Ed Ashenbach (COURTESY OF STEPHEN V. RICE)

Ed Ashenbach

This article was written by Stephen V. Rice

Ed Ashenbach (COURTESY OF STEPHEN V. RICE)Ed Ashenbach was known as the “King of the Minors.” Who else could claim discovery of Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, Ty Cobb, and Grover Alexander? From 1890 to 1911, Ashenbach toured the minors as an outfielder and manager. During this period, minor leagues were formed and disbanded at a dizzying pace. “Ash” navigated these waters, from Class D to Class A, with determination, enthusiasm, and humor. He inspired his teams and entertained fans with his witty remarks. On the coaching lines, he was as lively as Hughie Jennings and as funny as Arlie Latham. “No more refreshing character ever appeared in base ball than Ashenbach,” said Sporting Life.1 In a 1911 book titled Humor among the Minors, he shared colorful anecdotes from his adventurous career.

Edward Michael Ashenbach was born on October 18, 1871, in Cincinnati and always regarded the Queen City as his home. He had three older sisters, Francisca, Augusta, and Josephine. His parents were German Catholic immigrants, Joseph and Mariana Aschenbach. According to an 1882 newspaper article, Joseph was “a hard drinker,” and one day, in a drunken stupor, he shot a man outside a saloon and was arrested.2 Life was surely difficult for the family. At age 12, Josephine was not at school but employed with her sisters in a stocking factory.3

Ed Ashenbach played amateur baseball in Cincinnati with several future major leaguers, including George Hogreiver, George Yeager, and Barry McCormick.4 Ashenbach’s first professional experience was brief: seven games in the spring of 1890 on the Canton, Ohio, team of the Tri-State League. The Akron Daily Beacon reported that he was a “first class fielder,” but the club released him on May 8 “to reduce expenses.”5 He returned home to Cincinnati and told sportswriter Ren Mulford Jr. of Canton’s phenomenal pitcher, Cy Young. Mulford informed the Cincinnati Reds, who did not act on the tip.6 On August 6, 1890, Young made his major-league debut for the Cleveland Spiders.

Ashenbach worked in Cincinnati as a carriage trimmer and painter and made scissors in a hardware factory.7 He continued his baseball career in 1892 in the Class B Pennsylvania State League, appearing in one game with Harrisburg and 57 games with Allentown. A right-handed batter,8 he was a weak hitter but was regarded as the “star center fielder” of the league.9 The following year, after appearing in four games with Canton in the spring, he played for the Tyrone, Pennsylvania, team in the independent River League. On September 9, 1893, the “acrobatic” center fielder made “the fly catch of the season,” robbing a batter of a triple in Tyrone’s 3-2 victory over Johnstown, Pennsylvania.10 Ashenbach was quite a talker on the ball field. The Tyrone Daily Herald called him “Seldom Silent” Ashenbach, the “Cincinnati talking machine,” and the “prince of noise.”11

In Cincinnati on March 25, 1894, Ashenbach married Lydia “Lillie” Westermeier, a daughter of German immigrants. Three months later, she bore him a son named Edward Herman Ashenbach.12

In the spring of 1894, Ashenbach joined Ted Sullivan’s Atlanta team in the Class B Southern Association. In Atlanta’s 1-0 triumph over New Orleans on April 26, Ashenbach made a diving catch in deep center field; it was “the prettiest one-handed catch ever seen on the Atlanta grounds,” said the Atlanta Constitution.13 But he batted only .203 in 33 games and left the team in June. During the remainder of the season, he played for three teams — Altoona, Reading, and Shenandoah — in the Pennsylvania State League.

In 1895 Ashenbach emerged as a fine hitter, batting .313 on Sullivan’s pennant-winning Dallas Steers of the Class B Texas-Southern League. By age 23, Ashenbach sported a sturdy frame; years later he was described as “a big man, powerfully built, with the frame of a football hero.”14 In 1896-97 he played for teams in Dallas, Paterson (New Jersey), Fort Worth, Houston, and Springfield (Ohio). As a member of the 1897 Springfield Governors, he introduced a word into the baseball lexicon. A Springfield catcher failed to catch a high popup; the ball came down on his head and bounced “fully thirty feet off his bean into the bleachers.”15 Ashenbach called him a “bonehead,” a term that by 1911 was “universal” in the game.16

On the 1898 New Castle (Pennsylvania) Quakers of the Class B Interstate League, Ashenbach hit .281 in 149 games and achieved career highs in doubles (31) and triples (10). While on the coaching lines in Dayton on May 24, he “made more noise than the three hundred spectators” as New Castle edged Dayton in a 6-5 thriller.17

Ashenbach was a sly one. When New Castle played at Springfield on September 2, 1898, Springfield’s William Graffius lifted a long fly that barely cleared the left-field fence for an apparent home run. But as that ball went over the barrier, Ashenbach in center field flipped a concealed ball to Joe Rickert, the left fielder. Rickert threw it to second base where Graffius was tagged. Unaware of the ruse, the umpire called Graffius out at second. An angry mob descended onto the field in protest. Lew Whistler, the furious Springfield manager, did not clear the field, so the umpire forfeited the game to New Castle.18

After hitting .197 in 29 games in the spring of 1899, Ashenbach was released by New Castle and he joined the Schenectady Electricians of the Class C New York State League. He batted .303 in 54 games for the Electricians before deserting the team in August.19

In 1900 Ashenbach descended to Class D and served as playing manager of the Hampton Crabs of the Virginia League. He was primarily an outfielder, but he filled in as needed at first base and catcher, and occasionally pitched. As a whole, the league was a shaky proposition, and his team disbanded in mid-July. But before that, he observed a remarkable pitcher named Matthews on the Norfolk team. On June 12 Matthews threw a no-hitter in Norfolk’s 1-0 victory over Hampton.20 The next day Ashenbach pitched a four-hit shutout as Hampton defeated Norfolk, 5-0.21 On July 7 he and Matthews dueled; he allowed 12 hits; Matthews hurled a three-hitter and won, 8-2.22 “Matthews” was in fact Christy Mathewson. On July 17 Mathewson made his major-league debut with the New York Giants.

The next year Ashenbach was playing manager of the Newport News Shipbuilders of the Class C Virginia-North Carolina League. His batting average fell off — .229 in 66 games — but he continued to excel in center field. Due to declining attendance, he moved the team to Tarboro, North Carolina, in late June and then abandoned it two weeks later.23 He finished the season as a member of the Sacramento Senators in the California League.

In the spring of 1902, Ashenbach coached the University of North Carolina baseball team and was playing manager of the Charlotte Hornets of the Class C North Carolina League. He assembled a powerful lineup for the Hornets. Among his recruits was a fleet outfielder from the UNC team named Archibald Wright Graham, better known as Moonlight Graham, who was portrayed in the 1989 movie Field of Dreams. The Hornets dominated their league with a 44-12 record, including a 25-game winning streak from May 12 to June 10, which Sporting Life called “a new world’s record for consecutive victories.”24 Ashenbach rarely pitched, but when he did on June 11, Charlotte lost 13-8 to Durham and the streak was halted.25

The North Carolina League disbanded in July. The Hornets’ long streak had “paralyzed” the circuit, and the five other teams “couldn’t stand this and quit.”26 Ashenbach completed the season as playing manager of the Shreveport, Louisiana, team in the Class A Southern Association.

Ashenbach was “a natural born comedian” and a popular drawing card at home and on the road.27 His voice was described as high-pitched and melodious, and loud.28 It was “a big raucous organ that could be heard over the din of a boiler shop,” said one reporter.29

Ashenbach’s coaching “put life and vigor” into his teams.30 “Ash is the Great American Jollier,” said infielder Eddie Gilligan. “He can make an ordinary slob believe he is a star, and get better work out of him than some other managers can from real crackerjacks.”31 Ashenbach said a manager must be tough on some players: “Imagine my saying: ‘I beg your pardon. You are not in your best form and I shall ask you to increase your energy and carefulness.’ … What I’ve got to say is: ‘What’s ter matter wid yer, you blankety, blank blank! Git into de game!’”32

In 1903 Ashenbach moved on to the Class B New England League as playing manager of the Nashua, New Hampshire, team, and he became increasingly confrontational with umpires. On May 16 he asked a diminutive ump, “Little boy, aren’t you going to give us a fair deal today?”33 In Haverhill, Massachusetts, on June 10, after he was ejected for abusive language, he took “a seat on the roof of a building overlooking the grounds” and continued to “chaff the umpire.”34 Finally, in Nashua on August 18, he went too far. He “landed a vicious blow” on the umpire’s jaw; it was “a clean knockout” and the umpire “lay motionless on the ground, while Ashenbach assumed a belligerent attitude over him.”35 After the game Ashenbach apologized to his victim; nonetheless, he was suspended by the league.36 He requested and received his release from Nashua37 and finished the season as playing manager of the Evansville, Indiana, team in the Class B Central League.

In 1904 Ashenbach was playing manager and owner of the Charleston (South Carolina) Sea Gulls in the Class C South Atlantic League. It was the first year of the “Sally” league, which he helped to organize. A player named Cobb caught his eye. Ashenbach said:

“While I was down in the Sally I one day saw a green fellow on the Augusta team, whose crude work appealed to me, for, despite his inexperience, he was fast, could beat out most any bunt, and could throw like a catapult. Well, one afternoon, while we were playing in Augusta, this fellow allowed a grounder to roll through his legs at a critical stage. That started the fans, and President Taylor of the Augusta Club got hot in the collar. ‘I’ll have to get rid of that lobster,’ he snapped out. ‘I’ll give you $25 for him,’ said I. ‘I’ll take it, b’gosh,’ said Taylor, ‘but first I’ll have to get permission of the Detroit Club to sell him, as they have an option on all our men.’”38

The Detroit Tigers wisely hung on to Tyrus Raymond Cobb.

Ashenbach made a tidy profit when he sold the Charleston franchise in May 1905. He then moved north to become manager of the Scranton (Pennsylvania) Miners of the Class B New York State League. Now in his mid-30s, he rarely played — six games for Scranton in 1905 and only two games the following year.

One of Ashenbach’s mottos was: “Have your men up and fighting all the time. Never give up.”39 In Scranton on July 27, 1905, his team came to bat in the eighth inning trailing the Binghamton Bingoes, 5-2. Pitching for Binghamton was Lee Viau, a cagey 39-year-old right-hander. From the coaching line, Ashenbach urged his team: “Put the wood to it! Smash out the pellet! He’s easy, this old fellow! We’ve got him!”40 Viau ignored Ashenbach and retired the first two Scranton batters. But Ashenbach persisted in his fervent coaching. His team then rallied for five runs and won a game that seemed “hopelessly lost, and much of the credit is due to the resourceful and hard-working manager, who never permitted his enthusiasm to flag.”41

Fans came out in droves to see Ashenbach and the Miners. A record crowd of 8,000 attended the Labor Day game on September 4, 1905, and that figure was topped on Memorial Day, May 30, 1906.42 Ashenbach’s team won the 1906 pennant by a 12-game margin over the second-place Albany Senators.

Ashenbach left Scranton after the 1906 season to earn more money managing a Class A team, the St. Paul Saints of the American Association. Despite his best efforts, the 1907 Saints finished in last place. He spent the next two seasons in the Class B Tri-State League managing Pennsylvania teams, the 1908 Johnstown Johnnies and the 1909 Altoona Mountaineers. At both stops, he improved the team’s winning percentage from below .400 the prior year to above .500.43

Whether his team won or lost, Ashenbach was “the same good-natured fellow,” big-hearted with a warm smile.44 He made “friends with the audience by his persistent kidding,” and fans kidded him right back.45 He called himself the “Old German” and sometimes coached his team in German; in Pennsylvania, many folks understood the language.46 One day Ashenbach rattled a Polish pitcher, Harry Coveleski, by repeating some Polish phrases he learned from the crowd; some of these, he found out later, were less than proper.47 Of course, some fans simply annoyed Ashenbach. He told one of them to “go on home to your drunken father!”48 This remark, it seems, harkened back to his own childhood.

In 1910 Ashenbach managed the Syracuse Stars of the Class B New York State League. The star of the team was a pitcher he signed named Grover Cleveland Alexander, “a tall, slender youth” from Nebraska.49 Through the Fourth of July, the Stars compiled a 29-28 record and Alexander’s mark was 8-8.50 After the Fourth, the Stars went 49-29 and Alexander achieved a 21-3 mark. On July 20 he pitched and won both games of a doubleheader against the first-place Wilkes-Barre (Pennsylvania) Barons.51 The Philadelphia Phillies drafted the promising hurler, and he launched his extraordinary major-league career by winning 28 games for the Phillies in 1911.

Ashenbach, who had “discovered” Cy Young and Christy Mathewson, declared in 1911 that Alexander was “the greatest pitcher that ever lived.”52 In 1930 Alexander said Ashenbach was one of the funniest managers who ever lived and fondly recalled how he entertained the crowd during rain delays by wearing “a big moustache made of grass.”53

In collaboration with Cincinnati baseball writer Jack Ryder, Ashenbach assembled a collection of stories from his 20-year career. The charming volume entitled Humor among the Minors: True Tales from the Baseball Brush was released in February 1911 and added to his celebrity.

In leading the Stars to a second-place finish in 1910, Ashenbach “made the game more popular than ever in Syracuse.”54 But the next year, without Alexander, the team struggled. The 1911 Stars possessed a 26-33 record on the Fourth of July when Ashenbach was fired.55 Seven months later, he died under mysterious circumstances.

According to his wife, Ashenbach returned to Cincinnati in July “a nervous wreck and broken-hearted man.”56 He did some scouting for the Cincinnati Reds until the end of the 1911 season but suffered from declining health.57 He lost weight and experienced uncontrollable “nervous spells,” and tried to jump out of a second-floor window in his home.58 In January 1912 he was evaluated at the Cincinnati City Hospital and was sent to Cincinnati’s Longview Hospital, a mental institution. He died at Longview on February 16, 1912, at the age of 40, and was buried at St. Mary Catholic Cemetery in St. Bernard, Ohio.

Ashenbach’s wife believed he died from abuse he received at Longview and called for an inquiry. “He had wasted away to a shadow,” she said, “and was not violent, yet when I looked at him after death his teeth were missing and his face was frightfully bruised.”59 She also noticed “a deep wound on the back of his head.”60

A former coroner performed an autopsy and claimed “the injury on decedents’ head was an old one, and that his investigation showed Ashenbach had died of pneumonia.”61 At an inquest, Longview doctors and attendants testified that Ashenbach “was very violent, and that they were forced to strap him down on several occasions. They denied, however, that he received any injury at their hands which might have caused his death.”62

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Bill Lamb and Len Levin. It was fact-checked by Chris Rainey.

 

Sources

Ashenbach, Edward Michael, Humor among the Minors: True Tales from the Baseball Brush (Dickson, Tennessee: BrayBree, 2013), reprint of the book (edited by Jack Ryder) originally published in 1911. The photo of Ashenbach came from this book.

Ancestry.com and Baseball-reference.com, accessed July and August 2020.

 

Notes

1 “Ashenbach Dead,” Sporting Life, February 24, 1912: 8.

2 “Shot in the Breast,” Cincinnati Enquirer, May 20, 1882: 8.

3 1880 US Census.

4 Jack Ryder, “Hustling Won for Ed Aschenbach [sic],” Cincinnati Enquirer, November 5, 1905: 10; Hugh S. Fullerton, “Baseball on the Lots,” Chicago Tribune, October 21, 1906: 16.

5 “Intensely Exciting,” Akron (Ohio) Daily Beacon, May 9, 1890: 3.

6 Ren Mulford Jr., “To Beat Cubs,” Sporting Life, August 29, 1908: 2.

7 1890 and 1891 Cincinnati city directories at Ancestry.com; Ryder, “Hustling,” Cincinnati Enquirer, November 5, 1905.

8 Indianapolis Star, January 12, 1912: 10. This source shows a picture of him batting right-handed.

9 “Base Ball News,” Allentown (Pennsylvania) Critic, June 15, 1893: 1.

10 “Tyrone Topics,” Altoona (Pennsylvania) Tribune, February 3, 1894: 4; “Johnstown State Leaguers Defeated,” Tyrone (Pennsylvania) Daily Herald, September 11, 1893: 2.

11 “Lost in the Ninth,” Tyrone Daily Herald, September 15, 1893: 4; Tyrone Daily Herald, April 16, 1894: 2.

12 Ancestry.com; 1900 US Census.

13 “It Was a Beauty,” Atlanta Constitution, April 27, 1894: 3.

14 “The Scranton Team,” Scranton (Pennsylvania) Republican, August 7, 1905: 3.

15 Ashenbach, Humor among the Minors, 75.

16 “Sport Splinters,” Chattanooga (Tennessee) News, December 5, 1911: 12.

17 “Last Inning Was a Fatal One to Dayton Again,” Dayton (Ohio) Herald, May 25, 1898: 6; “Fast and Exciting,” Cincinnati Enquirer, May 25, 1898: 4.

18 Sporting Life, September 10, 1898: 14.

19 “New York’s League,” Sporting Life, August 19, 1899: 8.

20 “Matthews’ Great Arm,” Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, June 13, 1900: 11.

21 “Locals’ Only Shut-out,” Norfolk Landmark, June 14, 1900: 3.

22 “A Tedium Game,” Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, July 8, 1900: 15.

23 “The Strike Situation,” Asheville (North Carolina) Gazette, June 23, 1901: 5; “After Slot-Machines,” Richmond (Virginia) Dispatch, July 10, 1901: 4.

24 Sporting Life, July 19, 1902: 1.

25 “Hornet Captain in the Box,” Charlotte (North Carolina) Observer, June 12, 1902: 2.

26 “Ashenback [sic] in Cincinnati,” Charlotte Observer, July 18, 1902: 5.

27 “News Notes,” Sporting Life, August 26, 1905: 12.

28 “Richmond Won by Great Playing,” Richmond (Virginia) Times, July 2, 1901: 2.

29 “The Scranton Team,” Scranton Republican, August 7, 1905: 3.

30 “What a Shame!” Shreveport (Louisiana) Times, August 14, 1902: 5.

31 “Urbana Liners,” Cincinnati Enquirer, October 1, 1903: 4.

32 “How Instructions Shall Be Delivered,” Charlotte Observer, July 9, 1902: 5.

33 “New England League,” Fall River (Massachusetts) Globe, May 20, 1903: 3.

34 “Haverhill 12, Nashua 3,” Fall River Globe, June 11, 1903: 1.

35 “The Ashenback [sic] Trouble,” Fall River (Massachusetts) Evening News, August 21, 1903: 3.

36 “Sporting Notes,” Fall River Globe, August 20, 1903: 6; “Indefinitely Suspended,” Boston Globe, August 19, 1903: 5.

37 “New England League,” Fall River Globe, August 28, 1903: 3.

38 “Ashenback [sic] Saw Good Stuff in Cobb,” Charlotte (North Carolina) News, May 2, 1908: 11. The game in which Cobb erred is unknown but from information in this article, it must have occurred in the spring of 1905.

39 “Handy Precepts for Managers,” Washington Times, May 17, 1907: 10.

40 “The Scranton Team,” Scranton Republican, August 7, 1905: 3.

41 “The Scranton Team”

42 “A Record Breaker,” Scranton (Pennsylvania) Tribune, September 5, 1905: 7; “Scranton Won Two,” Scranton Tribune, May 31, 1906: 7.

43 Baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Tri-State_League_(PA-DE-NJ).

44 “Base Ball Notes,” Lancaster (Pennsylvania) New Era, June 5, 1908: 7; “The Man in the Grand Stand,” Trenton (New Jersey) Evening Times, May 25, 1908: 11.

45 “Just Dope,” Altoona (Pennsylvania) Times, May 21, 1909: 9.

46 “The Hornets Buzz and Win Success,” Raleigh (North Carolina) News and Observer, May 27, 1902: 1; “Gossip of Sporting World,” Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Star-Independent, May 19, 1908: 4.

47 “Just Dope,” Altoona Times, June 19, 1908: 8.

48 “Just Dope,” Altoona Times, May 30, 1908: 8.

49 “Barons Whitewashed by Ash’s Saltines,” Wilkes-Barre (Pennsylvania) Record, June 13, 1910: 15.

50 “New York State League,” Wilkes-Barre (Pennsylvania) Times-Leader, July 5, 1910: 12; “Friene Is Leading Slab Artist in the N.Y. State League,” Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader, July 6, 1910: 12.

51 “Alexander Again Proves Mystery for the Barons,” Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader, July 21, 1910: 12.

52 Tim Karp, “Every Little Moment,” Scranton Tribune-Republican, August 12, 1911: 12.

53 “Ed Ashenbach Gave Alex Real Start in New York State League in 1910,” Scranton (Pennsylvania) Times, June 10, 1930: 24.

54 “Sporting World,” Wilkes-Barre Record, September 13, 1910: 16.

55 “Ashenback [sic] Asked to Quit Position by Stars’ Owners,” Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader, July 5, 1911: 10.

56 “Auchenbach’s [sic] Widow Writes of His Death,” Reading (Pennsylvania) Times, March 20, 1912: 6.

57 Jack Ryder, “Twelve Reds Already in Fold,” Cincinnati Enquirer, January 28, 1912: 18.

58 Reading Times, March 20, 1912: 6.

59 “Excitement of the Baseball Field Causes Nervous Breakdown of Eddie Aschenbach [sic], and His Death Occurs at Longview Hospital,” Cincinnati Enquirer, February 17, 1912: 8.

60 “Coroner to Probe Death of Ashenbach,” Washington Times, February 18, 1912: 1.

61 Washington Times, February 18, 1912.

62 “Aschenbach’s [sic] Death,” Cincinnati Enquirer, February 21, 1912: 8.

Full Name

Edward Michael Ashenbach

Born

October 18, 1871 at Cincinnati, OH (US)

Died

February 6, 1912 at Cincinnati, OH (US)

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