A Tribute To Richie Ashburn

Erick Emert 1997


burn.jpg (24013 bytes)   A very good friend of mine passed away yesterday. I only met him once, but I can hear his voice as clearly as my father’s or my uncle’s. It seems like I’ve been listening to his voice forever.

     Richie 'Whitey' Ashburn played for the Philadelphia Phillies from 1948 (the year I was born) until he was traded to the Cubs in 1960. In 1962 he played for the New York Mets in their first season. Yes, he was part of the comical team that lost 120 games that year. He opened the season playing rightfield for them and was the first Met to come to the plate - both facts that make for good baseball trivia questions. His last game for the Mets, he played second base. 1962 was Richie’s last year in baseball as a player. He hit .306, one of only 10 players to hit over .300 in the year they retired.

     I remember Ashburn the player. He was a childhood hero and one of my uncle’s favorites. My Uncle Richard collected baseball antiques. The 1950 Phillies were his favorite team. It was the first Phillies team to ever make the World Series and Richie Ashburn was one of the main reasons the team made it that year.

     The 50’s were the heyday of the Brooklyn Dodgers. They won pennants in ’49, just missed in ’50 and ’51, won in ’52, ’53, ’55, and ’56. They had a powerful attack, just enough pitching, and played in a bandbox called Ebbots Field.

     Ashburn never really held the respect of most fans outside Philadelphia. The majors had three other centerfielders who were that talk of the town at that time, Willie Mays, Duke Snyder, and Mickey Mantle. But Richie was a great player. A natural lead-off hitter, and the best gloveman of the bunch. When the 50’s came to an end, Ashburn had more hits than any other man who played during the era. That’s right, more than Musial, more than Williams, more than Mantle, or Mays or Snider.

     The last game of the 1950 season saw the Phillies and Dodgers tied for first place. The schedule had them playing their last game against each other in Ebbots Field. With the score tied 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth, the Dodgers had runners on first and second with no outs when Duke Snider lined a single to center off Robin Roberts. In center field, Ashburn was looking for a bunt and was playing in close, backing up a potential play at second. He fielded the ball and his throw was perfect. Catcher Stan Lopata applied the tag, and Cal Abrams was out by at least 15 feet. In the 10th, Dick Sisler won the game for the Phillies with a three run-run homer.

     Richie Ashburn made it to the Hall of Fame in 1995. I’m glad he made it before he died because he deserved it. He waited 33 years to hear that call. He was a humble man in a lot of ways. This was his reaction to being selected: "It's pretty awesome in there. So I know what it means to be in there. Believe me. But for some reason, I think it's going to mean a lot more when I'm dead than when I'm alive. Because it's forever. You're immortalized. I don't feel immortal right now. I feel very mortal, really. But the neat thing is that it will be there forever, and that's kind of how I look at it."

     After his baseball career Richie went back to his home state of Nebraska. He thought of going into politics but changed his mind when asked to run against a good friend. That’s the kind of man he was. The Phillies called him and asked him to become one of their radio announcers. He took the job starting in the 1963 season and broadcast his last game on Monday night when the Phillies, appropriately, played the New York Mets.

     This is why I’ll never forget Ashburn’s voice. I’ve listened to thousands of Phillies games during that period and there was no better ‘color man’ in the business. He was a man of good humor and dry wit, the perfect foil for By Saam, Bill Campbell, and later Harry Callis, his mates in the broadcast booth.

     In an interview before his Hall of Fame acceptance, Richie had this to say about himself: "I think people always liked me because I'm not a bad guy and I like people. I get along with people, I relate to people. I enjoy people. But I wouldn't think that was so strange. That's the way everybody should be, really. I never really thought about it that much."

     That sums the man up. That’s the Richie Ashburn I grew up with. Ashburn played and worked in a tough sports town, Philadelphia. A place where the fans once booed Santa Clause. But Philadelphia’s fans might be the most knowledgeable in the nation. Led by its number one rated sports talk show, WIP 610, Philadelphian’s keep up with the owners and players. They praised Ashburn the player and loved Ashburn the announcer.

     The public memorial for Richie drew more people than anyone else who has ever been given a similar honor, including former Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo. Ashburn’s appeal crosses over political and economic lines. The people came. They lined up all day long, standing for hours just to be able to say goodbye to a man they truly adored. The players came, Philles former and present. The fans came. Young and old. Oldsters like me who remembered him as a player and teenagers who never saw Ashburn so much as swing a bat. They came because the Philadelphia community had a love affair with Richie Ashburn.

     Thanks for all the memories, Whitey. We won’t forget you.

ash.jpg (10586 bytes)

Ashburn sliding home by  Jurinko

All images used by permission

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