Richie Ashburn wasn’t destined for baseball’s Hall of Fame after he retired from Major League Baseball in 1962. He finished his 15-year career with a .308 batting average, 2,574 hits, 1,322 runs scored, and 586 RBI. Those are good numbers, but necessarily first-ballot Hall of Fame numbers. You have to remember, Ashburn played during baseball’s golden age with guys like Ted Williams, Stan Musial, and Joe DiMaggio.
Even though he was overshadowed, Ashburn was considered one of the more dominant players of his time. He was voted to six All-Star teams and won the National League batting title twice (1955 and1958). As a 23-year-old, Ashburn provided a spark atop the batting order for the 1950 ‘Whiz Kids’ Phillies ball club that made it to the World Series that year – only to be swept by the Yankees.
It was after his playing career that Ashburn became an adored figure in Philadelphia, where he played the first 12 years of his major league career.
— PHILLIES TBOH (@FS_TBOH) May 29, 2016
Ashburn was traded to the Cubs in 1960 and played there for two seasons before being drafted by the expansion New York Mets for the 1962 season. It was in Chicago that Ashburn started preparing for life after baseball as an announcer, as he would host televised baseball clinics for youngsters after Cubs games.
After a frustrating 1962 season with the Mets, Ashburn retired and went straight to the broadcast booth with the Phillies in 1963 as their color commentator for the team’s TV and radio broadcasts. Originally, Ashburn worked with play-by-play man Bill Campbell from 1963 to 1971. The Phillies would release Campbell after the 1971 season and bring in 35-year-old Harry Kalas — a man who would change Ashburn’s life.
It took a little bit of time for the city of Philadelphia to embrace Kalas since he was filling the shoes of a very popular broadcaster in Campbell. But it didn’t take long for the friendship between himself and Ashburn to ignite as the two became best friends.
Kalas and Ashburn’s chemistry in the broadcast booth was unparalleled. On one side, you had the cool voice of Kalas who let the game flow naturally as he broadcasted it. Then you had Ashburn — or “Whitey” as Kalas would call him – giving analysis using a form of dry humor which made even the most boring baseball games tolerable.
Listening to a game called by Ashburn and Kalas was like having two of your close friends in the room watching the game with you. They were sincere and entertaining because they were simply being themselves…that’s why people embraced them.
Phillies icon Richie Ashburn would have been 90 today. Can hear him, "Hard to believe, Harry." pic.twitter.com/AIpzLqTkvj
— Larry Shenk (@ShenkLarry) March 19, 2017
It’s funny, Ashburn became more of a star in Philadelphia as a broadcaster than he ever was as a player.
Fans showed their gratitude to Ashburn by campaigning for the broadcaster to be elected to baseball’s Mecca — the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. Whitey was well past the 15-year eligibility period for players to be elected after they retire. But he did have a shot at getting in through the Veteran’s Committee, which takes into consideration players outside of that 15-year period along with managers, umpires, and baseball executives who are deserving of a spot in the Hall.
Phillies fans began collecting signatures to send to the committee and came up with the catchy slogan: “Richie Ashburn: Why the Hall Not?”
And finally in 1995, Ashburn was selected by the Veterans Committee to join the Hall of Fame and he would enter in the same class as Phillies’ legendary third baseman Mike Schmidt.
Before Ashburn was supposed to be inducted in August of 1995, a close family friend in Philadelphia, Eliane Meloney, was battling to stay alive. But she had one wish before she left this earth and that was to see Richie Ashburn be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
As her daughter Kathy Meloney recalled, Eliane told Whitey before he left to be inducted:
“I won’t die until I see you in the Hall of Fame.”
Whitey responded with this:
“Then I never want to be in the Hall of Fame.”
If you don’t get chills from that, then you are ought to check yourself for a pulse. This was why Ashburn was so beloved in Philadelphia. What seems on the outside to be a random anecdote captures the very reason why Whitey will forever be fondly remembered by those who listened to him on their TVs and radios.
The Hall of Fame is the sport’s highest honor and to forfeit that to see a friend continue to live is as selfless as it gets. Ashburn couldn’t stop himself from being inducted, but the fact that he said he would rather not go to see his friend continue to live speaks volumes about his character.