#GoingDeep: Emmett Ashford blazed trails for umpires

Written by: Alex Coffey

The first time Emmett Ashford stepped onto a major league ballfield was on April 11, 1966. In front of 44,468 cheering fans at Washington’s D.C. Stadium, he assumed his post at third base, donning his signature French cuff links, impeccably buffed shoes and perfectly pressed uniform. Although he didn’t see much action that day, Ashford later described his big league debut as the “thrill of his life” and an “exhilarating” experience.

With a beaming grin visible from a mile away and gestures so flamboyant that not a single fan would be left guessing, no one that day would have known that just hours before, he was nearly turned away from the stadium because security didn’t believe he was an umpire. But after 15 years of proving skeptics wrong in the minor league circuit, Ashford was quite familiar with the situation.

“I had trouble getting into the stadium,” he told Larry Gerlach in a digitized interview in the Hall of Fame’s collection. “The Secret Service was out in force because Vice President Hubert Humphrey was going to throw out the first ball. They had set up command posts at all entrances to the parking lot and more where you went down underneath the stadium. I arrived with my wife in a cab. At the first stop the driver told the Secret Service agent, ‘I’ve got one of the umpires here.”

“Who are you trying to kid,” he said.

“That’s right, I’ve got one of the umpires.”

He said, “There are no Negro umpires in the major leagues.”

I said, “Well there will be a Negro umpire in the American League if you will let me into the park.”

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As the first Black umpire in the AL or NL, Ashford had encountered remarks like these hundreds if not thousands of times. But he never harbored any bitterness or resentment. For Ashford, finding someone who questioned his ability was just another opportunity to prove himself capable.

“It wasn’t easy being an umpire, let alone being a Negro umpire,” he said. “But since the game is the ballplayer’s bread and butter, all he wants is for you to make the right calls. He doesn’t care if you’re white or Black, Eskimo or Indian. In turn, I worked like hell. I was an umpire, not a Black umpire.”

Ashford’s unwavering doggedness toward just about anything he set his mind to, began long before his umpiring career. Growing up in a deeply segregated Los Angeles, he was used to being told “no” simply because of the color of his skin. But years later, Ashford looked back at those experiences with pride, rather than with remorse.

“I worked as a stock boy at the first supermarket in the Black area of Los Angeles, and I wanted to be a cashier,” he said to Gerlach. “Well,” the manager told me, “you’ve got to know all the prices of everything in the store.” I told him, ‘I already do.’ He gave me the job, and I went on to be one of the fastest cashiers they ever had in that market. There were Black people who were janitors and box boys, but I strode in triumphantly as the first to handle the money.”

Ashford went on to become the first Black student body president at Jefferson High School, the first Black man in the Payroll and Finance Division of the Los Angeles Post Office (where he worked after college) and the first Black player on the Mystery Nine, a semi-pro baseball team in the area. Needless to say, he was used to breaking boundaries.

“I think the reason why I did so well working then is like everything else that’s filtered down through my life. I just couldn’t stand to do things halfway,” Ashford said. “I always believed: Whatever you do, do it well and do it right – give it the best that you have in you. I’ve tried to make that philosophy the trademark of my life.”

Given that philosophy, when the Mystery Nine needed an umpire after theirs had cancelled last minute, it came to no one’s surprise that Ashford’s performance exceeded all expectations.

“One Sunday, the regular umpire didn’t show up,” he said. “After waiting 15-20 minutes they came looking for me. I had taken batting practice, showered, and retired to my customary spot on the bench. But they carried me kicking and screaming out behind the pitcher and told me to umpire, notwithstanding the fact that I was dressed conservatively in green slacks, two tone shoes, a green sport coat and I think a green shirt.”

“Well, pandemonium ensued. But a strange thing happened. By the seventh inning, they loved my umpiring. I guess they thought I added something to the game.”

That was the last time Ashford would step on a ballfield as a player. From then on, he was a man in blue, and would set his sights on the biggest stage in baseball. The road to that stage was a bumpy one. But Ashford had been converting doubters into believers since he was a cashier at his hometown supermarket, and truly understood the power of a solid work ethic.

“I went out there and worked about three Sundays before word came out from the city recreation department that they couldn’t use me anymore because I hadn’t joined the umpires’ association,” Ashford said. “They told the [Mystery Nine], ‘If that clown thinks he can umpire, have him come down here and fill out an application,’ not ever thinking I would. They didn’t know me too well. I’d already bought a little $1.75 umpire’s cap, and I wasn’t about to lose my investment.”

“I was at the recreation office bright and early Monday morning and said to the secretary: ‘I would like to have (an application for the) baseball umpire’s application.”

After about a 45-minute attempt by both the secretary and the director of recreation to dissuade him, Ashford got his application, beginning his stint in high school baseball. He quickly rose through the junior college ranks, and then the college circuit, where he attracted the attention of Rosey Gilhousen, a chief scout from Kansas City.

“He had arranged a tryout for me with the Class C Southwest International League,” Ashford said. “They had to go through the National Association of Professional Baseball Clubs, which is the minor league system, back in Columbus, Ohio. George Trautman was the president then. They rigged up a four-game tryout for me, but they had to put it outside the continental limits of the United States.”

So Ashford trekked 235 miles from Los Angeles to Mexicali, Mexico, only to find out that the two white umpires he was supposed to work with had refused to take the field with a Black man. But rather than feeling discouraged, Emmett walked away from that game knowing that he had truly found his passion.

“They played Latin music over the PA system to entertain the fans during the delay,” he said. “They finally got the father of one of the umpires now in the National League, Doug Harvey’s dad, to come down. He was doing semipro ball in El Centro. They got him down there in a hurry. I worked all four games behind the plate, and he worked all the bases for me. About a week later, Les Powers, the president of the league, called and asked if I’d care to finish the season. I ran into the postmaster’s office, got a leave of absence for three months, and took off.”

Ashford ended up working the playoffs in his first year as a minor league umpire, and was offered a contract for the following year.

Leaving 15 years of seniority and a solid paycheck at the post office, he decided to try and break a barrier that many thought was unbreakable, even several years after Jackie Robinson shattered the color-line.

His first day on the job, he got a call informing him that the Class C Southwest International League had folded. With 57 different minor leagues, Ashford’s colleagues had no trouble being placed elsewhere, but Emmett was different. Finally, a couple of weeks later, the President of the league informed him he’d been relocated to a city where he would encounter his biggest challenge yet: El Paso, Texas.

“I don’t know what the word was in El Paso, but when I arrived there were two policemen outside the park, and by the second or third inning there were 15,” Ashford said. “El Paso was playing its perennial enemy, the Chihuahua. I didn’t know it, but they had been fighting like cats and dogs before I got there.”

“Marvin Williams comes up with two outs, two men on and the count 2 and 2. …Before I could say, ‘Ball,’ the catcher was in my face, the pitcher was on his way to the plate, and the manager, who played second base, had beat them both in. You talk about Custer’s Last Stand! That was it. I knew it.

“Finally I said, ‘I’m going to get some balls, and if any of you guys are still here, you won’t have anything but a forfeit and those 15 policemen you brought in.’ It worked; they played the game. The next morning, the El Paso press was extremely generous. They called it a display of guts and courage and damn good umpiring.”

At the conclusion of the series, Ashford received a standing ovation from the fans, and a lesson that he would carry with him through the major leagues.

“Now that was 1952! Those fans taught me a lot,” he said. “They gave me the basis of a good career. I found out from them that a good job well done is worth more than all the soapboxes you can conjure up.”

After a year in the Western International League, Ashford began his 12 year stint in the Pacific Coast League, where he would spend the majority of his umpiring career. He rose to the title of crew chief, and learned how to cope with the pressure of getting his calls right. Eager to stay active in the offseason, Ashford began officiating football and basketball, eventually working his way up to the PAC-8 from 1950-1958. Ironically, it was on the basketball court that he developed his trademark hustle, determined not to miss a single play.

“Basketball is more strenuous because you have to make judgements on the run,” Ashford said. “My determination as a baseball umpire to see everything carried over into basketball. I made calls with motion. I outran the players, that’s how hard I worked. I’d have to change shirts at the half – one would be wringing wet. That hustle carried over into the majors.”

By 1965, his 12th year in the Pacific Coast League, Ashford had witnessed umpires he had mentored himself get called up to the major leagues. He had worked about 2,800 games and felt as if he was merely an “institution” in the Pacific Coast League. Feeling discouraged, he enrolled in a real estate school just in case his dream wouldn’t come to fulfillment.

That winter, he finally got the call from Dewey Soriano, President of the PCL. It was Ashford’s turn at bat, 15 years after his journey had started. At 51 years old, he was the oldest rookie in the league, by far.

“It was one of the greatest feelings I ever had. I was somewhat surprised about its being the American League,” he said. “I had always used the NL style chest protector, but after that call I went out and bought one of those AL balloons and slept with it. That winter I sneaked down to Long Beach on Sundays and worked the Long Beach Rockets games, just to get used to it.”

His transition to the majors was a rough one. Emmett Ashford did more than just integrate the league – he vigorously shook it up, with his booming “Steee-rike,” and his insistence on running down every play. His unique style did not go unnoticed. Many umpires resented him, because he stood out as a fan favorite.

“Emmett Ashford, Big Time at Last” read the front page of the Sporting News on the day of his debut, proclaiming that “for the first time in the history of the grand old American game, fans may buy a ticket to watch the umpire perform.”

Fans would flock him, and ask him for autographs. One particularly rowdy crowd at Fenway Park nearly ripped his shirt off. For an industry that had long encouraged its umpires to be as invisible as humanly possible, Ashford was a breath of fresh air, proof that officials could bring passion to their profession.

“In the seventh, I saw a foul ball dropping in the first row of box seats,” said Orioles catcher Andy Etchebarren to the Boston Globe. “I knew I couldn’t reach the ball, but I dove into the seats, thinking that maybe a fan would put the ball in my glove or I could grab it off the floor. But as I was reaching for I looked around and who was in the seats with me but Emmett. I couldn’t believe it.”

His spirit might have come off to some as showboating, but for many fans and players who weren’t fully ready to see a Black man enforce the rules of a game dating back to the 1800s, Ashford’s humor was disarming. His lighthearted nature reminded everyone that at the end of the day, it was just a game.

“He called a third strike on me, and I argued because I had two teammates on base at the time,” the Yankees’ Tommy Tresh told The New York Times. “But I couldn’t get mad at him because the harder I argued the more he kept saying: “Now Tommy, now Tommy.”

A Black man in a position of power was a scary concept for many. But Ashford was likeable. He knew when to have fun, but also had the sensitivity to know when to be serious and even to admit that he was wrong.

“He was an average umpire, but he worked hard and if he made a mistake, he told you,” said former Minnesota Twins manager Sam Mele. “One time I went out to discuss a play with him and he called over the crew chief John Stevens and said, ‘How’d you see it?’ Stevens said, ‘Emmett I hate to say it, but Sam’s right.’ And Emmett said, ‘Okay I’m wrong’ and changed his decision.”

His actions on the field inspired not only other aspiring Black umpires, but essentially anyone who had an eccentric flair for the National Pastime. Soon after Emmett Ashford came the likes of Ron Luciano and Dutch Rennert, both known for being colorful characters.

“The fans loved me, like Ron Luciano today – a showman and a damn fine umpire,” Ashford said. ”But I knew that I was not going to succeed unless I was 99.9 percent right. Maybe my style was a little pronounced and unusual, but all I ever asked was to be judged on my competency. I proved that with all my antics I was a capable umpire.”

After working an All-Star Game and the 1970 World Series, Ashford decided to call it quits. The American League had recently instituted a 55-year age limit for all umpires, and he was one year past it. Given Ashford’s late start in the major leagues, American League president Joe Cronin decided to extend him one year. But he wanted to end his career on a high note, and the 1970 World Series gave him just that.

Bowie Kuhn would soon hire Ashford as his Public Relations Advisor, a role which enabled him to become an ambassador for the sport worldwide. He umpired the occasional minor league game, and even made a cameo in a couple of commercials and TV shows. He passed away on March 1, 1980 at the age of 65, and had his ashes interred in Lake View Cemetery at the home of baseball in Cooperstown.

To date, Ashford’s biggest accomplishment was in making baseball’s loneliest profession a little bit friendlier. He just so happened to break a boundary along the way.

“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,” Ashford told Gerlach. “But the greatest satisfaction I’ve gotten is the feeling of accomplishment in doing what I set out to do in the first place when they said it couldn’t be done.”

Alex Coffey was the communications specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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