Four years ago, I began writing a series of Philadelphia Phillies mini-biographies. The series was inspired by my twin interests in the Phillies ball club and the subject of history in general.
What I decided to call my “Philography” series was never meant to present a comprehensive life story on each player. I just wanted to learn for myself a bit more about each player’s background and accomplishments, how they fared either before coming to or after leaving the Phillies, and share that with other fans.
In the beginning this off-season series was scattershot, covering a wide range of players across the team’s now 136-season history. In the winter of 2015-16, I keyed on shortstops. Last year it was the catching position.
What has now grown to an 18-chapter series will extend by five more over the next couple of months. This year, I have chosen to cover some of the most important players in Phillies history. The five players who have both played with the team and who also have actually had a uniform number retired by the club.
Those five ball players will be presented in numerical order, beginning with this piece on Richie Ashburn. During December and January, Philography stories will cover the careers of Jim Bunning, Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton, and Robin Roberts.
Donald Richard “Richie” Ashburn was born on March 19, 1927 in the small town of Tilden, Nebraska. Tilden lies exactly in the middle of nowhere, about 150 miles northwest of Omaha. He had a twin sister named Donna, and so their dad Neil and mom “Tootie” began calling him by that takeoff on his middle name.
Ashburn’s father was a huge influence on his early life, particularly on his gravitation towards sports in general and baseball in particular. In a fine piece for the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), Seamus Kearney describes the relationship as follows:
“Ashburn’s father…played semipro baseball on the weekends…Neil Ashburn had a very close relationship with his athletically-inclined son – he encouraged Richie in his boyhood activities and steered the boy throughout his developmental years. Ashburn tried to play all the sports – except football; his father ruled that out because of the threat of injury, but baseball and basketball were his favorites. He began playing baseball in 1935 as an 8-year-old in the Tilden Midget Baseball League under the tutelage of Hursel O’Banion. He played catcher because his father thought it would be the quickest way to get him to the major leagues, and he batted left-handed because his father said his speed would give him a better jump to first base…”
Richie played both baseball and basketball for his high school team and also played American Legion ball. Even out in the sticks of Tilden, talent like Ashburn’s didn’t escape the eyes of baseball scouts. He was signed three different times by big-league organizations.
The Phillies were fortunate that those first two signings didn’t work out. The Cleveland Indians first inked Ashburn at age 16, but that deal was nixed by the Commissioner as teams were prohibited then from signing high schoolers. He then was signed by the Chicago Cubs, but that deal was also shot down due to an illegal contract clause.
In 1945 at age 18, Ashburn had a contract approved with the Phillies. Kearney’s SABR bio quotes the Phillies scout who finally signed him, Ed Krajnick: “Something tells me this is about the most important deal I ever made.”
Ashburn would spend the 1945 and 1947 seasons playing with the Phillies farm club in Utica, New York. During those seasons his teammates first hung the nickname “Whitey” on him, owing to his extremely light hair. The nickname would stick for the rest of his life.
He missed the 1946 campaign entirely after being drafted into the U.S. Army and being sent to serve in, of all places, Alaska. On his 1947 return the fleet-footed Ashburn hit .346 in the Eastern League at nearly five years the junior of most players.
Ashburn would never play another day in the minors. He impressed enough to open the 1948 season as the Phillies starting center fielder, a position that he would hold down for a dozen years.
During that rookie campaign, Ashburn hit .333 with a .410 on-base percentage, stole 32 bases, and finished third in the National League Rookie of the Year voting behind Al Dark and Gene Bearden. He was also a National League All-Star for the first of what would be five times in his career and received MVP votes for the first of eight years.
In 1950, the 23-year-old Ashburn led all of baseball with 13 triples as the Phillies youthful ‘Whiz Kids’ won the National League pennant, moving the franchise into the World Series for the first time in 35 years.
On the final day of that 1950 season, Ashburn produced one of the two greatest defensive plays in franchise history (Utley’s Deke in the 2008 World Series being the other.)
The Phillies took on the Dodgers in Brooklyn in that season finale, with the ‘Whiz Kids’ holding a one-game lead. A win for the host Dodgers would force a one-game playoff between the two clubs for the pennant.
The two teams exchanged single runs in the 6th inning and then rode ace pitchers Robin Roberts and Don Newcombe into the 9th inning. Newcombe set the Phillies down in the top of the 9th, and the so the Dodgers came to the plate with a chance to win it.
Cal Abrams led off with a walk, moving to second base when Pee Wee Reese followed with a single to left. That brought Duke Snider to the plate. The Dodgers three-hole hitter delivered what seemed a sure game-winning, standings-tying base hit to center.
But Ashburn had other ideas. He charged, fielded the base hit cleanly, and fired home. Backup catcher Stan Lopata took the throw and tagged Abrams, who tried to dance around him, for the first out. The Phillies were still alive.
The two teams now moved on to extra-innings. Roberts helped himself by leading off the top of the 10th frame with a base hit. When Eddie Waitkus followed with a single the Phillies had a threat of their own going.
That brought Ashburn to the plate. He tried to lay down a sacrifice bunt, a play that he would later admit to despising. It failed, as Newcombe pounced on the ball and threw to force Roberts out at third base.
Up to the plate stepped the Phillies own three-hole hitter now and Dick Sisler wouldn’t let his club down. Sisler delivered what would prove to be the most dramatic and important hit in the first 97 years of Phillies franchise history, blasting a three-run homer over the left field wall at Ebbetts Field.
In the bottom of the 10th inning, Roberts retired Roy Campanella, Jim Russell, and Tommy Brown in order. The Phillies exploded out of their dugout as Ashburn and his mates on the field rushed in for the celebration, mobbing their ace on the mound.
The Phillies would advance on to the 1950 World Series where they would face Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, and the powerful New York Yankees. The Bronx Bombers would sweep the Whiz Kids in four straight. But it was a hard-fought series, with the Yankees taking each of the first three by a single run.
Ashburn went just 3-17 (.176) and wasn’t much of a factor in that 1950 Fall Classic. His lone strong performance came in Game 2 at Shibe Park. That day he went 2-5, including a first inning double after which he was left stranded. His sacrifice fly in the bottom of the 5th inning tied the game at 1-1.
In the bottom of the 8th with the game still tied, Ashburn led off with a successful bunt single down the third base line. Sisler tried to bunt him over, but Yankees pitcher Allie Reynolds jumped on the ball quickly, turned, and fired to shortstop Phil Rizzuto, forcing Ashburn out at second base. The next batter would roll into a double play and the Phillies would lose 2-1 when DiMaggio led off the top of the 10th with a home run.
Though they lost that World Series, the Phillies appeared to be a team on the rise. It was not to be, as the club fell to just 73 wins and fifth place in the eight-team National League the following season.
After the team won just 66 games in his rookie season of 1948, the Phillies would finish with a winning record in four of the next five years. But over Ashburn’s final six seasons in Philadelphia there would be just two .500 finishes and no more winning teams.
There was an interesting incident that took place in 1957 involving Ashburn. On August 17 at Connie Mack Stadium, Ashburn ripped a foul ball into the stands, breaking the nose of Alice Roth, who was the wife of Philadelphia Bulletin sports editor Earl Roth.
Then incredibly as Roth was being carried from the stands on a stretcher, the game resumed, and Ashburn sent second foul rocket into the stands, striking her yet again. The two would ultimately strike up a friendship, and the Roth’s son would become the Phillies bat boy.
In a dozen Phillies seasons, Ashburn produced 2,217 hits which is still the third-highest total in franchise history behind only Jimmy Rollins and Schmidt. His 946 walks are tied for third, his 1,114 runs scored are fourth, and his 97 triples are fifth in club history.
Ashburn would accumulate a .311 career batting average and .394 on-base percentage during his Phillies years, eighth in both categories. Among players of recent vintage, only Bobby Abreu and John Kruk can boast of better OBP marks, and none has a higher batting average.
He would scatter three more NL All-Star appearances throughout the decade: 1951, 1953, and 1958. He led all of baseball in hits in both ’51 and ’58 and the NL in 1953.
Ashburn led baseball in triples in both 1950 and 1958. Twice he led the senior circuit in batting average, his .350 mark in 1958 leading all of baseball. Four times he led in on-base percentage.
Hall of Famer James Cool Papa Bell was a famed Negro Leagues player who is widely considered to be the fastest man to ever play the game of baseball. It was once said of him that he was so fast that he could turn out the lights and be in bed before it got dark. Bell is rumored to have once called Ashburn the “fastest white man” that he ever saw.
On January 11, 1960 in the dead of winter, Ashburn was traded by the Phillies to the Chicago Cubs, ending his time as a Phillies player for good. In exchange the Phillies received a three-player package. It included the man who beat him out for that 1948 NL Rookie of the Year Award, Alvin Dark, as well as pitcher John Buzhardt and infield prospect Jim Woods.
The deal would prove to have not much impact for either club. Buzhardt had a couple of 200-innings seasons as a Phillies starting pitcher, but they were losing campaigns for him and the club.
Ashburn played well for much of his two seasons in the Windy City, especially that first 1960 season when he hit .291 with 99 runs scored, 16 steals, and led the NL with 116 walks. But the Cubs finished in seventh place both years.
On December 8, 1961 the expansion New York Mets would purchase Ashburn’s contract from Chicago. In what proved to be his final big-league season, Ashburn hit .306 with a .425 on-base percentage and a dozen stolen bases, making his final NL All-Star team at age 35.
But that Mets team was one of the worst in Major League Baseball history. They went just 40-120, and their .250 winning percentage remains the lowest in MLB over the last 83 years. After that debacle and facing the prospect of aging as a bench player for them, Ashburn hung up his spikes.
Though Ashburn was done playing, he wasn’t away from the game for long. The Phillies were looking for a new color man for their radio and television broadcasts for the 1963 season. The job was first offered to Roberts, but the pitcher was still active and wanted to continue playing. He recommended Ashburn, and the rest is Philly broadcasting history.
Ashburn joined Bill Campbell and By Saam in the booth for his first nine years, including the ill-fated 1964 Phillies collapse season. Then in 1971 the Phillies opened a brand new ballpark, Veteran’s Stadium, and also hired a replacement for Campbell by the name of Harry Kalas.
Kalas was 35-years-old and had been on the Houston Astros broadcasting team ever since the Astrodome opened in 1965. He was lured to Philly by a greater contract, and joined Ashburn and Saam for that first year of The Vet. Saam would remain into the 1976 season before retiring, but the Ashburn-Kalas relationship would endure for decades.
The pair became legendary as “Harry and Whitey” for two generations of Phillies fans. Kalas was the quick-tongued play-by-play guy, Ashburn the homespun-humor color man with a players perspective. They were a tremendous team and perhaps even greater friends.
One of the famous regular routines when broadcasting home games involved Celebre’s, a pizza shop located not far from the ballpark area. During a few late-running games, Ashburn asked on-air whether his friends at the shop were listening. Within a short time a couple of pies would show up at the broadcast booth.
When the team asked him to stop since Celebre’s was not an official sponsor, Ashburn got around it as only he could. If he desired a delivery, during acknowledgements of fan birthdays Ashburn began to wish a happy birthday to “the Celebre twins, Plain and Pepperoni.”
They called games together as the Phillies grew into a consistent contender in the late-1970’s, finally winning the franchise first-ever World Series crown in 1980. Ashburn and Kalas would then cover Phillies pennant winners together in 1983 and again in 1993.
In his personal life, Ashburn was married to the former Herberta Cox. Known as ‘Herbie’, the couple would have six children and remain married their entire lives. According to Kearney, the two separated in 1977, but would remain married. They shared the grief when in 1987 their daughter was killed in a car crash.
As all retired players at that time, Ashburn had spent 15 years on the ballot for possible induction to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was not selected by the voters in any year, fell off the ballot, and was then considered only by the Veteran’s Committee.
Per Kearney, it was two men in particular, Steve Krevisky and Jim Donahue, who took up the banner for Ashburn’s worthiness:
“Krevisky would appear at every New England SABR gathering and expound on Ashburn’s qualities, especially educating attendees on his defensive statistics but also pointing out that Richie had the most hits of any major leaguer during the 1950s. Donahue organized his campaign around overturning the 60 percent rule, one time forwarding 55,000 postcards to the Hall of Fame. Both men’s efforts paid off and the rule was overturned in 1993.”
By an incredible stroke of timing, Ashburn would be enshrined at the same ceremony as Schmidt, the greatest player in Phillies history. Ashburn had the honor of broadcasting the entirety of Schmidt’s 1972-89 playing career.
Ashburn’s mother would later state that he planned on retiring following the 1997 season. He would not make it. On September 9, 1997 the Phillies were winding down the season, playing a series in New York against the Mets.
The previous night, Ashburn and Kalas had called a big Phillies 13-4 win at Shea Stadium highlighted by soon-to-be-named NL Rookie of the Year Scott Rolen‘s 18th home run. Ashburn went back to his hotel room following the game. Kearney described what happened next as follows:
“Later that night he reached out to a Phillies official, complaining that he didn’t feel well. At 5:30 A.M. on September 9, 1997, Ashburn was found dead in his hotel room.”
The Phillies and the city of Philadelphia came together to plan a public memorial service for the beloved broadcaster. Thousands of family, fans, players, celebrities, and others in the game attended the wake held at Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park.
Kalas soldiered on in the booth after the passing of the friend he called “His Whiteness” for more than 11 years, joined in the booth by a number of on-and-off partners that would include Chris Wheeler and Larry Anderson. He and Wheeler were in the booth together as the Phillies finally won their second World Series crown in 2008.
In 1979, Ashburn’s uniform number “1” during his Phillies playing days became the first ever retired by the club. That same summer, Ashburn became just the second man honored with a plaque on the Phillies Wall of Fame after his former teammate Roberts had been the inaugural enshrinee the prior year.
When the Phillies opened Citizens Bank Park for the 2004 season, Ashburn was not only remembered, he was featured prominently. His statue can be found as the centerpiece of the walkway food and gathering area beyond the outfield stands known as Ashburn Alley.
For those of us who got to enjoy him over the airwaves for many years, Whitey Ashburn will never be forgotten. Especially in his partnership with Harry Kalas. I have often said myself that in my heaven, Harry and Whitey will be calling Phillies games for as long as the team and the game exists.
NOTE: for an even more detailed read on Whitey’s life and career, please take an opportunity to enjoy the SABR bio from Seamus Kearney at that link.
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