Kalas, Ashburn had rare chemistry

Richie Ashburn (left) and Harry Kalas had a special rapport in the broadcast booth that won over the fans' hearts over the 26 years they worked together covering Phillies games.
Richie Ashburn (left) and Harry Kalas had a special rapport in the broadcast booth that won over the fans' hearts over the 26 years they worked together covering Phillies games.
Posted: April 14, 2009

They were a pair of towheaded Midwestern boys who came to baseball on different roads and, fortunately for Philadelphians, ended up at the same destination - in the tiny booth they shared for 26 summers.

As Phillies broadcasters through seasons good and bad, Richie Ashburn and Harry Kalas, who died yesterday at 73, became the most beloved announcing team in the city's sports history.

"We've been so blessed to have had Richie here with us for 45 years as a player and announcer," said Gov. Rendell. "And Harry was here nearly as long. They were two people who had dominant roles in our lives because a baseball season is such a long season. . . . If you were a Phillies fan, they were a part of your lives."

Mixing corn, wit, wisdom, a shared passion for the sport, and sometimes a little inside baseball, Kalas and Ashburn were a folksy and entertaining tandem on Phillies broadcasts from 1971 until Ashburn's passing late in the 1997 season.

"No one will ever be able to match the joy Harry and Richie Ashburn brought to our fans for all those years," Phillies chairman Bill Giles, who hired Kalas away from the Houston Astros, said in a statement yesterday.

 Kalas replaced popular broadcaster Bill Campbell and was not immediately embraced by Phillies fans. But Ashburn, he always said, helped smooth the way.

"It was a situation made more bearable by his ease and grace," Kalas said last year.

Brought together in an era when there were fewer distractions, commercial and otherwise, Kalas and Ashburn quickly developed an easygoing style and a rapport with each other and the city's often-cynical fans.

Kalas had a way of provoking Ashburn's dry wit with a deadpan question or comment. And sometimes Kalas returned the favor. The more mundane the game, the better their material.

When Ashburn stumbled reading the name and address of an elderly birthday celebrant, Mildred Kummerer of Trumbauersville, Kalas paused a beat or two, then calmly asked, "So what was harder, the name or the town?"

Although Ashburn did not smoke cigarettes or drink and Kalas did both, although Ashburn played squash, tennis and golf and Kalas rarely exercised at all, although Ashburn favored a preppy, button-down wardrobe and Kalas dressed as if it were perpetually 1977, the two men got to be extremely close friends.

That was a fortuitous development since they would spend nine months a year together - in Florida at spring training, traveling and at home - for more than 21/2 decades.

"Where the chemistry really worked as well as at any time, I think, in any franchise was, of course, with Harry Kalas and Whitey Ashburn," said Curt Smith, who wrote a history of baseball's announcers, Voices of the Game. "Fans could not get enough of them. . . . They loved one another."

It was Kalas who delivered a tearful eulogy at Ashburn's private funeral.

"If you want people to remember Whitey," Kalas said, "make them laugh . . . give them joy, as Whitey did for so many people. Then Whitey's memory will be fulfilled."

He helped keep that memory alive for the next 12 years.

"Whitey and Harry were really wonderful together," Rendell said. "Let's hope that now they're reunited with each other."


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

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