09/11/2003 12:50 AM ET
Vet memories: Richie Ashburn
When Veterans Stadium opened in 1971, announcer Harry Kalas was on the way to becoming a familiar voice in Philadelphia. But while Kalas' voice may have been new to the City of Brotherly Love then, one of his broadcast partners certainly was not.
That year, Kalas joined By Saam and a fixture in the Philadelphia baseball scene -- Richie Ashburn -- to form the Phillies' new broadcast crew.
Ashburn had cemented his place in the hearts of the town's baseball lovers with a playing career that included five All-Star Games, two National League batting titles, and a defensive mastery of center field. His 15-year career, highlighted by a .308 batting average, earned him election into the Hall of Fame in 1995. He collected 2,574 hits in 2,189 career games. Known as one of the best defensive outfielders of the era, Ashburn led NL outfielders in putouts nine times, tying a Major League record.
That career also saw Ashburn play an integral part of a Phillies team that reached the World Series in 1950.
As the leadoff hitter for the Whiz Kids, Ashburn sparked a team that won 91 games en route to meeting the Yankees in the Fall Classic. While he collected 180 hits for a .303 average that season, it was his defense that propelled the Phillies into the World Series.
By Mike Gennaria / Special to MLB.com
The Phillies faced the Brooklyn Dodgers, who were one game back in the standings, in the final game of the regular season. The game was tied, 1-1, in the bottom of the ninth inning. The Dodgers had runners on first and second with no out when Duke Snider singled to center. Ashburn charged the ball and threw out Cal Abrams at the plate. His clutch throw allowed Philadelphia to pull out a victory in the 10th.
The career of the native Nebraskan began in 1948. Ashburn was the only rookie selected to the All-Star Game that year, when he hit .333 for the season -- good for second in the NL.
Ashburn had his best season, stats-wise, in 1958. He led the NL in batting average (.350), hits (215), walks (97), triples (13) and on-base percentage (.441). Ashburn won the 1958 batting title by going 3-for-4 on the final day of the season, finishing three points ahead of Willie Mays.
Sometimes overshadowed by the other great center fielders of the day, Ashburn had more hits than any other player in the 1950s. He was also extremely durable, missing just 22 games between 1949 and 1958.
After 12 years with the Phillies, Ashburn was traded to the Cubs in 1960. He played two seasons in Chicago before finishing his career with the Mets. Ashburn joined the expansion team for its inaugural season in 1962 and became the first batter in its history.
Once the '62 season concluded, Ashburn returned home to Nebraska. With his playing days through, he contemplated going into politics. But Ashburn was lured back to baseball and, much to the delight of his fans, back to Philadelphia.
He joined Saam in the broadcast booth the next season, bringing an in-depth knowledge of the game and a quick wit to the airwaves.
Kalas said Ashburn was very accepting of him when he came into the booth in '71. But Ashburn also had some advice for the new play-by-play announcer.
"Richie told me when I started, 'If I don't have anything to say, I'm not going to say anything,'" Kalas said. "He expected me to be talking all the time."
Ashburn spent 35 years in the booth, capturing the hearts of a new generation of baseball enthusiasts. The lifetime baseball man called a game between the Mets and Phillies on the night of his death. The Phillies won, 1-0, at Shea Stadium on September 9, 1997, before Ashburn died of a heart attack in a New York hotel.
How was the great player able to endear himself to a new group of fans?
"He was easy to get along with. He would tell the fans stories about when he played," former player and current Phillies manager Larry Bowa said. "Some announcers don't mingle with the fans, but Richie would get right in there with the crowd."
Ashburn not only socialized with the crowd, he helped a young shortstop who had just entered the Majors.
"When I first came up, he told me I wasn't a very good bunter," Bowa said. "One time he was in street clothes, and we were practicing at the Carpenter Complex, and he showed me what to do. Then, I dropped down three perfect bunts, and he said, 'See, it's not that hard.'"
"He had a great feel for the game," Kalas said recently. "And his down-home humor was another reason he was beloved."
Kalas cited an example of Ashburn's sense of humor during his acceptance speech into the Hall of Fame in 2002.
"During long games, he'd be getting hungry and he would say, 'I wonder if the people at Celebre's Pizza are listening,' and 15 minutes later a pizza would be delivered to the booth. After a while, the Phillies brass told him, 'Celebre's is not a sponsor and you can't give them free plugs.' A few games later, it's almost midnight, the game is in extra innings and he said, 'Tonight I'd like to send birthday wishes to those Celebre twins, plain and pepperoni.'"
"[Ashburn] had a great feel for the game. And his down-home humor was another reason he was beloved."
-- Harry Kalas
Mike Piazza, the Mets catcher and Norristown (Penn.) native, grew up with Ashburn calling games on radio and television.
"He was a lot of fun to listen to," Piazza said. "Richie was a breath of fresh air."
Piazza appreciated Ashburn's lighthearted tone.
"Even though there's a big business angle, it's still a game and it's still fun," Piazza said. "He and Harry kept it light."
Ashburn's and Kalas' relationship in the booth spurred a friendship away from the ballpark. Part of that included many rounds of golf at Philadelphia Country Club.
The golf course was also the setting for some of Bowa's finest memories of Ashburn.
"No matter where his ball was, deep in the rough or in the sand, he would say, 'I got the perfect club in this bag for this shot,'" Bowa said recently with a smile.
Ashburn will be remembered at the Phillies' new stadium, Citizens Bank Park, with Ashburn Alley. This outdoor area will feature a view of the field, picnic areas, concessions and mementos marking Philadelphia baseball history. Ashburn Alley will span the entire outfield, and the area will be open to fans one hour before the ballpark's gates open.
Ashburn's retired number 1 will also make its way to the new ballpark.
Kalas spent 27 years alongside Ashburn.
"He was just a joy to be around," Kalas said. "He had a wonderful sense of humor and a tremendous knowledge of the game.
"To this day, something will happen in the booth or away from the stadium that will make me think of Whitey," he continued, "and it will bring a warmth to my heart and a smile to my face."
Mike Gennaria is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
"Some announcers don't mingle with the fans, but Richie would get right in there with the crowd."
-- Larry Bowa