bunny - Toots spent the whole day running pans in and out of the oven and wiping up spills. When she was done, at 6 p.m., she set out a table that included both roast turkey and beef, a bowl of potato salad, a plate of sliced vegetables and fruit, and not one, but two piping hot apple pies.
"Mom just loves baseball," said Bette, seated at the dining-room table while Toots was in the kitchen preparing dessert. "Sits there on the davenport and never misses a pitch. I remember once . . . "
Bette dropped her voice to a whisper.
"I remember once she had the cat in her lap and something happened in the game that upset her," Bette continued. "My goodness, she got so annoyed that she picked up the cat and threw it at the screen!"
Son-in-law Ed laughed. "That cat disappeared for three days," he said. ''We found him hiding in the closet."
Bette nodded toward the kitchen and, with a smile, added, "All of us are just so proud of Rich . . . and pleased that it happened while mom is still around to see it."
Toots appeared in the doorway just then and asked, "Who wants ice cream on their pie?"
When we told Rich Ashburn we were headed to his old hometown, he laughed and told us two things: We would eat well and we could drive "pretty fast" out there between Omaha and Tilden. Well, old Whitey batted .500 on this trip: We ate wonderfully, but picked up a $54 speeding ticket in the hill country leading into Norfolk, which is where Johnny Carson grew up and is the only place in the area that has hotels. Tilden is not exactly a vacation spot, but it does have a city hall (with a roof that leaks), a quaint corner filling station, and a baseball diamond with a sign over it that reads: Tilden Memorial Park. Richie Ashburn Field.
Until Ashburn became a figure of some national prominence, Tilden's sole distinction was being the hometown of L. Ron Hubbard, the author of ''Dianetics" and founder of Scientology. The top athlete to come out of the area before Ashburn was a pitcher named Chauncey Scott, who, before World War II, signed with the Cardinals and stopped the Yankees in an exhibition outing. Scott went off to the war at that point and, as Ed Cram observed, was never the same when he came home. "Lord, he was fat!" said Cram, who paused and added with a chuckle, "Good fellow, though."
Tilden was a quiet place back in the old days, and still is. "Remember the picture, 'High Noon,' with Gary Cooper? " Rich asked. "The center of Tilden is just like that. " On Main Street is a bank, a drugstore, the Tilden library, a grocery store, and offices of the Tilden Citizen. On March 15, that weekly newspaper carried a headline that blared: Tilden Native Richie Ashburn Elected To National Baseball 'Hall of Fame' . . . Nice Guys Finish First! It was a grand occasion. In this unhurried town of a little less than 1,000, where the baseball field sits in the shadow of an old grain elevator and the calm summer evenings are laden with the reassuring sound of batted balls, Rich Ashburn is larger than life.
"Should have been in the Hall of Fame years ago," said Chuck Hofmann, who has devoted a corner of his drugstore to old artifacts commemorating Ashburn. ''Great player."
"Great player and great guy," said Harold Myhre, who grew up with Ashburn and owns the gas station in town. "He is still the same old Richie."
How the Ashburns ended up in Tilden is, as Rich himself would say, "kind of an interesting story, Harry. " According to Rich, his grandfather was driven out of Virginia when the revenuers caught up with him. The old man was a moonshiner. Faced with either standing trial or leaving the state, granddad Ashburn chose the latter and somehow settled in Tilden. He became a blacksmith and passed the trade down to his son, Neil, who was also a fair semipro second baseman. Toots remembered that her husband earned enough on the ballfield each week during the Depression to "keep us in groceries," and how she and the four children never missed one of his games.
"Old Neil was one of the toughest players around," Cram said. "Not a terrific hitter, but he had those barrel forearms and would stand in the way of a pitch if his team needed a baserunner. Quite a character. Enjoyed a beer. Loved a good time."
It was called "The Dirty '30s" back then, and it was just that. Whipping dust storms came up from Oklahoma and left a patina of red dirt on the whole town. It was so hot that people used to sleep on their lawns at night. On the edge of Tilden was a hobo camp, where men would climb down from a passing freight car, eat from a steaming cauldron of vegetable stew and climb back on another passing freight as it headed into the starry horizon. Gypsies came, too: Their wagons hitched to horses and bearing lace and odd potions, women in old, tattered clothes would travel door to door in search of handouts.
"How could I ever forget those gypsies? " Toots said with a laugh. "I remember I was sitting in the window knitting when up to the door came this little gypsy girl. Oh, the poor thing, she looked liked she was starving to death. She said, 'Miss, please, would you buy this lace from me? ' When I told her I could not afford it, she asked me to come outside and see her baby. I went with her and, goodness gracious, she had the tiniest baby I had ever seen. Looked like it was dead. I felt so terrible for them that I said to her, 'Come on downstairs with me. If you promise to bring back the jars, you can have some of our canned goods.' "
The woman promised.
Toots handed her a box and the woman quickly loaded it with jars of strawberry preserves, peaches, pears and so on. The woman and her baby then departed. When Neil came home from work that evening, Toots told him what happened. She remembers that he laughed. He told Toots to load the children in the car.
"We drove to the edge of town and there were the gypsies - with piles of coffee, flour and potatoes stacked along the roadside," Toots said. "I was just sick, but Neil never once scolded me for it."
Ed Cram laughed and piped up, "Neil would have done the same thing. He would have handed her the shirt off his back."
It was into this oddly Steinbeckian world that Rich Ashburn was born, March 19, 1927. Toots remembers how, even at 4 and dressed in "a long nightgown," Rich would "hit the ball with a little bat" and run between the trees. Oh, Toots said with a laugh, "Those little feet would just zip around! " In later years, he and his siblings (Bette, brother Bob and his late twin sister Donna) would run foot races at the fall festival and win a quarter or 50 cents. Rich was so swift afoot - or so the story goes - that whenever Toots found she had a pale-looking chicken among the animals she raised, she would have Rich race it to the butcher before it died.
"Ohhhhhh," Toots said with an embarrassed smile. "I have never sold a sick chicken."
"She would say, 'Get that chicken down there before it dies,' " he said. ''I can remember it clearly. It was kind of embarassing to be running down the street with a chicken, but I never had one die on me."
Whatever else Rich Ashburn inherited from his dad, he acquired his passion for baseball. Old friends remember he always seemed to have a ball in his hand, tossing it up in the air as he walked down the street. A catcher through Tilden Midget League, high school and American Legion with Neligh - where coach Harold Cole pronounced him "the greatest player I have had in 14 years" - Ashburn was 17 when he was selected to represent Nebraska in the All-American Boy All-Star Game, which was sponsored by Esquire magazine. Scouts from a dozen teams - including the Phillies - were following him during those years, and even Neil could see that Rich was shaping up to be something special. Still covered with sweat and grime from his day forging wagon wheels, Neil would stop into the bar, order a Blue Ribbon and tell the owner, Bill Dales, "That boy is going to be a big-leaguer one day."
"Dad wanted me to be a home-run hitter," Ashburn said. "He would tell me, 'Get your hands down on the end of the bat. ' When he realized that I would be a singles hitter, he also said, 'Well, you better get a lot of them.' "
Not so long ago, a traveler happened upon that same Tilden bar. He was from Philadelphia and was a Rich Ashburn fan. He explained that he was in Nebraska on business, and decided to rent a car and drive over to where Rich was born. The fellow asked, "Anyone here know Whitey?"
The bartender called Chuck Hofmann, the pharmacist, who dropped what he was doing and walked across the street to the bar. He and the traveler struck up a genial conversation and had a couple or three beers, at which point Hofmann showed him Tilden. Hofmann pointed out Richie Ashburn Field (the traveler snapped a photo), introduced him to Toots and then invited him to his house for dinner. The traveler was so overwhelmed at how hospitable Hofmann and his wife, Arlene, had been, that when Hofmann commented on the shirt the traveler was wearing - which was embossed with a photo of the 1950 Whiz Kids - the traveler slipped it off and gave it to him.
"We could not let him leave with no shirt," Arlene said. "So we found an old one left over from our son and gave it to him."
What that traveler from Philadelphia found is what everyone who comes to Tilden encounters: The people are uncommonly friendly. It was that way when Rich Ashburn was growing up, and still is. Although Tilden does have a police department - a sheriff and his deputy - it remains one of those unique places in America where people still can leave their doors unlocked and their keys in the ignition. Local crime - if "crime" is indeed the word for it - appears to stop at the occasional break-in, albeit Betty Dales remembers that a Tildenite once led a prison escape in California in which a guard was shot. In looking back on his childhood in Nebraska, how serene and orderly it was, it occurs to Rich Ashburn how special Tilden was . . . and is.
"Tilden was a quiet, cozy, safe place . . . and it has not changed a lot," Ashburn said. "The only crime that I can ever remember we had was when the gypsies came through, and that was generally during the harvest of the year, when the farmers had cash in their pockets. You learn certain values in a place like Tilden . . . things a person should do, and things a person should not do. Friendships back there are strong ones, and the Ashburns were especially gracious hosts. People who came to our house were treated as royalty. Still are."
Until he broke in with the Phillies in 1948 and appeared in one himself, Ashburn never had seen a major league game. Nor had Neil or Toots, who set up housekeeping in the Philadelphia area in 1948 and 1949 and ended up cooking and cleaning not just for Rich but his "Whiz Kid" teammates - including Jack Mayo, Charlie Bicknell, Robin Roberts and Curt Simmons . While Toots served up heaping portions of food, "Pop" Ashburn would sit at the table with the ''Kids" and discusss the game from the previous night. Toots remembers a conversation Neil had with Roberts.
Roberts: "I saw the runner on third leave for home as soon I started to
throw the ball, but, well . . . what should I have done?"
Neil: "From now on, throw it at the batter. Right at his belt."
Roberts (warming to the idea and nodding): "Of course. I should have thought of that."
At the end of each season during his career, Rich looked forward to returning to Tilden. There, he and his wife, Herbie, built what was then the finest house in town and raised their childen, who Rich remembers had "a lot of the same teachers in school that I did. " Although the cost of living in Tilden was low, and he did not have to work during the offseason, he was a substitute teacher, coached and did some basketball refereeing. Ed Cram remembers that during the winter Rich would walk downtown and "visit with every old fellow he knew. " Ashburn found the pace of his old hometown to be soothing.
"Getting back to Tilden at the end of the season was something I could not wait to do," Ashburn said. "To get away from (baseball) and relax was a pleasant thing for me. I never even considered living in Philadelphia year- round then."
Ashburn was so popular in Tilden that he had a chance to run for political office when he retired from baseball after the 1962 season. The Republican party in Nebraska asked him to seek the 3rd District Congressional seat, and Ashburn remembers that he had "some interest" in it until he learned that he'd have to face one of his oldest friends, Bob Harrison, in the election. Consequently, he chose not to run and instead turned his attention to a career in radio and television. When the opportunity to broadcast the Phillies and Big 5 basketball presented itself in 1963 - which was essentially a year-round job - Ashburn sold his house in Tilden and relocated in the Philadelphia area.
While Ashburn returns to Nebraska only occasionally these days - he tries to get back each October - the friends he had when he lived in Tilden are still his friends, even though one or two seem to pass away each year. When the Veterans Committee of the Hall of Fame adopted a rules change that would have effectively removed Ashburn from consideration, old friend Chuck Hofmann was among those around the country who protested. Hofmann sent letters to high school and college athletic officials across Nebraska asking for their support and filled a petition with 10,000 signatures, which he forwarded to the Hall of Fame. The rule was changed in 1993.
"Seeing Rich get in the Hall of Fame gives us a lot of satisfaction," Hofmann said. "Our goal was to get him in while Toots was still around."
When Rich Ashburn is inducted into the Hall of Fame on Sunday, a whole crowd will be there from his old hometown and the surrounding area. Peering down from the platform in Cooperstown, he will be able to look out and see 100 or so people he knows from Nebraska, including brother Bob, niece Claire, Ed and Bette Cram, Chuck and Arlene Hofmann . . . and, happily, Toots.
"Well," Toots said when the dessert plates were cleared, "I hope I can be there."
Ed looked up.
"What . . . ?" he said. "You have a ticket."
"I just live a day at a time," she replied. "You never know."
"What she means is she'll be there if she's alive," said Ed, who assured that Toots is in good health. "She'll be there."
Quietly, Toots smiled and added, "I just wish Neil could be there. Oh how he would have loved it."