Richie Ashburn played two minor-league seasons in upstate New York and served a year with the Army in Alaska, but none of that seemed enough to prepare him for life in Philadelphia. He turned 21 in March 1948, an unlikely Phillies rookie on the cusp of a Hall of Fame career. And he was 1,300 miles from his tiny Nebraska hometown.
Before Ashburn became a Whiz Kid, he was a homesick kid in Philadelphia assimilating to the life of a major leaguer. More than 70 years before third baseman Alec Bohm became the latest Nebraskan to move east with the Phillies, Ashburn was trying to find his way in a big city.
So he wrote home to his parents and asked if they would join him.
Neil and Toots Ashburn left Tilden (population 1,040) for Bala Cynwyd and lived with their son and several of his teammates. Toots cooked meals for Ashburn, Robin Roberts, and Curt Simmons while Neil spun old stories in the living room. It was like a boarding house, Ashburn’s mother said.
“I felt like they were my kids,” Toots Ashburn, who died in 1999 at 94, said in 1995.
The Phillies have had more Nebraskans -- 18 -- than all but one other major-league team. And none of them connected to Philadelphia the way “Whitey” did. He quickly went from homesick to fan favorite with a terrific rookie season, was the face of the Whiz Kids in 1950, and spent 35 seasons as a lovable, dry-witted broadcaster until his death in 1997.
Bohm, who grew up 140 miles from Ashburn’s hometown, could be named Monday night as the National League rookie of the year. Ashburn finished third in the voting his rookie year, when there still was just one award for both leagues.
Among all rookies who had at least 165 plate appearances, Bohm led in batting average (.338), on-base percentage (.400), and slugging percentage (.481). The other finalists are San Diego Padres shortstop Jake Cronenworth and Milwaukee Brewers relief pitcher Devin Williams.
Like Ashburn in 1948, Bohm emerged this summer as a key piece of the team’s future. And he did it from Nebraska. The only thing missing was his parents cooking meals for him and his teammates.
“We were all young, growing boys and we’d eat big meals at 4 o’clock,” Simmons, one of the star pitchers of the Whiz Kids, said in 1995. “Which, when you think of it now, was stupid. We’d stuff ourselves and then go to the park.”
Ashburn led the Eastern League in hitting in 1947, but he was pegged to start 1948 in the minor leagues. His two seasons with Utica bookended a year with the Army just after the end of World War II.
“The day I was inducted into the Army was the day Japan surrendered,” Ashburn said in 1994. “For years, I had my kids convinced that the two events were connected.”
In 1948, the Phillies invited minor league players for the first time to spring training in Clearwater, Fla. And Ashburn -- a speedy catcher turned center fielder -- was among the prospects. He had his chance. Phillies center fielder Harry Walker won the National League batting title in 1947 but missed the start of camp in a contract holdout. Then Walker’s backup, Charlie Gilbert, sprained an ankle. Enter Ashburn.
“They put me out there,” Ashburn said in 1994. “And I just stayed.”
Ashburn was the star of spring training and forced his way to Philadelphia instead of Utica or Toronto. He started in left field on opening day at Shibe Park and would be the team’s regular center fielder by May. Ashburn led all rookies in batting average (.333), was second in hits (154), and had the second-highest OPS (.810). He started for the National League in the All-Star Game and led the majors in stolen bases (32), crediting his hometown for his speed.
“In Tilden, I could chase nothing but rabbits,” he said. “I used to run up alongside them and feel them if they were fat.”
Bohm grew up in Omaha, two hours east of Tilden, and with a population 500 times the size of Ashburn’s hometown. His parents did not move east this summer and Bohm might not have had the culture shock that Ashburn felt, but he was still a Nebraskan in Philadelphia like Ashburn.
Bohm wanted to stay in Nebraska for college but was not recruited by the Cornhuskers. So he played at Wichita State in Kansas and had his chance to remind Nebraska what it was missing.
“We played Nebraska at home his junior year, and the great Darin Erstad was coaching at Nebraska,” former Wichita State coach Todd Butler said, referring to the former Angels All-Star. “Of course, you respect him, I respect him, we all do. But something happened and they didn’t recruit Alec, and he committed to us. So it’s his junior year, and he hits a ball to left-center -- might’ve been a grand slam -- and he really wanted to go to Nebraska and it didn’t happen.
“Trust me, I’ve made many mistakes recruiting in my career. When he hit the home run, he flipped his bat in the air, and he went around the bases. So when he came in the dugout, I said, ‘Hey, look, man, that’s Darin Erstad.’ I said, ‘That guy’s a Gold Glover in the outfield and at first base.’ I said, ‘Don’t do that. I know you wanted to go to Nebraska, but don’t do that.’”
“Well, the next game, he hits another one. He flips his bat again. He came in the dugout, I told him, 'Hey, do whatever you want. Just keep hitting ‘em.’”
Bohm reached the majors in August and doubled in his first at-bat. His parents were not in Bala Cynwyd but in their living room in Omaha as they watched from afar due to the coronavirus pandemic. It was the start of a terrific season as Bohm became the first Phillies rookie since Ashburn to hit .330 with a .400 on-base percentage in at least 120 at-bats.
The Phillies, more than 70 years after a homesick Ashburn penned a letter home, might have found another star from Nebraska.