|| A very good friend of mine passed away yesterday. I
only met him once, but I can hear his voice as clearly as my fathers or my
uncles. It seems like Ive 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 Richies 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 uncles
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 50s 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 50s came to an end, Ashburn had more hits
than any other man who played during the era. Thats 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
Richie Ashburn made it to the Hall of Fame in 1995. Im 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. Thats 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
This is why Ill never forget Ashburns voice. Ive
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. Thats 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 Philadelphias fans might be the most knowledgeable in
the nation. Led by its number one rated sports talk show, WIP 610, Philadelphians
keep up with the owners and players. They praised Ashburn the player and loved Ashburn the
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.
Ashburns 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
Thanks for all the
memories, Whitey. We wont forget you.