Commentary: Whitey and Harry, Phillies' broadcasting legends

Richie Ashburn (left) and Harry Kalas broadcast Phillies games together for 26 years.

By B.G. Kelley

When the Phillies open their season Monday, it will mark the 20th without Whitey. Richie Ashburn was part of the team for nearly 50 years. He began as a player and went on to become the radio and TV color analyst until he died in 1997 at age 70.

For me, baseball in Philly hasn't felt as familiar as it did without Ashburn's cornfields-of-Nebraska authenticity and folksy dry humor delivering the goods of the game to us.

I used to walk the five miles from my home in East Falls to Connie Mack Stadium in Swampoodle to watch Whitey play.

In 1950 he was the catalyst for the young Phillies' team - the Whiz Kids they were dubbed, upstarts who came out of nowhere to capture the National League pennant, only to be swept by the mighty (damn) Yankees in the World Series.

Whitey was the singles swatter who could hit with the precision of a mathematician, who got on base more than any other Phillie, and who then, with snakebite speed, swiped a base to set up a hitter to drive him in.

His sprinter's speed also enabled Whitey to scent the length and direction of any fly ball, arrive at its final destination for the catch, and save grateful pitchers from relinquishing runs.

Unfortunately, Ashburn played in the shadows of the great New York troika of Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Duke Snider, which, preemptively, denied him considerable value as a player.

Ashburn symbolized the persona of those surprising 1950 pennant winners: young, innocent, and not the least bit intimidated.

He was that way on the air, too.

Unabashed, he told it like it was. TV viewers and radio listeners relished tuning in for his reliability, candor, and genuine joy for baseball.

Of course, you could never mention Whitey's broadcasting life without mentioning Harry the K - Harry Kalas, who settled next to Ashburn in the broadcast booth like a brother for 27 years.

They mixed as smoothly as scotch and water, despite their differences. Harry was the trained professional with a body pampered by good food, while Whitey was the consummate athlete who played better-than-good games of tennis and squash. Harry operated virtually without ego, while Whitey's was inflated, some said as much as the tires on his car. Harry was a free spirit with a quicksilver laugh who actually cried on TV over emotional Phillies' victories, Whitey, in preppie attire and pipe, was laid back and delivered wry one-liners as dry as cotton.

Once Kalas asked Whitey during a broadcast why he didn't give a certain fan more of his time.

"He only wanted to be your friend," Kalas said, and Ashburn jokingly replied, "Harry, at my age, I'm not trying to make friends, I'm trying to eliminate them."

Whitey's voice, and his presence, made us feel warm, comfortable. For 50 years, he did not move on from this city's baseball team. Instead, he brought a sense of continuity by connecting us to our history, and to our family, friends, and neighborhoods.

But both would leave us.

Whitey suffered a fatal heart attack in a midtown Manhattan hotel one morning in 1997 before he was to go call a Mets-Phillies game at Shea Stadium. Harry died of heart disease in 2009 at age 73, collapsing in the press box as he was preparing for a game against the Nationals.

Songwriter Paul Simon sums up Whitey and Harry best for me in these lyrics:

Old friends, memory brushes the same years, . . .

I have a photograph,

Preserve your memories.

B.G. Kelley is a Philadelphia writer.