Young, blond and fast as a deer, he was the city's favorite Phillie throughout the 1950s. And for the last 35 years, even on the night he died, Richie Ashburn's voice, as flat as his beloved Nebraska, meant summer to a million Philadelphians.
Mr. Ashburn, the Hall of Famer whose half-century as a Phillies outfielder and wry color commentator stretched from Curt Simmons to Curt Schilling, died early yesterday in a New York hotel only hours after working a Phillies-Mets game at Shea Stadium.
``I don't think it's overstating it at all to say that Philadelphia has lost its most well-loved sports hero ever,'' said Tim McCarver, the broadcaster who began his announcing career alongside Mr. Ashburn in the early 1980s.
Mr. Ashburn, 70, had performed his normal duties during the Phillies' 13-4 win Monday night, even engaging in his characteristic umpire-bashing. He never revealed any discomfort at the ballpark, said Harry Kalas, his broadcast partner since 1971.
Back in his room at midtown Manhattan's Grand Hyatt hotel, he contacted the Phillies' traveling secretary, Eddie Ferenz, and complained of chest pains. Ferenz summoned team trainer Jeff Cooper, but Mr. Ashburn was dead, apparently of a heart attack, by the time they entered his room about 5 a.m.
His passing triggered an immediate emotional response in the Philadelphia area, where several generations of baseball fans were eager to share recollections of the man whose voice had been a part of their lives since 1963.
``He had such a powerful connection with the city of Philadelphia because he not only played there but broadcast there for so long,'' McCarver said from New York. ``But I think the reason for the warmth fans there felt for him was that everyone had a chance to experience his wonderful sense of humor.''
All day, on radio talk shows, on TV newscasts and, no doubt, at taverns and watercoolers, Philadelphians traded anecdotes about Mr. Ashburn and expressed shock that he was gone. And last night, the electronic message atop the Peco Energy Co. building read, ``Goodbye, Whitey,'' using the nickname by which he was known to millions of listeners, ``You'll always be No. 1.''
``He started in 1948,'' said Mike Schmidt, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame with Mr. Ashburn in 1995. ``That's a hell of a long period of time - and especially in Philadelphia. To do that in Philadelphia, wow! More power to you. To stay in good graces with this city says something for your character. And he did it.''
Mr. Ashburn occupied a prominent spot in Philadelphia baseball for all but three of the last 50 seasons, ever since he was named the Sporting News' National League rookie of the year in 1948. He won a pair of batting titles (.338 in 1955 and .350 in 1958) and led the league in hits three times before a 1960 trade sent him to the Chicago Cubs.
Two years later, after a 120-loss season with the expansion New York Mets wore him down and provided him with a lifetime of material, he retired at 35.
``I was planning on going back to Nebraska where some people thought I'd make a good candidate for Congress,'' he said in a 1988 interview. ``But Les Quailey, who was the fellow that ran Atlantic-Richfield's broadcasting interests, asked me if I'd be interested in doing the Phillies games.''
It was in that role that Mr. Ashburn became a beloved Philadelphia institution. He groused frequently about umpires and pitchers and marked spectacular plays with a high-pitched `Oh, brother!''
``I remember being with Rich not long ago in Clearwater,'' said Andy Seminick, the former Phils catcher who was a teammate of Mr. Ashburn's on the 1950 National League champion Whiz Kids, ``and it seemed like every single person stopped him and had something nice to say to him.''
Last night's game with the Mets began with a moment of silence, and the Phillies wore black armbands with Mr. Ashburn's No. 1. His retired number, hanging above the left-field wall at Veterans Stadium, will be draped in black for the rest of this season. And throughout the next homestand, the American flag will fly at half-staff.
The city's flags will be flown at half-staff until Mr. Ashburn is buried, Mayor Rendell said yesterday. A viewing will be held at a public location on Friday, with a private funeral the next day, Mr. Ashburn's daughter Karen Hall said last night.
Fellow broadcasters - Andy Musser, Chris Wheeler, and especially the deeply sentimental Kalas - turned the start of last night's Phillies telecast on Channel 17 into a heartfelt eulogy.
``Richie and Harry have been together for so many years,'' Schmidt said from his home in Jupiter, Fla. ``They were the voice of the Phillies. From April to October, they were in the living rooms of 90 percent of the people in Philadelphia. And those people grow on you. You don't know them, but they become one of the family.''
Mr. Ashburn's Midwest twang sounded odd at first in a business where baritones were the rule. But his remarkably dry wit and transparent love of the game quickly infatuated even the most hard-bitten Phillies fans.
``The first thing I remember when we started in '63, it was Byrum [Saam], Richie and me in the broadcast booth in Clearwater,'' said Bill Campbell, who broadcast Phillies games with Mr. Ashburn and Saam from 1963 to 1970. ``He hadn't done his first game yet when he stood up in the booth, looked down at the field, and said, `Boys, this game looks a lot easier from up here.' ''
So popular was Mr. Ashburn that first the Philadelphia Bulletin and then the Philadelphia Daily News asked him to write a column. He did so from 1974 to 1991, with an easy and affable style that mirrored his relaxed broadcasting technique.
That career side road caused him to joke that he could become the first person in history to be bypassed in three Hall of Fame categories: playing, broadcasting and writing.
In March 1995, as he played cards in the Largo, Fla., condominium that was his winter home, Mr. Ashburn received word that he had been voted into the Hall by the Veterans Committee. The induction of Mr. Ashburn and Schmidt, on July 30 that year, attracted more than 35,000 fans, most of them wearing Phillies red. It was the largest gathering anyone at Cooperstown could remember.
``I think it was one of the happiest days of my life,'' Schmidt said. ``And to share it with him was a great experience.''
In the early 1970s, when the up-and-coming Phillies were searching for a manager, fans clamored for Mr. Ashburn to take the job. Danny Ozark was hired instead, and Mr. Ashburn, who smoked a pipe and had a penchant for unusual caps, stayed behind the microphone.
``Richie was a very special and unique individual who loved his wonderful family so very much,'' said Bill Giles, the team's chairman. ``He loved people. He loved the game of baseball. And he loved his Phillies.''
As he aged, Mr. Ashburn's wit and generally mellow disposition obscured his competitive fires. He could be a ferocious opponent in tennis, golf, squash or gin rummy.
``That dude might be old,'' Lenny Dykstra once said after Mr. Ashburn had beaten him once again in one of their high-stakes tennis matches, ``but he gets to every ball.''
In 1948, at age 21, Mr. Ashburn won the Phillies' center-field job in the most unusual way. His predecessor, Harry Walker, had been the batting champion in 1947, but Walker's spring holdout gave Mr. Ashburn his opportunity. He kept the job, and the leadoff spot, for a dozen years.
``That was fortunate timing,'' Mr. Ashburn said in 1988, ``but I shouldn't have been surprised. I've been awfully lucky in my life.''
One of its unluckiest moments occurred on April 1, 1987, when his daughter Jan, 33, was killed in an Overbrook Park auto accident. The emotional exchange between Mr. Ashburn and Kalas during a subsequent telecast is something Phillies fans still recall.
``That really hit him hard,'' Campbell said, ``but Richie bounced back. That's just the way he is. You don't keep him down for long.''
Mr. Ashburn and his wife, Herbie, whom he met while taking courses toward an education degree he eventually earned from the University of Nebraska, had six children. They separated in 1977 but remained close friends.
Mr. Ashburn had diabetes but rarely discussed it, and many did not discover that he suffered from the disease until they witnessed him administering himself a shot of insulin in a ballpark press box or dining room. He was extremely fit; until recently, Mr. Ashburn had been a top-flight amateur tennis and squash player. He played golf, rode a bike, and walked whenever possible.
Despite his rural roots, Mr. Ashburn, who lived in Ardmore, very quickly became a card-carrying Main Liner.
A devout Republican who was approached about seeking political office in Nebraska and Pennsylvania, he belonged to the Philadelphia Country Club, dressed tastefully conservative, and drove a Mercedes.
It was a big jump for the son of a prairie blacksmith, who slept in the same bedroom with his parents, Neil and Toots Ashburn, and three siblings. The Ashburns were a close-knit family, and, early in his playing career, his parents spent summers in Philadelphia watching their son at old Connie Mack Stadium.
Mr. Ashburn was born on March 20, 1927, in Tilden, Neb., where he was fast enough as a boy to chase rabbits through the cornfields. ``I'd run alongside them,'' he said, ``and catch the fat ones.''
He swam in the ElkHorn River, played football, and was a star catcher for the local American Legion team. That team included another future major-leaguer, Rex Barney, who died a month ago.
All that exercise helped him become the state's champion sprinter. He ran 100 yards in 9.6 seconds, a Nebraska record that stood for a quarter of a century. Then in 1944, Herb Krasnick, the Phillies' Midwest scout, signed the teenage catcher to a contract.
The slap-hitting lefthander had exceptional speed, and it was Eddie Sawyer, his manager at Class A Utica and later with the Whiz Kids, who moved him from behind the plate to center field.
``You never saw anyone could run like him,'' Seminick said. ``You think these fellows today are fast? Richie was like the wind.''
The running bunt was a staple of Mr. Ashburn's repertoire - he would sprint toward the pitcher and drag the ball down the first-base line - as was the opposite-field single. And in an era when base-stealing was rare, Mr. Ashburn stole 234 in his career.
While he played in the same era as Hall of Fame centerfielders Willie Mays, Duke Snider and Mickey Mantle, he was the most productive defensive player of them all.
He led National League outfielders in putouts a record-tying nine times. His arm was only average, but, on a play that Mr. Ashburn called his fondest baseball memory, it helped save the season in 1950.
On the final day, the Phillies needed a victory at Brooklyn for their first pennant in 35 years. It was 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth, and the Dodgers had runners at first and second when Snider lined a hard single to center.
Mr. Ashburn charged fast and easily threw out Cal Abrams at home. In the 10th, Dick Sisler homered and the Phillies won. It would be the only championship Mr. Ashburn won in his 15-year career.
``I don't have any regrets,'' he said in 1988. ``There's nothing I'd do differently. I love living in the Philadelphia area. My family is great. I enjoy what I'm doing, sticking around the game. But to tell you the truth, I would like to have won a World Series or two.''
Mr. Ashburn was never a great technical announcer, but he managed to convey to the listeners a certain homespun intimacy and an unalloyed love of the game.
``Someone once told me that that he felt as if I were right there in his own living room,'' Mr. Ashburn said, ``telling him about the game in a casual sort of way. I can't think of a better compliment.''
Oddly, his death might have saved the Phillies from a painful decision. Mr. Ashburn's contract expired at the end of this season, and with the recent change in management, he was concerned about his future.
``He was also extremely worried about what was going to happen to him next year,'' Campbell said. ``He talked to me about that several times, most recently a week or so ago during dinner in the press room.''
Mr. Ashburn liked to say he loved his job, not so much for any professional satisfaction it brought him but because it kept him close to baseball.
``You're not involved with the constant pressure to win up here in the booth,'' he said in 1988. ``As a result you get a different perspective. You can take the time to enjoy the baseball.''
And, until a few hours before his death, he always did.
In addition to Karen Hall, Mr. Ashburn is survived by his other daughters, Jean Ashburn and Sue Ann Morrison; sons Richard and John; his mother; a sister; a brother; and nine grandchildren.