He spent 20 years as a professional umpire, baseball's loneliest profession, passing judgment on the performances of the games' great athletes and egos. Many people have pursued this particular job, but Emmett Ashford had the added burden of breaking racial barriers throughout his career, as a black man whose job required maintaining authority over white men. Doing his work with disarming charm, quick wit, and irreproachable dignity, he won over fans, players, and even his fellow umpires, leaving the game with countless friends and admirers.
Emmett Littleton Ashford was born on November 23, 1914 in Los Angeles. His father Littleton, a policeman, soon abandoned the family, and Emmett and brother Wilbur were raised by their mother. Adele was a highly motivated and ambitious woman, who worked as a secretary for the California Eagle, a black newspaper. Ashford himself earned money selling Liberty magazine, building his route up to 300 customers, and later was a cashier in a supermarket.
Ashford excelled at Jefferson High School, rising to co-editor of the school paper, the Jeffersonian, and becoming a teen journalist for the California Eagle. He also played baseball and ran sprints for the track team. When he graduated in 1933 he was the senior class president, the first black student so honored, and a member of the scholarship club. Ashford then attended Los Angeles Junior College and Chapman College, where he played baseball.
About 1936 Ashford scored well on a civil service exam and landed a coveted job as a clerk with the post office, a position he held for fifteen years. In the late 1930s he had a brief career as a semipro baseball player before turning to officiating. According to Ashford, he played on a white team called the Mystery Nine, who wore uniforms with question marks on the fronts. One day the umpire didn't show up, and Emmett (who rarely played) was called into emergency service. He was soon busy officiating recreational baseball and softball in southern California.
In 1937 Ashford married Willa Gene Fort, and the couple had two daughters, Adrienne and Antoinette. The next several years were taken up with family, post office work, and umpiring. Soon after he finished a three-year stint in the United States Navy during World War II, Emmett and Willa divorced. He continued to umpire, moving up to major college baseball, working regularly. He often officiated with Bill Stewart who had umped in the American League in the 1940s. Ashford credits Stewart for teaching him the major league strike zone.
In 1951 Ashford took a leave of absence from his post office job for a two-month trial in the Southwestern International League, becoming the first black umpire in organized baseball. Les Powers, the league president, claimed that "Ashford has the making of a big league umpire." After the season, Ashford was offered a full-season job, so he resigned from the postal service, leaving behind fifteen years of pension. "For some people, it might have been a hard decision--giving up assured future security for the uncertainty of umpiring," he later related. "But not for me."
The following off-season, the Southwestern International League announced plans to field an "all-Negro" club, to play only road games. Ashford was named general manager and asked to put together a team. Two days later Chet Brewer, former Negro League star, was hired as the club's manager. Ultimately the team had a series of "homes" during the season, including Escenada, Mexico; Riverside, California; and Porterville, California. The team did not remain all-black, though many former Negro Leaguers did play for them (including Brewer), as did two future major leaguers (Tom Alston and Dave Roberts).
As for our hero, Ashford relinquished his role with the club before the season began, and returned to umpiring. By mid-summer the league folded and he hooked on with the Arizona-Texas League. In December 1952, the Sporting News first suggested that Ashford might be destined for the major leagues. Ashford responded to the story, pledging to "do all in my power to justify your faith." He moved up to the Western International League in 1953, before a promotion to the Pacific Coast League in 1954.
During his 12 years in the PCL, Ashford became the best-known umpire in the minor leagues. "He was a showman, exuberant, strong, alert, loud and expressive," recalled Paul Wysard of Ashford's' days in the PCL. "He was constantly in motion, full of nervous energy and obviously delighted to be out there in front of everybody." Between innings he often sprinted down the right field line to keep his legs loose. He constantly interacted with the crowd, doffing his cap and giving little speeches.
Ashford spent most of his time during the season alone, not hanging out with his fellow umpires. As he later related to Larry Gerlach, "I didn't come to town and have to go to the ghetto to enjoy myself. I stayed downtown and went to the theatre and the opera. I just love some opera--know the librettos of a few. I made a host of friends; many of them were attorneys and doctors who invited me to their homes and nice functions. I'd meet with the lawyers for lunch in Spokane, and, shoot, in Vancouver, I think I could have run for office." In the off-seasons, Ashford refereed Pac-8 basketball and small college football. As early as the fall of 1958 he umpired in the Carribean winter leagues. He was also a constant after-dinner speaker on the west coast, and ran several umpiring clinics.
In 1963 PCL president Dewey Soriano named Ashford the league's umpire-in-chief, making him responsible for the organization and training of the crews, and for advising the league on disputed games or rules. In June 1963, the league hired its second black umpire, Osibee Jelks, from the Northwest League. On July 4, a game in San Diego was officiated by Ashford and Jelks (the third crew member was ill), the first all-black umpiring crew in a minor league game.
By the early 1960s, writers on the west coast began clamoring for Ashford's promotion to the majors. A.S. Young also took up the cause in the Chicago Defender (3/28/63), suggesting of major league presidents Joe Cronin and Warren Giles, "Whereas they hire, and approve the hiring of Caucasian umpires solely on the basis of qualifications, they refuse to act on the Ashford case--and probably won't until the Ashford campaign, which should be unnecessary, becomes embarrassing." In 1965 Cronin was considered the leading contender to replace the retiring Ford Frick as baseball's commissioner, but Jim Murray, writing in the Los Angeles Times (7/2/65), supported Bill Veeck for the top job, with Ashford as his umpire-in-chief. Both endorsements were due to Cronin's foot-dragging on Ashford.
Ashford's most famous on-field incident took place during the 1964 playoffs in the Dominican Republic. After a strike call on Julian Javier met with prolonged disapproval, Ashford motioned the pitcher to continue, and rung up strike three. Javier reacted by slugging Ashford in the mouth, cutting the umpire's lip open and swelling his jaw. Ashford retaliated by hitting the Cardinal infielder with his mask, temporarily forgetting that Javier was a local hero. Ashford finished the game, applying ice packs to his mouth between innings. Javier received a three-game suspension, and Ashford had to be talked out of resigning from the league after the weak penalty.
Despite whatever frustrations he must have felt in the minor leagues for 15 years, he remained a cheerful and optimistic man his entire life, a disposition which stood out in his profession. He charmed his critics and admirers alike, relying on his quick wit and intelligence to get him through a crisis. In one southwest city early in his career Ashford needed to find a place a black man could sleep. He went to the best hotel in town and approached the desk. "Sir," he explained, "I am that barefoot, uncultured Negro man you have been reading about and I wish to seek lodging in your excellent establishment." He got the room, and his charm would get him many other rooms, and many meals in restaurants.
In mid-September 1965 he got a long-awaited phone call. The voice on the telephone was Dewey Soriano, telling Ashford that he had sold his contract to the American League. "It was the last thing I remember for several days," recalled Emmett. He always spoke fondly of Soriano's support throughout his years in the PCL, and for helping him get to the majors.
The nation's press was thrilled, though not willing to give baseball too much credit for its tardy step. Melvin Durslag, writing in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner (10/2/65), figured that Emmett was "bound to raise the game to his refined level." Bill Slocum, in the New York Journal-American (4/14/66) wondered, "If corporate Baseball has joined the 20th Century, can Mississippi be far behind?"
After his protégé's promotion, Soriano claimed, "The only reason Emmett hasn't made the major leagues before this is that he is a Negro." Soriano later elaborated: "Emmett was very popular wherever he went, with the players and the fans. I've known him since 1953 and it is an all-out total effort--not showboating. With more Emmett Ashfords, baseball games would be better run and a lot more fun for the fans. I didn't make him umpire-in-chief his last three years out here for comedy."
Ashford had a high-pitched voice that he utilized like a megaphone, keeping the fans aware of where he was and what he was doing. During his first spring training in the majors he interrupted an Angels-Indians game in Tucson to explain to the crowd a recent discussion with the Indians' manager. Removing his cap, he bowed to the throng behind home, loudly intoning, "Ladies and Gentleman... Mr. Tebbetts was merely questioning the strategy of the opposing manager... I thank you." Putting his mask back on, he resumed the game. His fellow umpires soon realized what they were up against. The next day, Bill Valentine turned to the crowd himself: "Ladies and gentlemen, I'm sorry to inform you that the eminent Emmett Ashford will be at third base and not behind the plate today..."
Prior to his first season, Ashford reflected, "I feel proud being an umpire in the big leagues. Not because I am the first Negro, but because umpires in the major leagues are very select people. Right now, I just want to vindicate Mr. Cronin's faith in me... But first, I've got to buy me a pair of eye glasses," he added, his sense of humor ever present, ready to strike.
Emmett Ashford's regular season debut took place on April 9, 1966, in Washington's D .C. Stadium, the traditional American League opener. His first major league hurdle was getting into the ballpark. Vice-President Hubert Humphrey was in attendance to throw out the ceremonial first ball, and the secret service needed to be convinced that a black man was there to umpire the game. Humphrey later kidded Ashford, who had worked at third base, that he hadn't had any plays to call. "No plays, no boots," responded Ashford, "but it was the greatest day of my life." Joe Cronin told his new employee, "Emmett, you made history today. I'm proud of you."
Ashford was a sensation right away, but not principally because of his race. His style, well-known on the west coast, took the conservative major leagues by a storm. The stocky (5-foot-7, 185 pounds) Ashford sprinted to his position between innings, stepping on the bases or leaping the pitcher's mound, and raced around the field after foul balls or plays on the bases. The Sporting News was impressed enough to claim, "For the first time in the history of the grand old American game, baseball fans may buy a ticket to watch an umpire perform." The fans did not always need to watch Ashford, they could just listen to his high-pitched cannon of a voice, as he called out a batter or runner.
On a strike call, Ashford jerked his right arm first to the side, then up, then down like a karate chop. That completed, he would then reach either up as if twice yanking a train whistle, or to the right as if opening a car door. Even while dusting the plate he knew every eye in the house was on him, and he behaved accordingly, pirouetting on one foot and hopping back to his position. Emmett would say, "I didn't go to umpiring school because they weren't taking blacks in those days, so I evolved my own style." Ashford was also known for his natty attire on and off the field. While umpiring he wore polished shoes, a freshly pressed uniform, cufflinks, and a handkerchief in his suit pocket.
In his first game behind the plate, Andy Etchebarren, the Orioles' catcher, recalled diving into the stands after a foul ball: "I knew I couldn't reach the ball, but I dove into the seats thinking a fan would put the ball in my glove or I could grab it off the floor. But while I was reaching I looked around, and who was in the seats with me but Emmett. I couldn't believe it." In a later Baltimore game, Frank Robinson quipped, "That Ashford gets a better jump on the ball than Paul Blair [the Orioles' fleet-footed center fielder]."
Though he was generally well-liked and admired by the people in the game, the open question was always whether he was a good umpire--whether his style came at the expense of substance. His flamboyance certainly left himself open for abuse, as he was generally the center of attention even when everyone agreed with his calls. Red Sox manager Dick Williams, after a controversial Ashford call in 1969, called the arbiter "a little clown." Joe Pepitone and Pete Ward, in separate incidents, had to be restrained from going after Ashford. "When he calls you out on a third strike," complained one player after a typically emotive Ashford punch-out, "you feel like he's sending you to the electric chair."
Ashford toned down some of his mannerisms as his big-league career progressed. "Sure, I was a showboat," he told the Boston Globe's Ray Fitzgerald (8/16/70). "For 12 years, that was my routine in the Coast League. I couldn't change overnight, but I'm different now. I've toned myself way down." But still, "I'm not exactly without color," he said, using a favorite double entendre.
In 1967, Ashford was named to work the All-Star game in Anaheim, though he saw little action working the left-field foul line. Ashford realized another dream in 1970 when he umpired the World Series. Unfortunately for Ashford, and for baseball fans, he was slated to work the plate in the sixth game, but his turn never came: the Orioles beat the Reds in five. "Maybe it's best," he said later, "The World Series would never be the same."
When Ashford turned 55 in December 1969, he had reached the American League's retirement age of 55 for its umpires, a rule occasionally bent. He was given one additional year, but after the 1970 season Ashford announced his retirement. "I'm afraid that by continuing I would only dilute the thrills of the last five years and especially those I received by umpiring in the 1970 World Series," Ashford said.
An unwritten baseball credo suggests that a well-officiated game is one in which the umpire is unnoticed. By that standard, Emmett Ashford was not a good umpire. Not surprisingly, his fellow umpires were the hardest people to win over.
Bill Kinnamon worked on the same crew with Ashford in 1969, and later recalled to Larry Gerlach, "I think he was a good umpire. On the bases and behind the plate he was no better or worse than the rest of us, but it is no secret that his eyes weren't too good when it came to balls hit into the outfield at night. The man was about fifty years old when he came into the league, and I think Emmett would be the first to say that he came up after the peak of his career. If he had come up ten, fifteen twenty years earlier, he would have been one hell of an umpire."
Speaking of Ashford's impact on the game, Kinnamon said, "He was good for baseball. I never saw him do anything detrimental to baseball. No one ever found any fault with his deportment off the field. He was a gentleman. And the people absolutely dearly loved him. One night, as we were leaving Yankee Stadium together, some kid all of a sudden yelled, "Emmett!" The next next thing I knew, he was standing there talking and signing autographs for a couple of hundred kids. Nobody recognized me; I just sat there on a railing and waited. He signed an autograph for every last kid. That's the kind of man he was, and that's the kind of feeling there was for him."
As Ashford often said, he did not go through the traditional umpire training, and therefore that particular doctrine was not instilled. Kinnamon further explains some of the tension: "There was resentment toward him among the umpires. Everybody knows there was. Emmett knew it, but he shrugged it off. Many guys simply didn't accept Emmett. Politics or pull had nothing to do with it. Some questioned his umpiring ability. And Emmett had his idiosyncrasies--the cuff links, jumping over the mound on his way to second base, his showmanship, things like that. But mostly I think it was the publicity Emmett got. It's natural for there to be resentment when there were five reporters around Emmett's cubicle and none around anybody else's. Everywhere Emmett went he was news, good copy. Emmett got more ink in one year than the top five umpires in our league got in their whole career."
It probably didn't help when teams would ask the league for Ashford to umpire their games. In 1968, Athletics owner Charlie Finley wanted Ashford to umpire his home opener--the inaugural game at the new Oakland Coliseum. Umpire crews generally rotate their roles from game to game--from third base, to second, first, and home. For this game Ashford was due to ump second base, but at Finley's urging he got the more visible home plate assignment.
In early 1971 Ashford was hired by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn as a public relations adviser, a role which allowed him to speak and hold clinics on the west coast, and as far away as Korea. He also umpired the occasional minor league or college game, old-timers games in Dodger Stadium, pleasing the crowd as always. He was umpire-in-chief for the Alaskan summer league for three years. Ashford earned money doing TV commercials (he played a cashier in an ad for the A&P grocery chain), film (as an umpire in "The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings") and television (episodes of "Ironside" and "The Jacksons"). He was also on "What's My Line" during his first year in the major leagues.
Ashford died at Marina Mercy Hospital in Marina Del Ray, California, on March 1, 1980, of a heart attack. At his funeral, he was eulogized by Commission Kuhn and Rod Dedeaux, longtime USC baseball coach. He was cremated, and his ashes are interred in Cooperstown, New York.
In looking back on his career, the ever-positive Ashford focused on his good fortune: "Think of all the people who live an entire life and do not accomplish one thing they really wanted to do. I have done something I wanted to do. I have that satisfaction." This is only fitting, as Ashford's class and style provided so much satisfaction to others.
This biography originally appeared in SABR's 2007 edition of The National Pastime, edited by Jim Charlton.
In researching this article, I made use of Ashford's extensive clipping file at the National Baseball Library and articles published in The Sporting News throughout his career. Larry Gerlach's The Men In Blue (Viking, 1980) includes interviews with Ashford and several of his contemporaries. Robert C. Hoie's article in the 1979 Baseball Research Journal ("Riverside-Ensenada-Porterville, An All-Negro Minor League Team") outlines Ashford's affiliation with the 1952 club. Ashford's daughter, Adrienne Cherie Ashford wrote a short book Strrr-ike!!, which outlines his early life. Bob Sudyk's article in The Sporting News ("Emmett Ashford: Only His Suit Is Blue", April 23, 1966) provided the backdrop to Ashford's debut in the major leagues and his first game. Retrosheet's ridiculously essential website includes detailed game logs for umpires.