It is often the fate of those who are the second to complete a remarkable feat to be relegated to the dust bin of history. Any school child can tell you that Ferdinand Magellan was the first explorer to circumnavigate the world. But can you name the second? Most Americans know that Alan Shepard was the first American astronaut in space, but how many remember number two, Gus Grissom? In baseball, of course, Jackie Robinson is lionized as the player who broke the color barrier, while Hall of Famer Larry Doby, who integrated the American League just three months after Robinson’s first appearance, is much less talked about.
So it was for Art Williams, the first Black umpire in the National League and second in the major leagues, who is vastly overshadowed by the charismatic Emmett Ashford. Ashford broke the color line for arbiters in 1966. He had retired from umpiring and taken a job in the baseball commissioner’s office by the time Williams was promoted to the majors in 1972.
Arthur Williams was born in Camden, Arkansas on February 24, 1934, to Smith and Ruth Williams. Arthur was the fifth child in the family, joining sisters Rodella, Idella, Merline, and brother Curtis. Another sister, May Lillie, joined the family four years later. According to the 1940 U. S. Census, Smith Williams worked as a farm laborer. He later became a Baptist minister.1 During the 1940s the family moved to Bakersfield, California, where Art excelled in baseball and basketball for the Bakersfield High School Drillers. He made the All-Valley team in both baseball, where he was a star pitcher, and in basketball. He pitched his Bakersfield team to the league championship in 1953.
Right after graduation, Williams pitched briefly for the Wasco Dons of the semipro Kern County League. Then the 6-foot-2, 186-pounder was signed to a professional contract by scout Bernie DeViveiros of the Detroit Tigers.2 The Tigers assigned Williams to his hometown team, the Bakersfield Indians of the Class C California League. In his first professional start, the 19-year-old pitched a 16-inning complete game against the Santa Barbara Dodgers, winning 4-2. He gave up 11 hits and 10 walks in the game but was helped by four double plays behind him. Going out for the 13th inning, Indians player-manager Ray Perry asked Williams how he felt. “I feel fine, Mr. Perry,” Williams responded. After the 13th, Perry told Williams he might have to pinch hit for him. Williams responded, “Mr. Perry, you can’t lift me for a pinch hitter; I’m a .400 hitter.” Perry told reporter Walt Little, “What could I do after he said that, but let him hit?”3
After going 11-6 with a 3.26 ERA in 20 starts at Bakersfield, Williams was assigned to the Idaho Falls Russets in the Class C Pioneer League for 1954. At Idaho Falls, Williams was wild, averaging almost six walks per nine innings, but effective. He compiled a 9-3 record, with a 4.81 ERA. In one memorable game he beat the Ogden (Utah) Reds, 12-4, giving up just three hits, while striking out 10 and walking 11.4 He threw a one-hitter against Boise on August 25, winning 2-0 and again striking out 10, but limiting his walks to five.
In 1955, Williams returned to the California League, pitching for the Visalia Cubs. A highlight of the season was when he returned home to Bakersfield and blanked the Indians, 5-0, on one hit and seven walks.
Williams’ professional pitching career ended in 1956 in the Philadelphia Phillies organization. Pitching as a starter and reliever for his hometown Bakersfield club, which had become known as the Boosters, Williams posted a 6-14 record, until he was sold to the Stockton Ports in late August.5 On September 3, Williams started and completed both ends of a doubleheader for Stockton, 12-7 in the opener, and then 6-0 in the seven-inning nightcap.6 Between the two teams, Williams worked in 55 games (then a league record) and 242 innings. The heavy workload may have contributed to the arm problems that ended Williams’ pitching career.7
Though his professional pitching career was over, Williams’ interest in baseball continued. He took a job in the Bakersfield sanitation department but harbored a desire to return to baseball in some capacity. In his spare time, Williams refereed high school and college basketball games. He had also taken up umpiring Little League, high school, and college baseball games. At a college tournament in Bakersfield, a scout for the San Francisco Giants, Dick Wilson, saw him and suggested he could make it as a professional umpire.8
“I talked it over with my wife [Shirley] but we had three kids and she asked me to wait until they grew up a little,” Williams said. “They grew up a little, but two more little boys came along and that kept me at home a little longer.”9 Finally, in 1969, Williams asked major league umpire Bob Engel how he could get started. Engel told him about Barney Deary’s Umpire Development school in Florida, and in 1969, Williams enrolled in the school.10 “They got me a job in the Pioneer Rookie League in Idaho and Utah, which opened in June,” Williams said.11
The rise up the umpiring ladder was swift for Williams, by then 35 years old. From the Pioneer League, he moved to the Class A Midwest League in 1970. In 1971, his contract was purchased by the National League, and he was optioned to the Class AA Texas League.12 In the spring of that year, Williams was assigned to work some major-league spring training games in Arizona. There he caught the eye of Chicago Cubs manager Leo Durocher. “Where’ve you been working?” Durocher asked.
“The Midwest League,” Williams replied.
“Midwest? An umpire as good as you are working in the Midwest. Can’t believe it.”13
In 1972 Williams was promoted to the International League, one step below the majors. With promotion to the top level so close, Williams knew he would be compared to Ashford. “[Ashford] was kind of a showboat and I don’t know whether that helped him or not, but that’s not the way I go,” he told reporter A. L. Hardman. “I feel an umpire who isn’t noticed on the field is doing a good job. And that’s how I plan to work it, just hustle, and keep my cool. When I go on that field, it’s all business with me. I try to put every ounce of energy into my work, and I feel that my rewards will come later.”14
Williams was aware that fulfilling his dream was a burden on his family, especially his wife. “I must have the best wife a man ever had,” he told Hardman. “We’ve got five kids back home and I know it’s hard on her when I’m gone. But she never complains. This is a lonely life – umpiring, but I love baseball and I hope that I can make it to the majors.”15
He did. Williams was called up to the National League for a trial at the end of the 1972 season. He umpired his first major-league game on September 18, 1972, at San Diego Stadium. Emmett Ashford was in the stands to watch. As he walked on the field, the big message board in the stadium read, “Welcome Art Williams, the National League’s First Black Umpire.”16 Williams said, “I looked up in the stands and saw my wife clapping and crying. I knew it was all worthwhile.”17 Art’s brother, Curtis, was with him in the runway as he entered the stadium. Williams turned to Curtis and said, “Brother, this is unbelievable!”18
Williams handled several routine calls at third base without incident as the Los Angeles Dodgers won the game, 3-2 in 10 innings. After the game Williams said, “I was nervous, I’ll admit it. Having Emmett there meant a great deal to me.”19
Williams’ first game behind the plate was on September 22 at Dodger Stadium. The game turned into a classic pitchers’ duel between the Dodgers’ Don Sutton and the San Francisco Giants’ Jim Willoughby. The game entered the bottom of the 11th inning tied 0-0; the Dodgers finally won it, 1-0, as Willoughby hit pinch-hitter Wes Parker with a pitch with the bases loaded. Ashford was again in the stands. Asked to assess Williams’ performance, Ashford said, “Beautiful, just beautiful.”20 Willoughby confirmed the assessment. “I can’t remember his missing a pitch.” Giants’ catcher Dave Rader agreed, “He was great.”21
Williams’ performance in his eight-game audition earned him a National League contract for the 1973 season. In May of that year, he was the subject of a profile by Dick Wagner in The Sporting News. Wagner described Williams as a man who “smiles easily off the field but never on it, where he wears an expression of concentration. He is workmanlike, always alert.”22 Williams was proud of his breakthrough, “but when I’m on the field, I’m an umpire first and then I’m a black.” He told Wagner what he desired most was to be one of the most respected umpires. Respect, he believed, took the pressure off you. He gave credit to his colleagues on the umpiring crew, Shag Crawford, Doug Harvey, and Andy Olsen, for helping him improve. “It only took me four years to make it [to the major leagues] and I’ve got a lot to learn, but with these guys, I don’t think I can fail.”23
Early reviews were good. Longtime Chicago sportswriter Jerome Holtzman observed, “[Williams] couldn’t be doing much better. He had three bang-bang plays at first base the other night in a Cubs-Expos game and was right every time. I have yet to see a player, white or black, get into a vigorous chin to chin debate with him and I have the impression the players are treating him with kid gloves. But I am sure as time goes on they will forget he’s black and give him just as much hell as they give the other umps.”24
In time, as Holtzman predicted, Williams experienced his share of complaints from players, managers, and fans – but in Williams’ case, a theme began to emerge: he could be indecisive on the field. A supposedly secret poll of managers and coaches at the end of 1973 rated Williams the worst umpire in the league.25After a disputed call in a September 3, 1974, game in Houston, Astros manager Preston Gomez summed up the concern. “Williams is a nice guy and someday he may become a good umpire. But he must be more consistent and have more decision. I have to say the umpires do a great job, but Williams gets his whole crew in trouble because he’s so indecisive.”26
In the fall of 1974, the Major League Players Association conducted a poll of players to gather their opinions on the performance of umpires. Doug Harvey and Ron Luciano were rated excellent. Williams was rated below average, as were Ed Vargo and Paul Runge. Terry Tata, who came up to the majors at the same time as Williams, was rated poor. Players described Williams as “getting better on the bases, needs to improve behind the plate.”27
In 1975, Chicago Cubs third baseman, Bill Madlock, stated that Williams was tougher on Black players in making his calls than he was on whites. Madlock made the charge after he disputed a Williams call at first base and Williams tossed him from the game. For his part Williams had this to say about criticism from Black players. “They ain’t doing me and they ain’t doing my race any good. They are jeopardizing my authority, my position, and my job. On the field, I ain’t nobody’s brother.”28
Williams was left distraught by one missed call in 1975. On July 29, Williams was umpiring third base at Wrigley Field in a game between the Chicago Cubs and the Montreal Expos. With runners on first and second, Expos catcher Barry Foote launched a fly ball down the left field line that bounced into the “basket” fronting the stands and back out onto the field of play. Williams ruled the ball in play and Foote got an RBI double instead of a three-run homer. Replays later showed the ball was clearly a homer. Williams blamed himself, publicly, for not being in better position to make the call.29
At the end of the 1975 season, Williams was chosen to umpire in the National League Championship Series between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds. The “Big Red Machine” swept the series in three games. Williams was assigned to the right-field and left-field lines and third base in the games. This would prove to be his only postseason assignment.
On May 2, 1976, Williams was umpiring first base for a game in Montreal between the Expos and the Reds. Former Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox slugger Larry Doby was coaching first base for the Expos. In the second inning, the Expos’ Larry Parrish grounded to shortstop. The play at first was close and Williams signaled out. Doby disagreed vehemently, claiming the play wasn’t even that close, and Williams tossed him from the game. Thus, the second African American player to ever play in the big leagues was ejected from a game by the second African American umpire in the history of the majors.
Williams was the only full-time African American umpire in the major leagues for his entire five-year tenure.30 This left him with a permanent target on his back. The race issue came to a head after a May 30, 1976, game in Shea Stadium. A Helmet Day crowd of 50,332 was on hand. Mets ace Tom Seaver took a 5-2 lead over the St. Louis Cardinals into the ninth inning. Williams was working behind the plate. Seaver thought the umpire missed several pitches in the inning and complained loudly. With one out Seaver walked Ron Fairly and Willie Crawford. After Vic Harris popped out to short, he walked Jerry Mumphrey to load the bases. All three of the walks led to runs as the Cardinals tied the game; they went on to win in 11 innings.
After the game, the Mets’ rookie manager Joe Frazier let loose. “I don’t think he [Williams] belongs here. Everybody in the league knows why he’s umpiring. He’s been inserted because the league wants to step up the progress of a black person. Maybe I’m going to get in trouble for saying these things, but it’s about time somebody stood up and said what’s felt around the league…The man doesn’t belong if he doesn’t qualify.”31
Williams responded, “He can say what he wants but I’m back there calling the pitches, and a ball is a ball. I can’t help how he feels. I’m not apologizing for anyone, and I’m not saying any more on the subject.32 Fellow umpires were quick to defend Williams. Bruce Froemming said, “Art Williams has been here four years. Frazier just got here. Frazier may have been able to pull that stuff in Tidewater, but he’s in the big leagues now. He should conduct himself like a big leaguer.” Bob Engel said, “I don’t care if he is black, blue, or green, Art Williams is a major league umpire. If an umpire made the kind of statement Frazier made, they’d try to fire him.”33
The next day Frazier went into Mets general manager Joe McDonald’s office and offered to resign. Instead, McDonald told him to apologize. Frazier told the media, “I want you to print my apology to the umpire, Mr. Williams. In regards (sic) to my good black friends in the country, I meant nothing about race in what I said about his umpiring. I hope he becomes a great umpire someday. I feel he will if he keeps working at it.”34
In November of 1977 Williams was fired. According to him, the league said he had received low marks from managers, who were asked periodically to rate the umpires. “That’s ridiculous, Williams retorted. “After five years in the league they decided I’m incompetent. [I think it’s] a clear case of prejudice.”35 Williams appealed his dismissal. “They’re letting me go because I’m black,” he claimed. “They’re bringing up another black umpire [Eric Gregg] and they don’t want to have two when the American League doesn’t have any.”36
Williams expressed particular animus toward former major-league umpire Al Barlick, by then an umpiring consultant. “I will never work for Barlick again. I don’t want to have anything to do with Barlick. He’s prejudiced and a racist.”37
The man who helped Williams when he first broke into the majors – Shag Crawford, who’d recently retired – came to Barlick’s defense. “I’ve known Al Barlick for 25 or 30 years, and he’s certainly no racist. And that statement Art made that he’s losing his job because of the color of his skin is ludicrous.”38 Crawford said that Williams did not show sufficient improvement after his first year because he failed to ask enough questions.39
Emmett Ashford defended the league’s decision. “The ratings had Art being a little bit down. They went with him for five years hoping it would improve. You can’t ask more than that. I think Art came up [to the big leagues] too quick. There are so many things you have to learn. You have to make your mistakes in the minor leagues, not the majors.”40
After his dismissal, Williams took a job driving a bus for the city of Bakersfield. The $15,000 salary was a considerable comedown from the $26,000 he’d made as an umpire. Even though he had appealed the dismissal, Williams knew there was little hope for reinstatement. In those days, the league president, in this case Chub Feeney, was both judge and jury in deciding these cases. The Major League Umpires Association was in its infancy and had little power over hirings and firings. Williams said, “The association has helped everything and everybody except me. If it had been anybody else, they would have been behind them 100 percent.”41
Less than one year after Williams made that statement, he was dead at age 44. In late 1978, Williams started having headaches and seizures. Tests showed a tumor on his pituitary gland. Brain surgery was performed, but Williams lingered in a coma for six weeks before dying on February 8, 1979.42 A complaint over his firing that he had filed with the Equal Opportunity Commission was still pending at the time of his death.43 Commenting on his passing, Bakersfield native and former major-league pitcher George Culver said, “It just broke his heart when he got fired like that.”44
Williams was buried in Bakersfield’s Union Cemetery. He left behind his wife and five children. At the time of his death, his son, Arthur Williams, Jr., was working as an umpire in the Northern California League, hoping to follow in his father’s footsteps. “My father wasn’t the kind of man who would divulge his feelings,” he said. “He was disappointed at what happened, but he achieved what he had dreamed about for years, making the major leagues.”45
This biography was reviewed by Darren Gibson and Rory Costello and fact-checked by James Forr,
A 30-minute documentary on Williams, “Unbelievable: The Art Williams Story,” was released by EB Productions in 2022 and is available on YouTube. It includes interviews with Williams’ brother and sister-in-law. The documentary was very helpful in the research for this biography.
1 A. L. Hardman, “Sunday Beat,” Sunday Gazette Mail (Charleston, West Virginia), July 23, 1972: 5D.
2 Walter J. Weiss, “Baseball Questionnaire,” April 21, 1956.
3 Walt Little, “Little Quotes,” The Bakersfield Californian, June 22, 1953: 27.
4 “Idaho Falls Wallops Ogden by 12-4 Score,” The Times-News (Idaho Falls, Idaho), May 9, 1954: 10.
5 “Fresno Retains Margin; Salinas Defeats Visalia,” Tulare (California) Advance Register, August 24, 1956: 4.
6 “Williams Wins Two,” The Fresno (California) Bee, September 4, 1956: 24.
7 Hardman, “Sunday Beat.”
8 Hardman, “Sunday Beat.”
9 Hardman, “Sunday Beat.”
10 Dick Wagner, “’I’m Umpire First, Then a Black’ – Art Williams,” The Sporting News, May 13, 1973: 29.
11 Hardman, “Sunday Beat.”
12 Hardman, “Sunday Beat.”
13 Hardman, “Sunday Beat.”
14 Hardman, “Sunday Beat.”
15 Hardman, “Sunday Beat.”
16 Rhiannon Walker, “The day Art Williams became the first black umpire in the National League,” Andscape: September 20, 2017. Accessed on July 14, 2022. https://andscape.com/features/the-day-art-williams-became-the-first-black-umpire-in-the-national-league/.
17 Walker, “The day Art Williams became the first black umpire in the National League.”
18 “Unbelievable – Art Williams Story,” YouTube, (636) Unbelievable: The Art Williams Story – YouTube accessed on July 24, 2022.
19 “Art Williams admits jitters as NL’s first black umpire,” The Miami Herald, September 20, 1972. 3-D.
20 Bucky Walter, “Giants Bow in 11th, 1-0,” San Francisco Examiner, September 23, 1972: 31.
21 Walter, “Giants Bow in 11th, 1-0.”
22 Dick Wagner, “I’m Umpire First, Then a Black – Art Williams,” The Sporting News, May 12, 1973: 29.
23 Wagner, “I’m Umpire First, Then a Black.”
24 Jerome Holtzman, “Burke Bounced at Start,” The Sporting News, June 16, 1973: 10.
25 Tom Fitzpatrick. “Case for Art Williams, Umpire,” The Cincinnati Enquirer, August 26, 1975, 24.
26 “Breaks Evening Out for Cincinnati, Astros?” The Berkeley Gazette (Berkeley, California), September 4, 1974: 19.
27 Jack Lang, “Players Rank Harvey No. 1 Among N.L. Umpires. The Sporting News. October 5, 1974: 8.
28 Fitzpatrick, “Case for Art Williams, Umpire.”
29 Richard Dozer, “Cubs Pride and Joy: Madlock’s Hot Bat,” The Sporting News, August 16, 1975: 10.
30 Eric Gregg worked a few games as a substitute umpire in 1976 and 1977.
31 George Usher, “Frazier Strikes Out at Umpire,” Newsday (Hempstead, New York), May 31, 1976: 42.
32 Usher, “Frazier Strikes Out at Umpire.”
33 Milton Richman, “Frazier Not a Racist, Rues Remarks,” Latrobe (Pennsylvania) Bulletin, June 2, 1976: 19.
34 Murray Chass, “Mets Down Pirates, 13-2, Then Lose 2-1 As Matlack and Medich Pitch,” New York Times, June 1, 1976: 45
35 “Umpire Art Williams Cites Prejudice in N.L. Firing,” The Sporting News, February 18, 1978: 63.
36 Larry Press, “Ex-N.L. Ump Williams Now Working as a Bus Driver,” The Sporting News, April 1, 1978: 51.
37 Press, “Ex-N.L. Ump Williams Now Working as a Bus Driver.”
38 Allen Lewis, “Barlick Non-Racist, Crawford Asserts,” The Sporting News, April 15, 1978: 8.
39 Lewis, “Barlick Non-Racist, Crawford Asserts.”
40 Wayne Lockwood, “Ashford Comments to the Point Concerning Art Williams Incident,” The Daily Spectrum (St. George, UT), July 13, 1978:9.
41 Press, “Ex-N.L. Ump Williams Now Working as a Bus Driver.”
42 Robert Price, “When they called ‘Play Ball!’ NL’s first black umpire, Art Williams, was all about the game, not the abuse,” KGET.com, February 19, 2021. When they yelled ‘Play Ball!’ NL’s first Black umpire, Art Williams, was all about the game, not the abuse | KGET 17 accessed on July 24, 2022.
43 “Arthur Williams, Baseball Umpire Born,” AAREG, Arthur Williams, Baseball Umpire born – African American Registry (aaregistry.org) accessed on July 24, 2022.
44 Price, “When they called ‘Play Ball!’”
45 Maury Allen, “Sad Way to Say Goodby,” New York Post, May 14, 1979. NP