Remembering Greatness: A Tribute To Richie Ashburn

Player, broadcaster, writer and all around great and beloved member of the Phillies family. Fans instantly took to the fresh, young blonde center fielder who became known simply as "Whitey". Richie Ashburn stole the hearts of Phillies fans throughout his 12 seasons with the Phillies as a player and 35 seasons as a Phillies broadcaster. It all ended much too soon when Ashburn died of a heart attack on September 9, 1997.

The 1950 season was down to its final day. The Phillies and Brooklyn Dodgers were squaring off in what was a battle for the pennant. The Phillies needed a win to clinch the pennant and the Dodgers needed a win to force a playoff series between the two teams. The game moved to the ninth with the score tied 1-1 and the Dodgers threatening with runners on first and second and nobody out. It didn't help matters that Duke Snider was coming to the plate.

Few noticed that Phillies center fielder Richie Ashburn took a couple of quick steps in toward second base. Seemingly on cue, Snider lined a single to center field and Dodgers third base coach Milt Stock waved home Cal Abrams. Those couple steps that Ashburn made became huge as he charged the ball and threw an absolute strike to catcher Stan Lopata who easily tagged out a sliding Abrams. The Dodgers spirit was broken and the rest of the inning went without incident. In the next inning, Dick Sisler would hit a game winning homerun and the Phillies won the pennant.

That play, perhaps, the most famous in Phillies history showed what Richie Ashburn was all about. Knowing that his arm was accurate but not necessarily strong, Ashburn made the most of his ability. It would be that way through his entire career.

Ironically, as one of the most treasured players in Phillies history, Ashburn might not have been a Phillie if not for a series of events early on. Ashburn attended a tryout camp for the St.Louis Cardinals in 1943, but was too young to sign a professional contract. The following year, the Indians signed Ashburn, but he was still too young and his contract was voided. The Cubs thought they might have found a loophole and signed Ashburn to a minor league contract with Nashville. This time, the commissioner of minor league baseball stepped in and voided the contract because of an irregularity in the agreement. When Ashburn was finally of legal age, the Phillies and Yankees were in a bidding war for his services, which technically, the Yankees won. Ashburn again started thinking about the situation and figured that the Phillies offered him the quickest shot at the majors, so he signed with them.

Ashburn's minor league career started in Utica, New York and he was actually a catcher. Eddie Sawyer, who would later manage Ashburn with the Phillies major league team took note of Ashburn's speed and moved him to center field after just 17 games as a catcher. In his rookie season at Utica, Ashburn hit .312, but his career had to be put on hold for a stint in the Army. After missing almost two full seasons, Ashburn returned to Utica and hit .362, leading the team to the Eastern League Championship in 1947.

In the spring of 1948, Ashburn was in spring training, but didn't have a Phillies contract. Opportunity arose when Harry Walker decided to hold out and Charlie Gilbert got hurt. Ashburn was summoned to join the big league club and was the Phillies leadoff hitter to start the season. On that first opening day, Ashburn recorded his first major league hit off Johnny Sain. It was just the beginning. Ashburn went on to hit .333 and led the league with 32 stolen bases. Ashburn was the starting center fielder for the National League in the all-star game and was tabbed as The Sporting News Rookie of the Year.

In 1949, the Phillies finished 81-73, 16 games out of first. Manager Eddie Sawyer saw a bright future and told his players that 1950 would be their year.

Sawyer's prediction was right on target and the Phillies, thanks in no small part to Ashburn's throw, were the National League Champions. Unfortunately, it would be as far as the Phillies would go as they were swept in the World Series by the New York Yankees.

As the Phillies struggled to get back to the World Series, Ashburn led the way. In 1951, for the second time in four seasons, Ashburn finished second to Stan Musial in the batting race, hitting .344 compared to Musial's .355. Ashburn was again the starting center fielder in the all-star game and again, his defense played a role when he robbed Vic Wertz of a homerun. He also showed his offensive skills, going 2-for-4.

By 1953, Ashburn was chasing the 1,000 hit plateau and reached it with a single off Brooklyn's Billy Loes on July 1st. Ashburn would lead the league in hits with 205 in 1953. Ashburn would continue a growing streak of consecutive games played throughout the 1953 and 1954 seasons, which was a National League record at that time. The streak ended on opening day of the 1955 season. Ashburn didn't start because he was hurting from a collision with Del Ennis in an exhibition game a few days earlier.

Even though Ashburn didn't open in center field in 1955, it didn't keep him from having one of his best seasons in the majors. For a wholesome kid from Tilden, Nebraska, one of the great honors in sports was about to come his way. Ashburn lived somewhat in the shadow of the great center fielders of his day. Musial was a constant nemesis in keeping Ashburn from a batting title, but that ended in '55. Ashburn hit .338 to win the title and again led the league with an astonishing .449 OBP. Ashburn later admitted "that title was important to me. It was just one of those years." It wouldn't be Ashburn's last batting title. In 1958, Ashburn was waging a battle against Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and perennial favorite Stan Musial. Aaron and Musial fell by the wayside and Mays led Ashburn by two-one-thousandths of a point heading into the final weekend of the season. Mays went 5-for-13 in that final weekend and Ashburn finished 8-for-13 to edge out Mays and finish the season with a .350 average. Ashburn also collected his 2,000th hit during the '58 campaign.

Nobody knew it going in, but 1959 would be Ashburn's final season as a Phillies player. His average fell to .266 and the Phillies feared that Ashburn was losing his touch. After the season, they dealt the fan favorite to the Cubs for Alvin Dark, Jim Woods and John Buzhardt. It was a bad move by the Phillies, as Ashburn hit .291 for the Cubs and led the league in OBP (.416) and walks (116).

A new chapter in Ashburn's career started in 1962 when he joined the expansion New York Mets. That infamous, but loveable, Mets team lost 120 games, but Ashburn was able to shine strong. He led the way with a .306 average in what would be his final season in the majors.

The very next season, another door opened back in Philadelphia. The Phillies invited Ashburn to be a part of their radio broadcast team and he accpeted. Just as when Ashburn stepped into the starting lineup in 1948, little did anybody know that he would become a major player once again with the Phillies. In 1971, Ashburn teamed with rookie Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas to form one of the most famous duos in baseball broadcasting history. The two were not only strong in the booth, they were inseperable friends away from the baseball diamond. Ashburn would go on to make phrases such as "runnerish", "Get the married men off the field" and "Don't let the facts get in the way of a good story, Harry" part of the Phillies vocabulary.

Throughout the years after his playing days ended, Ashburn was somehow overlooked for election to the Hall of Fame. It may well have been because of the many great center fielders that played during Ashburn's career, but it was an oversight that needed to be righted. In 1995, the Veteran's Committee caught the oversight and elected Richie "Whitey" Ashburn to the Hall of Fame. Ironically, he entered the hall with former Phillies great Mike Schmidt; It meant that the best third baseman and the best center fielder in Phillies history would enter the Hall of Fame together and the moment wasn't lost on either player. In his induction, Ashburn talked longingly about his playing days and his love for the game of baseball came through stronger than ever. Ashburn's long-time friend Harry Kalas joined him in the Hall of Fame in 2002.

On September 9, 1997, members of the Phillies family woke up to the news that Richie Ashburn had suffered a heart attack in his hotel room in New York City. Our beloved "Whitey" was gone at the age of 70. The Mets offered to postpone that night's game, but the Phillies decided to go on, knowing that Ashburn would never have wanted a game cancelled on his behalf. Borrowing a page from his friend's durability during his playing career, Harry Kalas called the game, pausing several times throughout. At one point, simply saying "this September the ninth," as if etching the day forever into the memories of fans watching that all too different telecast. Since Ashburn's death, the Phillies radio booth at Veterans Stadium has been known as the Richie Ashburn Memorial Broadcast Booth and the Phillies will honor Ashburn with "Ashburn Alley" at the new Citizens Bank Park.

Richie Ashburn's Career Statistics

Phillies (1948-1959)22499.311.39417942839719975946455
Cubs (1960-1961)059.279.400260239231017177
Mets (1962)728.306.424135731278139
Career (1948-1962) 29586.308.3962189317109234921198571

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