Richie Ashburn’s power wasn’t evident in his bat, nor in his arm. Instead, he captured hearts with his hustle and, as one of its beloved Whiz Kids, was forever part of the city’s sports lore.
The Hall of Famer, whose association with the Phillies spanned nearly five decades, died of a heart attack Tuesday in the New York hotel where the team was staying. He was 70.
His longtime friend and broadcast partner, Harry Kalas, said Ashburn looked fine after working Monday night’s 13-4 victory over the Mets, but called a team official from his room and said he was in pain.
Kalas said trainer Jeff Cooper and paramedics rushed to the room, only to find Ashburn dead.
“He must have gone quickly,” said Kalas, his trademark baritone choked with emotion. “He was as good a friend as a man could have.”
Ashburn, a two-time N.L. batting champion and the center fielder on the 1950 Whiz Kids, spent 12 years on the field and 35 years in the broadcast booth for the Phillies.
“We have lost a cherished friend,” said Mike Schmidt, the Phillies third baseman who was inducted into the Hall of Fame with Ashburn in 1995. “You didn’t have to know him personally to consider him a friend.”
In Cooperstown, N.Y., the flag at the Hall of Fame flew at half-staff, and a wreath was placed next to his plaque.
Ashburn and Schmidt’s induction drew the largest crowd ever, an estimated 25,000 to 28,000, with 200 buses coming from Philadelphia.
The Phillies announced they will wear a black armband with Ashburn’s No. 1 for the rest of the season, and the disk bearing that retired number at Veterans Stadium will be draped in black.
“He loved people, he loved the game of baseball and he loved his Phillies,” team chairman Bill Giles said.
Ashburn’s baseball talent became so apparent early in his hometown of Tilden, Neb., that at least three teams tried to hire him before he signed with the Phillies in 1944.
Converted from catcher to outfield, Ashburn earned a place on the Phillies’ roster during spring training in 1948. An injury to defending N.L. batting champion Harry Walker gave him the center-field job.
He led N.L. outfielders in putouts nine times, tying a major league record. He was the only Phillies rookie to start an All-Star game, the first of his five. With a league-leading 32 stolen bases and a .333 average, Ashburn was the Sporting News’ Rookie of the Year in 1948.