Career w/Phillies: .311 AVG / 22 HR / 499 RBI / 199 SB
Richie Ashburn typified Philadelphia — a somewhat awkward slice of information considering Ashburn was a Nebraskan-born farm boy. But his brand of humility, wit, character and hustle made him a Philadelphian through and through. The mark he made on Philadelphia baseball isn’t measured easily, but it permeates even today.
The Phillies signed Ashburn as an amateur free agent in early 1945. He made it to Philadelphia in 1948, hitting .333 as a cagey 21-year-old. He also stole a career-high 32 bases and recorded a splendid .410 on-base percentage in 117 games. Already Ashburn’s career was off to a fast start.
Now, Ashburn was not a home run hitter. He was not a run producer. He really wasn’t big on extra-base hits (though he was a regular league leader in triples). But he got on base, he ran, he scored. His 1114 runs scored are good for third in franchise history; his .390 OBP is sixth in club history. Moreover, he patrolled center field like no other, using his speed and expert eye to track down anything that came into his field of vision. Bill James’ range factor statistic measures the ability of a player to participate in outs; Ashburn has three of the top 10 range factor seasons ever in center field and may very well be the most prolific defensive center fielder of all time.
His best season may have been 1951, when Whitey hit an outstanding .344 (221 hits) while driving in a career-high 63. He’d eclipse the 200-hit mark twice more as a Phillie, but consistently stay above 170 hits per season. He’s the 1950s hit leader with 1,875.
Ashburn had another amazing season in 1958, hitting .350 with 13 triples. Sadly, that would be the last outstanding year for Ashburn as a Phillie. After a mediocre 1959 season, Whitey would be traded to the Cubs for John Buzhardt, Alvin Dark and Jim Woods. He’d have two OK seasons in Chicago before signing with the Mets for the 1962 season. That worst team ever (40-120) was his final team.
Of course, Ashburn’s true character had yet to blossom. Whitey started a gig as a broadcaster, and the Phillies brought him back to the city to be Byrum Saam’s partner for Phillies games during the 1960s. Quickly, Ashburn asserted himself as a knowledgeable student of the game, but moreover, a caring man of the people. Soon the Phils brought in a young Harry Kalas to be his partner, and the combination was like peanut butter and jelly. Kalas’ gravelly drawl depicted the scene while Ashburn’s quips and cuff reactions flavored the moment. Through it all was laughter, stories, a love of free food and “Birthday wishes to Ethel Gorman of Norristown. Eighty-two years young today.” Richie Ashburn was our uncle every summer day and night.
In 1995 Ashburn was elected to the Hall of Fame, joining the Hall with Phillie legend Mike Schmidt. A sea of red greeted the two in Cooperstown — 25,000 people (at the time the largest assembling in Cooperstown history); probably, all of those 25,000 were there for Whitey.
On September 9, 1997, Ashburn and Kalas called a Phillies-Mets game at Shea Stadium. Like usual, the two signed off by telling fans to join them the next night for another Phils game. Ashburn never made it, dying from a heart attack after the broadcast. His death set off a wave of mourning throughout the Philadelphia era; truly, nobody was loved quite like Whitey. And he really did typify Philadelphia.
Comment: Even if Ashburn wasn’t a beloved man, his numbers spoke for themselves. He was a pure hitter with blinding speed and terrific defense. A true baseball legend. And a great man.