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Emmett Ashford: ‘Stee-ee-rike!’


Emmett Ashford (1914-1980) was the first African American umpire in Major League Baseball (MLB). The Jefferson High School graduate broke down racial barriers much the same way as his friend Jackie Robinson.

Ashford, nicknamed “Ash,” competed in both baseball and track-and-field in high school, served as co-editor of the Jeffersonian campus newspaper and was the school’s first Black class president. He matriculated to Los Angeles and Chapman junior colleges where he continued playing baseball, and by the late 1930s he pursued a brief career in semi-professional baseball spending time with a southland team called the Mystery Nine. One day an umpire failed to arrive for a game and Ashford was thrust into the role of emergency umpire. From there, Ashford quickly became busy with umpiring amateur baseball and softball throughout Southern California and eventually took a full-time job with the Southwestern International League, thereby becoming the first Black umpire in the traditionally White (minor league) baseball system.

A local favorite

Ashford served in the United States Navy during World War II, and while stationed in Corpus Chisti, Texas, he was inspired to become the first Black professional umpire after a radio broadcast announced that Robinson had been signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers. After the Southwestern International League folded in mid season in 1952, Ashford moved to the Western International League (1953) and was promoted to the Pacific Coast League (PCL) in 1954.

“If you watched PCL games or were involved in baseball around L.A., you knew Emmett Ashford,” said Mike Port, formerly MLB’s vice president of umpiring and a one-time general manager of the [California] Angels. “And if you didn’t like Emmett Ashford, you had to be visiting the planet.”

Ashford spent 12 seasons in the PCL umpiring games featuring, among others, the Los Angeles Angels (Wrigley Field in South Los Angeles), Hollywood Stars (Gillmore Field in the Fairfax District), the San Diego Padres and San Francisco Seals. He became known for his exuberance, enthusiasm and showmanship, frequently interacting with the crowd between innings. During the off season, Ashford  would referee Pac-8 basketball games, college football, traveled to the Caribbean winter leagues, and ran several umpiring training clinics. In 1963, he became the PCL Umpire-In-Chief, making him responsible for training crews and advising the league on disputed rules.

Calling ‘em as he saw ‘em

By the early 1960s, many West Coast sportswriters such as A.S. “Doc” Young and Brad Pye Jr. began to suggest that Ashford be promoted to the major leagues. It finally happened on opening day, April 11, 1966 when the Washington Senators hosted the Cleveland Indians at D.C. Stadium. At age 51, Ashford proved that homeplate was his stage and baseball was his love. He umpired with a flourish incorporating flashy jewelry, French cuffs and cuff links, high-polished shoes and freshly-pressed uniforms. While some observers believed that his race may have prevented him from working in the majors earlier than he did, others maintained that his flashy style actually delayed his arrival because of the general disdain for umpires drawing attention to themselves.

“I’ve got butterflies,” Ashford told the press prior to his debut. “I’ve waited a long time for a chance to make the major leagues.” With Vice President Hubert Humphrey attending the game, an FBI agent grabbed Ashford as he was entering the umpires room. “I told him I was an umpire,” Ashford remembered. “He said ‘there aren’t any Negro umpires in the majors.’ So I told him ‘there won’t be, if you don’t let me go.’” Humphrey greeted him after throwing out the ceremonial first pitch.

Ashford stood out from the other umpires. When a fly ball sailed toward foul territory he would race down the baseline to make the call, sometimes speeding by outfielders. If he called you out on strikes, it was a Hollywood production: He’d shoot his hand from his hip, then straight up to the sky before he dropped the hammer, “Stee-ee-rike threee!” On a close play at second, it was not uncommon to see Ashford slide in on his hind foot from a dozen feet away to deliver his famous “punch-out’ call. In 1966, the Sporting News wrote: “For the first time in the history of the grand old American game, baseball fans may buy a ticket to watch an umpire perform.”

Ambassador of baseball

Ashford worked the 1967 All Star Game at Anaheim Stadium, and was selected among the umpiring crew for the 1970 World Series. He was tabbed to umpire home plate in game six that year, but the Baltimore Orioles beat the Cincinnati Reds in five games. Ashford had reached the American League retirement age of 55 in 1969, but he still umpired one more season in 1970.

During the 1970s Ashford was named the Umpire-In-Chief of the Alaskan Baseball League and in 1971 was hired by Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn as a public relations advisor where he spoke and conducted clinics on the West coast and at places as far as Korea and Japan. He appeared in television commercials, once portraying a cashier in a TV spot for A&P Grocery stores. He played an umpire in the 1976 film “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings,” and appeared in episodes of “Ironside,” “The Jacksons” and “What’s My Line.”  As early as 1955, Ashford and Groucho Marx traded barbs on “You Bet Your Life.”

Clearing home plate for others

Did Ashford endure racial taunts on the field? He certainly did, but he shrugged them off with a customary twinkle in his eye. Rachel Robinson, widow of his old friend, wrote years ago that she had intimate knowledge of the challenges he faced. “At that time in America, the need for social change was intense and still to come. Mr. Ashford carried out the role with great skill, determination and courage, thereby, creating opportunities for others to follow him.”

Ashford would lay the groundwork for not only future Black umpires such as Art Williams and Eric Gregg, both deceased, but also in other professional sports including the National Football League and the National Basketball Association which each saw a precipitous increase in officials of color in the 1980s.

“May five-year tenure in the majors was one of satisfaction and gratification at having conquered the biggest challenge of my life, and in some measure, opening the door for Black umpires,” Ashford said in 1978. “I feel proud having been an umpire in the big leagues, not because I was the first Black man, but because major league umpires are a very select group of men.”