Two months ago a sporting legend passed away. He stood only 21 inches at the shoulder, yet he was a giant in his field, both a Naismith and a Ruth, the creator of a sport and its greatest practitioner. He could run 35 miles per hour and catch Frisbees nine feet in the air. He was Ashley Whippet, the "K-9 comet," the pioneer and three-time champion of Frisbee Catch & Fetch, the surest jaws on all four paws. On March 11 Ashley Whippet, 13, died of old age at his home in Sierra Madre, Calif.
Ashley was introduced to Frisbees as a puppy when his owner, an Ohio State sophomore named Alex Stein, used them as dishes for Ashley's water and food. By the time he was six months old, he was drawing crowds in the hundreds on the OSU Oval with his acrobatic catches. "He was a ham and a half in front of a crowd," says Stein. "He'd jump up and twist and contort his body on a catch because he knew that's what people liked."
Stein soon realized he had a star on his hands, and in 1974 he and Ashley moved to Hollywood. Alas, the world of show business ignored Stein's pitches. "I'd say, 'I've got a dog who runs 35 miles an hour, jumps nine feet and catches Frisbees,' " says Stein. "They just didn't know what I was talking about." One scout at the William Morris Agency hung up. Some said they didn't handle animals. Others never returned calls.
One day Stein heard that NBC Monday Night Baseball would be in town to televise a Dodgers-Reds game. "A light lit up and I said, 'This is it.' "
Just before the Dodgers came to bat in the bottom of the eighth inning, Stein and Ashley dashed into centerfield and started performing. The crowd cheered, and NBC trained its cameras on Ashley for several precious nationally televised minutes as he raced under throws as long as 90 yards and fielded them with the grace that was to become his hallmark.
When Stein came off the field he was arrested for trespassing (he was later fined $250), and in the commotion was separated from Ashley. Three days later a Long Beach youngster who had taken Ashley home read a piece in the paper about him, and returned him to Stein. In the meantime, Stein got a call from the Rams' halftime coordinator, who eventually signed up Ashley for two games that fall. He appeared at the World Frisbee Championships (then for humans only), on the Tonight Show and with Merv Griffin. As a result of Ashley's performances, formal catch & fetch competition was begun and was included in the world championships in 1975.
The object of catch & fetch is to complete as many throws as possible in a two-minute span. The throws must cover at least 15 yards, and extra points are awarded if the dog has all four paws off the ground during a catch. Ashley had sure jaws and a love of flight, but he also had the discipline to return swiftly after each throw—a quality often lacking in the most gifted dogs.
In the years that he reigned as top dog in the Frisbee world (1975-77), Ashley was on Wide World of Sports and in a documentary. Floating Free, filmed at the '77 nationals and nominated for an Academy Award. He played with Amy Carter's dog, Grits, on the White House lawn and performed at Super Bowl XII and on Monday Night Football.
Time finally caught up with the champion in 1978, when he was beaten in the worlds by Dink, a mixed yellow Labrador from Maryland. Last year his touring duties as spokesdog for Gaines were taken over by his daughter Lady Ashley, who, at 14 inches and 15 pounds, makes catches eight feet in the air with the acrobatic panache of her father.
In all, Ashley is survived by 60 sons and daughters and 12 granddogs, but his greatest legacy will always be the sport he created. In 1982 the national catch & fetch series was officially renamed the Ashley Whippet Invitational, and this year more than 15,000 dogs are expected to take part. The finals will be held in the Astrodome on Sept. 15. "Without Ashley it certainly would never have happened," says George Sappenfield, p.r. director for Wham-O, the Frisbee manufacturer. "He's a legend."
"He was loved by everybody," says Stein. "He was the greatest. There will never be another dog who can do what he could do. He was so smart, and he had the coordination of a Dr. J or a Michael Jordan...or a Baryshnikov. He was a master."