Locals push for enshrinement

By Doug Irving
Updated: October 10, 2009

A framed portrait of a young Emmett Ashford in his umpire uniform is surrounded by autographed baseballs in his daughter's Altadena home

A framed portrait of a young Emmett Ashford in his umpire uniform is surrounded by autographed baseballs in his daughter's Altadena home

CALIFORNIA — A security guard stopped Emmett Ashford at the ballpark on the day he was to make history, blocking his way into the clubhouse.

“Listen,” the guard said, according to a news account from the time, “there are no Negro umpires in the major leagues.”

Ashford didn’t miss a beat. “Well, there will be,” he said, “if you will let me into the park.”

Ashford was 51 by the time he finally broke into the big leagues in 1966, the first black man in blue to work a major league field. He had labored for years in the minors, calling strikes like nobody else, a rare character in the history of sports: an umpire beloved by fans.

His name and his story have passed quietly into the back pages of baseball history. But a small group of fans at Chapman University have started a campaign to get him the recognition they think he deserves — and a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

“He was sort of the unrecognized pioneer,” said John Tehranian, a Chapman law professor and an adviser to the school’s new Emmett Ashford Society.

“It seemed a shame not to sort of celebrate his legacy and make sure other people know about it.”

Ashford was an attraction all himself, as much fun to watch as any of the players on the field. His strike calls were the stuff of legend – grand, oversized gestures that one writer compared to karate chops. His voice echoed off the grandstands: “Strrr-ike!”

He got his start on the other side of the plate, playing for Chapman in the early 1940s, when it was a college in Los Angeles and not a university in Orange. He played some semi-pro ball, too – until one day when the ump didn’t show.

Ashford stepped in and never looked back. He had a comfortable day job at the time, as a postal clerk. But he gave it all up in 1951 and signed on as an umpire in the minor leagues – the first black umpire in professional baseball, at any level.

That left him alone to face the slights and slurs that followed – hotels that wouldn’t let him stay with the rest of the crew, fans that shouted epithets from the stands. An angry manager once cursed the names of Abraham Lincoln and Branch Rickey – denouncing in one breath the man who freed the slaves and the man who helped desegregate the big leagues.

Later in life, Ashford told his daughter, Adrienne, about the “horrible things that he heard when he was behind the plate.” But he never spoke of the details. “There are some things you don’t say in front of a lady,” Adrienne says now.

Ashford spent 15 years in the minors before he got his shot at the Big Leagues, as an American League umpire. On his first day up, in April 1966, he stepped onto the grass at old D.C. Stadium in Washington in front of more than 44,000 fans and the vice president, Hubert Humphrey.

“I feel proud being an umpire in the big leagues,” he said at the time. “Not because I’m the first Negro, but because umpires in the major leagues are very select people.”

Ashford was chosen to work the All-Star Game in Anaheim in 1967, only his second year in the Major Leagues. He umpired the 1970 World Series, too. As he took the field for one of the games, a television announcer intoned: “Dignity, like cream, will always rise to the top.”

He retired shortly after the World Series and then traveled the world as a special emissary for baseball. He appeared in old-timers games, hobbling out to the field on crutches – and then throwing them down and racing out to his position.

He died of a heart attack in 1980.

“As the first black umpire in the major leagues, his magnanimous nature was sternly tested,” Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn said in a statement upon Ashford’s death. “But he was unshaken and uncomplaining, remaining the colorful, lively personality he was all his life.

“He set a standard for decency that will remain a model for all of us.”

Adrienne Bratton keeps her father’s baseballs in a plastic tub in the garage of her Altadena home. The covers are worn and the ink is faded, but you can still read the autographs: Campanella. DiMaggio. And Reggie Jackson, who wrote: “To Emmett, my best to a super guy.”

She remembers Ashford as a family man with a big laugh, a dinner-table umpire who would issue a warning – “You know better” – when she talked with food in her mouth. He and her mother divorced when she was young, and she didn’t really get to know him well until after he hung up his umpire mask.

But she wrote a short book about his life, full of a daughter’s pride in her big-league dad, and called it, “Strrr-ike!” And she believes that he most certainly belongs in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

“This is the story of a man who had a dream,” she wrote in her book, “an impossible dream in his day.”

A small group of students has taken up the cause at Chapman, where Ashford’s name is written in bronze in the school’s Hall of Fame. Their campaign started where they hope it will end – at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.

Tehranian, the law professor, heard of Ashford’s story during a symposium there earlier this year, and quickly made the connection to Chapman. He brought the story back to campus, where a handful of students decided to do what they could to correct what they see as an oversight. They began writing letters to Hall of Fame voters.

Adrienne Bratton sent a letter; so did University President James Doti. And so did Rachel Robinson, widow of Jackie Robinson, who signed as the first black player in the majors four years before Ashford signed as the first black ump in the minors.

“His induction into the Hall of Fame will not only be a tribute to his professionalism,” Robinson wrote. “I hope it will serve as inspiration for others, and an important acknowledgment that if one is well prepared, and determined, they can be supported in their aspirations.”

The Chapman students hope to get Ashford’s name on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot, and likely won’t know if they’ve succeeded until after the World Series. That’s when the ballot will likely be made public, said Craig Muder of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

There are only eight umpires in the Hall of Fame. Most spent 20 or 30 years in the Major Leagues. Ashford had only five, but his supporters argue that his years in the minor leagues should count as well.

“They aren’t looking at the struggles that he had to go through and the hardships that he had to go through,” said Iman Sorat, a Chapman law student and president of the Emmett Ashford Society who, at 26, wasn’t even born when Ashford died.

“He just followed his passion.” Sorat said.