Bill Conlin | MISSING WHITEY 10-FOLD

Posted: September 07, 2007

TEN YEARS AGO Sunday, the bad news spread faster than Rich Ashburn blurring to first on a 1950 drag bunt. Most of us heard it on the radio, then it overspread the morning TV news shows, a black, numbing shroud. Ashburn was dead. How many of us made or received incredulous phone calls that began, "Can you believe it?"

Whitey had died of an apparent heart attack in the Phillies' Manhattan team hotel just hours after calling his final game as the legendary color commentator who played a droll, understated, foil to play-by-play man Harry Kalas, his best friend.

And now he was gone at age 70, far too young, it seemed, for such a trim, vital man, a Hall of Fame athlete who brightened the baseball summers of our fathers and grandfathers as a great centerfielder in the age of Mays and Mantle, then captivated later generations as a radio and TV icon. He had been a star player in a different era, a Whiz Kid. But even though the Phillies were 47 years removed from their lonely 1950 pennant, Ashburn remained a live-wire connection to that long-ago team.

Record crowds traveled to Cooperstown in 1995 when Ashburn and Mike Schmidt were inducted into the Hall of Fame. Now, record crowds said goodbye in a public outpouring of grief and affection worthy of a head of state. Kalas stood tall and unwavering in the pulpit to deliver a memorable funeral eulogy.

I will not go back there. We all have our private memories of that sad but uplifting week.

Instead, 10 years after his passing, here are 10 Rich Ashburn stories. Some are old, some new. All are him and capture his singular essence.

1 The old swimming hole

Rich and Fireball Kelly, his best pal and three-sport teammate in the farming town of Tilden, Neb., would be hot, dusty and tired after playing in an American Legion ballgame or a pickup basketball game. Once darkness fell, they would climb the fence of the locked-up community swimming pool and dive joyously into the cooling water.

"One pitch-black night we climbed the fence," Ashburn said. "Fireball was a little slow taking his shoes off, so I just dove into the deep end without him. Good thing I did kind of a flat racing dive - there was no water in the pool. They had drained it for repairs. I landed on my chest and looked like I had been dragged a mile down the highway. Somehow, I didn't break anything. Little did baseball know how close it came to disaster that night . . . "

2 The Swiss Army knife

The Phillies were playing the second game of a weekend exhibition series against the Cardinals in the Dominican Republic mountain town of San Francisco de Macoris. Ashburn, Kalas, baseball writer Hal Bodley and radio-TV producer Steve Silverman had rented a tiny Fiat for the perilous uphill drive from Santo Domingo. On the road back, they were low on gas and pulled into a COLMADO. A group of men was lounging outside, listening to the blare of Merengue music. Several were armed with machetes and automatic weapons.

"And they didn't have any badges, either," Whitey joked later. When the men began questioning the gringos in Spanish, Ashburn nudged Kalas and revealed the prized Swiss Army knife he had carried since his youth. "Boys," he whispered, "if this is the end, I'm taking one of them with me."

3 Hit man for hire

By the early 1950s, Whitey had elevated his ability to foul off pitches to an art form. His contemporaries all knew how he had hit a Phils fan named Alice Roth with consecutive foul balls, the first breaking her nose, the second bruising a hip while she was being carried off on a stretcher. One day in Milwaukee, a Brave who was having marital problems said during batting practice, "It's worth $500 if you can drill my wife with a foul ball. She'll be in the wives row, third seat." First at-bat, Whitey fouled off several pitches, the last a screamer that whistled one row behind where the Braves wives were seated. The Brave, an infielder, waved his arms and shouted, "No, no . . . One row lower and two seats to the left . . . "

4 Rite of passage

On the Phillies team bus one day, Rich told the media passengers, "Boys, today the great John Ashburn turned 18." Harry Kalas replied, "I guess you bought that young man a new car." Whitey looked puzzled. "As a matter of fact, Harry, my gift to John when we get home will be a really high-quality shower head. After all, cleanliness is next to Godliness."

5Who was minding the highways?

On Jan. 28, 1958, Nebraska serial killer Charlie Starkweather and underage accomplice Caril Fugate fled to Montana by stolen auto through the most intense manhunt in state history. The next day, Ashburn was pulled over for speeding on the outskirts of Tilden. As the officer wrote him up, Whitey had a few words. "I told that [bleep], 'You mean to tell me those two killers made it past every police officer in Nebraska all the way into Montana and the best you can do is ticket a God-fearing, law-abiding, tax-paying pillar of this community?' That didn't phase him, so I said, 'You got any kids, officer?' "

Ashburn had remembered the bat in his trunk. He autographed it to the cop's son and drove to the farm with a warning.

6On-deck timing is a no-no

Back in the day, a lot of pitchers took umbrage at hitters who assumed a batting stance on deck and took imaginary swings at their warmups. Sal Maglie, the Giants' bearded assassin, headed that list. Ashburn loved to time warmup pitches, until . . .

"I was leading off against Maglie in the Polo Grounds my rookie year and was standing about 10 feet from the plate while he finished his warmups. I thought I'd time his last couple of pitches. I took a swing on his first one. His second one, Sal drilled me on the right hip and yelled in, 'Nobody times my pitches, you bush-league bleep . . . ' And I never timed a pitcher on-deck again."

7Triskaidekaphobia

The Phillies' spring-training headquarters in the Whiz Kids Era was Clearwater's rococo Fort Harrison Hotel. A vast majority of the club's roster, officials and media lived there for the 6-week Florida rite. One day, Ashburn noticed a teammate talking in a friendly fashion to the mature but well-underage daughter of fans from Philly whom he knew. Whitey approached the player at Jack Russell Stadium. "I said, 'Pal, I don't mean to be a wet blanket, but that gal who was hanging around you in the hotel lobby this morning is 13.' The guy looked at me, shrugged and said, 'That's OK, Rich, I'm not superstitious.' "

8The real A-Bomb

On Aug. 15, 1945, Rich Ashburn was inducted into the Army. Coincidentally, Emperor Hirohito announced in his first-ever radio address to the Japanese people that due to a "new and terrible weapon" the nation had accepted the Allied terms of surrender. "I guess Hirohito heard another A-Bomb was on the way," Ashburn liked to tell his children. He was stationed in Alaska. "Sending a baseball player to Alaska was like sending a dogsledder to the Sahara Desert," he said philosophically.

9What are friends for?

When Lenny Dykstra decided to become addicted to tennis, naturally he went all-in. He heard Ashburn was an excellent player. Naturally, he challenged a man who was much older, slower and less powerful. Naturally, Whitey beat him 1-and-love. That began a crazy series of spring-training challenges by the Phils' manic centerfielder, all of them involving money.

"Lenny's like growing a cash crop without the labor," Rich observed after another lucrative victory. Trouble was, most of the matches were in the morning at Ashburn's Shipwatch Yacht and Tennis Club on a court next to those in use by a senior ladies tennis league. Lenny was prone to long, loud and scatological outbursts after poor shots. The ladies complained. Leave it to Whitey to smooth their ruffled feathers. He approached them during an end change and said, "Ladies, I want to apologize for the obscene language of my opponent, but the poor fellow is suffering from Tourette's syndrome and can't control himself. Tennis is part of his therapy."

During Lenny's next barrage of bleeps, one of the ladies was heard to say, "Poor thing, I feel so sorry for him, but why does he have to spit that vile tobacco juice onto the court?"

10Maglie had the

last word

When Sal was with the Dodgers, there was a legendary duel with Ashburn where the Phillies leadoff man fouled off 16 consecutive pitches. The veteran righthander had been dealing his best stuff, but Whitey just kept flicking baseballs away like a horse swishing flies with his tail. Finally, on pitch No. 17, Maglie threw him a batting-practice serve, bellowing, "Hit this, you SOB."

Rich Ashburn's eyes got as big as dinner plates. "I swung from my butt and popped it up," he said, just another punch line from his bottomless well of great yarns. *

Send e-mail to bill1chair@aol.com.

For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/conlin.

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