ASHLAND – Ricky Dixon owned the summer of 1963 in Ashland. He was the best player on what must be considered the greatest Ashland Little League All-Star team ever assembled.
Dixon and those Ashland American League All-Stars – many who went on to become state champions in high school with the Ashland Tomcats – advanced to the Southern Regional finals in Norfolk, Virginia, where they reached the championship game before losing to North Houston, Texas, 6-3.
The team from Houston would board a plane the next day for Williamsport to play in the Little League World Series for the fourth consecutive year.
Ashland’s memorable band of All-Stars came back home to ponder what if.
The subject comes up today because Rick Dixon, the hero of Ashland’s run to near baseball immorality, died in his sleep Wednesday. He had been battling cancer.
Nearly sixty years ago, he was on a magical run with his strong right arm and booming bat. He was an epic performer during that 1963 spring and summer. His tape-measure home runs and sizzling fastballs made him a double threat first for the Tigers, his league team, and then the All-Star team that went further than any team in Ashland Little League history. They were a win from Williamsport.
There were plenty of stars on this Ashland team but few shone brighter than Dixon, who turned 13 during the Little League state championship game in Lexington, where he was the star of the day. His size and maturity made him a giant even though Tigers was on the front of the jersey during his Little League season. He learned baseball from the master, the late Jim Stewart, who was a taskmaster that took the game seriously and taught it beautifully.
If you played for the Tigers, you practiced often and learned the fundamentals expertly. Jim Stewart would not have it any other way. Dixon was a product of that coaching, maybe even a prized product, for one of the greatest Little League coaches in Ashland history.
Little League baseball was only in its ninth season in Ashland, but it was clear the city was falling in love with the game. Two fields were constructed on either end of Central Park, one on 17th Street and the other on 22nd Street. They were showplaces and a big reason why the Summer of ’63 was the most special year in Little League history.
The Tigers won the Ashland American league title in runaway fashion with Dixon playing a starring role. He was the best pitcher and hitter the league had ever seen. Because the Tigers were champions, their coach would guide the All-Star team. Four of Dixon’s teammates – Mike Tackett, Charles Jackson, Joe Mantle and Jack Daniels – joined him on the All-Star team.
The rest of the roster included Johnny Mullins (Indians), David Staten (Twins), Tim Huff (Yankees), John Brislin and Jocko Greening (Angels), David McPeek and Mike Griffith (White Sox) and Bobby Ison and Mike Johnson (Orioles).
Some of those players became key members during Ashland’s three-year reign as champions of Kentucky high school baseball from 1966-68.
But in 1963, they were young boys having the time of their lives. When they weren’t playing baseball they were sleeping. Their dedication was off the charts and it showed on the field.
In the All-Star season, which was single elimination, Ashland defeated Catlettsburg 7-0 and Greenup 2-1, scoring the winning run when Mantled singled and moved around the bases on an error, a passed ball and a fielder’s choice in the sixth inning to defeat a young left-hander named Don Gullett on their home field.
Ashland American played rival Ashland National and three two-run homers led to a 6-4 victory. One of those home runs came off the bat of Dixon, who had a flair for the dramatic. He then went to the mound in the district championship against Martin in Louisa. Dixon struck out 10 and Tackett blasted two home runs in an 8-1 victory.
It was on to the State Tournament in Lexington where Ashland defeated Middlesboro 9-4 and Cynthiana 9-2 to reach the finals against Louisville Buechel.
Dixon took the mound on his 13th birthday and was brilliant with 15 strikeouts – out of 18 potential outs – and also hit a two-run homer that gave Ashland American a 3-1 victory. He gave up a run in the sixth after walking two batters and then bobbling a grounder. But he finished the game off with his 15th strikeout.
The next round was the Southern Division Tournament and it was going to be played in Central Park. Five states came together – Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky (Ashland American).
Games were played at the 22nd Street diamond and 1,900 seats were provided around the outfield fences. Ashland got a break when it drew a bye.
Virginia blanked Maryland 2-0 and then had to play Ashland the following day. Ashland won 5-4. St. Albans, W.Va., defeated Delaware 9-4 behind Kim West, the nephew of NBA great Jerry West. He even wore West’s No. 44 on his back.
Stewart sent Dixon to the mound in the final against St. Albans and he delivered with a 10-strikeout performance while allowing only five hits in a 4-2 victory. He also blasted a towering two-run homer in the third inning that made it 4-1. That victory sent Ashland to Norfolk, where they defeated Sarasota, Florida, 2-0 behind Mike Griffith’s three-hitter and another home run from Dixon and David McPeek in the fourth inning.
Dixon was called on again for the championship game and he pitched well against a powerhouse team from Texas, allowing only six hits. He also rolled a single up the middle in the third inning to plate Ashland’s only two runs and its only hit against Mike Smithey.
The run was over, but it was some kind of summer.