Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Much Love for Richie Ashburn

By: C.G. Morelli

Twenty-nine home runs in a 14-year career?  Is that it?  Well, no.  Not by a long shot.  If there was one thing Richie Ashburn didn’t do too much (hit a lot of homers), there were a million things he did quite often (steal bases relentlessly, hit for average, drive in runs, range-rove the outfield, snap a witty one-liner).

The late Phillies announcer, Harry Kalas, once said of Ashburn, “Anybody who ever saw him play loves him because he was a bust-tail player who hated to lose.”  Possibly the only description that suited him better was the nickname Whitey, which paid tribute to his trademark, nearly-white hair.

Ashburn busted his tail as a rookie in 1948 to the tune of a .333 batting average with 154 hits, 17 doubles, and a whopping 32 stolen bases.  He was the only rookie elected to the NL All-Star team that season. Whitey had broken onto the scene in a big way.

After a two year absence from the Midsummer Classic despite pretty steady numbers, the young veteran went back into “bust-tail” mode, putting together a season that solidified his hero status in a very tough sports town. 

Whitey was the only spark in on an otherwise lifeless ’51 Phillies squad.  He smacked a career-high 221 hits, while batting .344 (second in all of baseball, only to Stan Musial’s .351), and he had 31 doubles, many of them created by sheer hustle.  Added to that were his 29 stolen bases and 63 RBI as a leadoff man.  He only hit four home runs, but the Phils were more than willing to look past that.  It was clear, after his offensive outburst in ‘51, that Whitey would be keeping his Philadelphia address for quite some time to come.

He spent 12 seasons manning centerfield for the Phils and blazing a trail for himself to Cooperstown. During that time he made five All Star appearances, led the league in hitting twice, and bested NL outfielders in put-outs nine times. He smacked 2,574 hits, and registered a lifetime .308 average. Ashburn’s #1 was retired by the Phillies in 1979 and he was inducted into the Hall in 1995.

People rarely remember that Whitey finished his career in New York when the Mets selected him in the first-ever expansion draft. But Whitey would reclaim his Philly address shortly after hanging up the spikes. He spent 27 seasons calling the Phillies alongside legendary announcer, Harry Kalas. The two arguably made up one of the greatest broadcasting tandems in baseball history. The always-insightful banter between Harry and Whitey combined with the slow, drawling crescendo of Kalas’s famous home run calls were even enough to keep fans interested in a club that’s spent most of the last two decades in the league’s basement.

Whitey died from a heart attack in 1997 at the age of 70. He left us with the memories of a sparkling Hall of Fame career, both on the field and in the booth, and his never-say-die, bust-tail spirit that won him the hearts of all Philadelphians. Perhaps Harry Kalas best reflected the sentiments of an entire city in remembering Ashburn:

"Whitey was as good a friend as I ever had," Kalas said, “I think of him every day with warmth in his heart and a smile on his face.''

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