Whitey a beloved figure in Phils history

Whitey a beloved figure in Phils history

Richie "Whitey" Ashburn is the most beloved sports figure in Delaware Valley history. He was a Hall of Fame outfielder for the Phillies, broadcast their games for 34 years and wrote a sports column first for the Evening Bulletin and later the Philadelphia Daily News. In one way or another, he touched fans for 49 years.

Just hours after broadcasting a Phillies game, Whitey died in a New York City hotel 20 years ago on September 9. The Phillies won his last game, 1-0, over the Mets. Ironically, he wore No. 1 with the Phillies, and his final game was with the Mets in 1962.

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Ashburn's passing produced an outpouring of affection unmatched in Philadelphia. Over 40,000 people passed by his casket at Memorial Hall. They came dressed in suites and cutoffs, young and old, rich and poor, from nearby and far away. One fan left a small transistor radio in his casket. The entire Phillies team came in uniform to pay their respect. Fans piled flowers by his Wall of Fame plaque at Veterans Stadium.

• Ashburn was signed by the Phillies in 1944 as a catcher. He made his debut in the Minors ('45) at that position, but he was moved to center field. During Spring Training of '48, Ashburn played some games at third base. As a rookie that year, he opened the season in left field, playing in the first Major League game he had ever seen. Ashburn soon moved to center field and became one of the elite players at that position. He started his last game for the Mets at second base.

• Ashburn's first hit came in his first game off Johnny Sain; his 2,000th hit was off Carlton Willey; his Phillies record hit (No. 2,111) was off Bob Buhl and his last hit as Phillie was also off Buhl. All three pitched for the Braves. Whitey's very last hit in the Majors came in his last at-bat. The pitcher? Buhl, then with the Cubs. Every one of the hits was a single.

• Ashburn won two batting titles with the Phillies, hitting .335 in 1955 and .350 in 1958. Ed Delahanty (.340 in 1891 and .380 in 1893), is the only other Phillies player with two batting titles.

• Ashburn played in an era of three other great center fielders: Duke Snider (Brooklyn Dodgers), Willie Mays (New York Giants) and Mickey Mantle (New York Yankees). When it came to power numbers, he was overmatched by that trio. But Whitey exceeded them in other areas, leading the National League in singles, walks and on-base percentage (four times). He won more batting titles (two), had more 200-hit seasons (three), a higher lifetime batting average (.308) and dominated the league defensively, including four seasons of 500 or more putouts.

• Known for his ability to foul off pitches, Ashburn once hit spectator Alice Roth twice in the same at-bat, on Aug. 17, 1957, at Connie Mack Stadium. The first one broke her nose; the second was while she was being removed on a stretcher.

• The Phillies traded Ashburn to the Cubs for John Buzhardt, Al Dark and Jim Woods on Jan. 11, 1960. His contract was purchased by the Mets from the Cubs on Dec. 8, 1961. 

• Ashburn ended his career as the third out of a triple play in the Mets' final game and 120th loss in Wrigley Field on Sept. 9, 1930.

• Ashburn began his broadcasting career on Opening Day 1963, joining By Saam and Bill Campbell at Connie Mack Stadium. He was the first former Phillies player in the booth. Eight years later, he and Harry Kalas became a team. Kalas was the expert play-by-play announcer, while Whitey's folksy, storytelling approach, dry wit and farm-boy charm delighted millions of listeners and viewers.

• Ashburn was inducted into Baseball's Hall of Fame in 1995, along with Mike Schmidt. Whitey's speech was straight from the heart and without a script. He ended by recalling his last play, the season-ending triple play.

"As we walked into the clubhouse, Casey Stengel was standing there. 'Fellas, I don't want anybody to feel bad about this. This has been a real team effort. No one or two people could have done this.' Well, I'm going to quote Casey: No one or two people could have done all this today. And everybody that had a part of it, God bless and especially the fans, you have made this the greatest day of my life."

Larry Shenk is editor/author of the Phillies Alumni page.