Getting the Call

Emmett Ashford became the first African-American umpire in the big leagues in 1966

February 25, 2013
Emmett Ashford became the first African-American to umpire in the big leagues in 1966. (NBHOF Library)

Throughout Black History Month in February, the Hall of Fame celebrates the lives of African Americans who made historic contributions to the National Pastime.

By Adrianna Mondore

Once Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in November of 1945, Emmett Ashford said to himself: "I'm going to be the first black umpire." Ashford then worked to make his prediction come true.

Born in Los Angeles, Calif., in 1914, Ashford attended Chapman University following high school. During his time at Chapman, he lettered in track and baseball and was the sports editor for the college paper.

After leaving Chapman College, Ashford worked for15 years as a postal clerk. But while clerking, he was also umpiring, as a hobby, on playgrounds and sandlots. Ashford's umpiring career started in a very different way than most: He played for a semi-pro team called the Mystery Nine, although he did not get much playing time. One day the umpire did not show up for their game and the team asked Ashford to take his place. They loved him – and he was an umpire from then on.

In February of 1951, Ashford became an umpire for the Southwestern International League and then went on to be an umpire in the Pacific Coast League. Ashford always arrived in every town on game days atleast two hours early, looking for restaurants and hotels that would accept African Americans. In 1952, Ashford became the first African American to officiate a major college basketball game. He officiated for baseball, basketball and football at the college level until 1958.

In 1966, at 51 years old, Emmett Ashford became the first African American to umpire in the major leagues when he debuted for the American League at third base on April 11, 1966 in a game between the Cleveland Indians and the Washington Senators.

"It's been a long, hard climb, but I am here. I've made it," Ashford said. "This is the (pinnacle) of my life."

The day of his debut, Ashford was stopped by the Secret Service for 10 minutes because they did not believe he was an umpire, saying,"Listen, there are no Negro umpires in the major leagues." The response by Ashford was, "Well, there will be a Negro umpire in the American League if you let me into the park."

Fans in the American League quickly noticed Ashford had a very different kind of umpiring style. He wore flashy cuff links, and exaggerated his calls with gestures and bounciness that made fans laugh. Ashford was also very patient with everyone; he seldom lost his head in the game.

One thing was certain: Emmett Ashford had many fans of his own. Ashford was known to travel with his typewriter to answer his fan mail while on the road and sign autographs after each game.

Ashford was an outfield umpire for the 1967 All-Star Game. However, his number one desire was to work in the World Series. Ashford was chosen to work the 1970 World Series, and he retired at the age of 56 the same year.

After Ashford retired from umpiring, he worked as a special assistant to baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn. He died at the age of 65 on March 1, 1980.

Celebrate Black History Month with the Museum’s Pastime’s Pride features. Subjects include Buck O’Neil, Elston Howard, Rachel Robinson, the Evolution of Night Baseball, Welday Walker, Herb Washington, Connie Morgan, Bill White, Sam Lacy, Octavius Catto, Willie Horton, Bob Watson, Pumpsie Green, Charlie Grant, William Matthews, Don Newcombe, Vic Power, Emmett Ashford and Hank Thompson.

Adrianna Mondore was a spring 2012 intern at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum