55 years ago, Ashland American All-Stars were almost Little League World Series darlings

Ashland American batter John Mullins hugs the ground to get a better view of Mike Griffith sliding into home plate against Texas in the 1963 Southern Regional championship game in Norfolk, Virginia. Griffith was tagged out.

ASHLAND, Ky. – Every year at this time, there is a television force that draws me right into it. What is it about the Little League World Series that makes it must-see TV?

Part of it is how the games are covered by ESPN with the backstories of the players and the shots of their mothers and fathers in the stands who are like cats in a room full of rocking chairs.

I’m not sure if any of the mothers really ever watch their sons play. They are usually sitting with their hands covering their faces when their son (or daughter) comes to the plate.

I can understand that. There’s so much pressure on these young boys to perform. You feel it as a parent in a regular season Little League game. Multiply that times about a million.

When the Little League World Series rolls around, it always reminds me of 1963 when Ashland American nearly made it to Williamsport. That’s right, 55  years ago they were knocking on the door of  Williamsport. They fell one game short, losing to Houston, Texas, 6-3 in the Southern Regional championship game in Norfolk, Virginia. I’m sure those players who were on that team have special memories of that time. Mine have come from writing stories and doing research about the ’63 Boys of Summer, including a chapter in my book Tomcat Dynasty ).

Two of those boys will have a mini-reunion next week during the CP-1 Hall of Fame ceremony as part of the class of 2018. David Staten and Mike Tackett were part of those all-stars and will be enshrined Saturday. Several other Hall of Famers are already in – John Mullins, Tim Huff and Bo Carter, who was an alternate all-star in 1963.

Here is the 1963 Ashland American roster with their regular-season team in parenthesis: John Mullins (Indians), David Staten (Twins), Tim Huff (Yankees), John Brislin and Jocko Greening (Angels), David McPeek and Mike Griffith (White Sox), Robert Ison and Mike Johnson (Orioles), Ricky Dixon, Mike Tackett, Charles Jackson, Joe Mantle and Jackie Daniels (Tigers). There was some diversity – Johnson and Jackson are black – during a time when race riots were raging, but not in Ashland.

Jim Stewart was the manager and George Riffe his assistant. Stewart was hard-nosed, a taskmaster who demanded perfection but who loved his players like his own sons. They talk in respectful terms of the late Mr. Stewart to this day.

Back then the tournament was one-and-done. You win or you go home. So you had to be perfect. Early in tournament play, Ashland faced a young left-hander pitcher from Greenup named Don Gullett and escaped with a 2-1 victory.

Mullins and Huff were starters and stars, pitchers and home run hitters. But the best player was Ricky Dixon. They rode their stud in a 3-1 win over Louisville Buechel in the state championship game in Lexington with 15 strikeouts and then in the Southern Division championship game he was the winning pitcher against St. Albans, West Virginia, 4-2 in a game that was played in Central Park.

That victory advanced Ashland to Norfolk where Florida, Mississippi and Texas awaited.

Ashland blanked Sarasota, Florida, 2-0 as Dixon and McPeek crushed back-to-back home runs in the fourth inning to break a scoreless tie. Mullins almost made it three in a row as his long blast curved foul in the same spot in right field where the other homers had gone. Mike Griffith pitched a three-hit shutout.

Houston belted Biloxi, Miss., 11-1 and looked invincible. It would be Texas vs. Kentucky in the championship game.

Ashland gave them a battle, leading 3-2 before a three-run rally put it away for Texas in the fifth inning. Ashland had only one hit, a single by Dixon that scored two runs in the third inning.

Houston was on the way to Williamsport the next day and Ashland was on its way home.

Can you imagine if Ashland had been the team going to Williamsport instead? How much would we have celebrated them over the years? Legendary wouldn’t begin to describe it. Yet they lost, just once, and they’re just another team.

Kind of sad isn’t it?

Houston, by the way, fell to Granada Hills, California, 3-2 in nine innings in the first game of the 1963 Little League World Series. The California team went on to win it all.

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