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Breaking barriers behind a mask
Years earlier, Ashford had tried his hand at playing ball in college and with a semi-pro team. He wasn’t especially good, and when World War II came along, his career ended.
But when he heard about a former Negro Leaguer signing with the Dodgers on Nov. 1, 1945, things changed.
“I was lying on my cot one evening when the announcement came over the radio that Jackie Robinson had signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Right then, I said to myself, ‘I’m going to be the first black umpire,’” Ashford recalled to author Larry R. Gerlach in The Men in Blue: Conversations with Umpires.
Ashford had just left the U.S. Navy following the war when Robinson took the field with Brooklyn in 1947 as the first African-American in the Majors. It was an enormous moment in American history, one most baseball fans can point to.
The Los Angeles native was inspired. Unable to go on leave from his job at the post office in 1951, he stunned coworkers and friends when he abruptly quit.
“I had to make the decision which everybody has to make in his life sometime,” Ashford said. “How many men go to their graves without ever doing what’s in their hearts?”
So began an unlikely 15-year journey through Minor League baseball in his quest to follow Robinson to the Majors.
Ashford’s story is probably unfamiliar to many baseball fans, despite its relevance to the game — when he finally reached the Majors in 1966, it opened the door for future minority umpires.
Progress has been slow, though — it wasn’t until 1993 that Chuck Meriwether became only the second black umpire to join the American League. And in 2008, Meriwether and Adrian Johnson became the first pair of black umpires to work a Major League game.
Ashford’s career was the beginning. Raised by his mother, he worked at a grocery store and became the first black student body president at Los Angeles’ Jefferson High School. After running track, Ashford went on to Chapman College in Orange, Calif., where he played baseball and wrote for the school newspaper.
“I was sports editor of the college paper; I was assured of a good press,” he joked.
Ashford credited his mother as the influence to break color barriers, both in high school and baseball. In college, he played for a semi-pro team, the Mystery Nine.
“The mystery, of course, was how I managed to become the only black face on that white team,” he said.
When the umpires didn’t show up for a game one day, Ashford filled in.
“By the seventh inning, they loved my umpiring,” he said, referring to his teammates. “Thenceforth, the team decreed that I should umpire.”
He soon moved up, from high school to junior college to the top of the college circuit.
“The umpiring mushroomed so that I was busier than hell,” he said in the book. He was making $2 a game.
In 1951, Kansas City scout Rosey Gilhousen helped arrange a Minor League tryout for Ashford between clubs from Tucson, Ariz., and Mexicali, Mexico, in the Class C Southwest International League.
Ashford became the first professional black umpire when he worked four games behind the plate and finished the season in the league. (“The Mexicans ate it up,” he said.) He was offered a job to return a year later.
At times, white umpires refused to serve on the same crew as Ashford, delaying games until replacements could be found. In some towns, he wasn’t able to eat at the same restaurants as white umpires.
“He would tell me things. He would say, ‘You wouldn’t believe the kind of stuff I hear,’” said Ashford’s daughter, Adrienne Ashford Bratton, who wrote a book about her father, Strrr-ike!!: Emmett Ashford, Major League Umpire. “The things they said or called out the from the stands, especially in the Midwest.”
Finding a hotel also could pose a challenge.
“In those days, things were segregated, but it was different for me. I remember calling upon the finest all-white motel in El Centro,” Ashford wrote. “I approached the owner. ‘Sir, I am that barefoot and uncultured Negro man you have been reading about.”
“I wish to seek lodging in your handsome establishment.’ The fellow stared at me curiously. ‘If you got enough nerve to come in here and talk like that, then you got a room.’ With that, he led me to the finest suite in the place. The man knew style when he saw it.”
Ashford got a taste of racism on the field when he joined the Arizona-Texas League in 1952.
“I heard all the stuff that Jackie Robinson used to get way back in 1946,” he said, recalling one incident in which a fan leaned over the stands and used racial slurs in telling Ashford to go home.”
“By the time he worked his final game in El Paso, he said the fans “stood and gave me a standing ovation.” The local newspaper called him “a damn good umpire.”
In 1953, Ashford joined the Class A Western International League after the league president was allegedly removed for refusing to let Ashford work. A year later, he was promoted to the Triple-A Pacific Coast League.
“Right now, I’m learning and I hope to graduate to the Majors on my ability,” Ashford told The New York Times in 1954. “That and nothing else.”
Bratton remembers going to Wrigley Field in Los Angeles to see her father call games for the local Triple-A club.
“I got to see Daddy — I had my own box seat in Wrigley Field,” she said. “Whichever side he was umpiring on is where I sat, so he could keep an eye on me.”
Ashford’s style was often described as flamboyant. His calls were sometimes exaggerated, theatrical and entertaining, making him popular among fans and, sometimes, unpopular among the players he was punching out. He was a flashy dresser, had a “booming” voice and wore cuff links to top off his uniform.
“I have an electric shoe-shiner of his,” said Bratton, who called him a “snappy” dresser. “He was very meticulous, and he took that on the field. He had a great sense of humor, and I think he needed that to help get him through the negativity.”
Writing of Ashford’s style in The Sporting News in 1966, Bob Sudyk said, “He runs on tip-toes like a guy trying to sneak into his house at 3 a.m. without waking the old lady.”
“He came out smiling, he put some life in the game. Even if the game wasn’t good, he put some life in it,” Bratton added. “And some people resented that if they didn’t have that ability.”
Authors Mark McGuire and Michael Sean Gormley described Ashford as having “more facial expressions than a Vegas comic” in their book, Moments in the Sun: Baseball’s Briefly Famous.
“For bigots, Ashford had become a nightmare: an articulate man who overcame obstacles that could be thrown in his way and ended up wildly popular and powerful.”
“With his education and background, he could handle different people — he was ready,” she said. “He was ready for any of those situations without feeling less than confident.”
Former outfielder Charlie Metro was in the PCL when Ashford was putting in his time.
“When he’d call a guy out, he’d really throw that arm like he was throwing a big haymaker,” Metro wrote in his book, Safe by a Mile. “His uniform coattail would fly in the air and everything. There was no doubt about it when he made a call.”
“He’d use that voice [at home] to be humorous,” Bratton said. “As far as the voice on the field, I have footage of him of the 1970 World Series, and he was a smaller man — everyone was taller. So you have to make yourself bigger. That was one way he was larger.”
One day in Vancouver, according to Metro, a Mounties player secretly put some promotional “Root for the Mounties” stickers on Ashford’s back as a prank before the game.
“Emmett would go out on the field at home plate with his back to the fans and the fans would roar — he thought they were rooting and hollering for him,” Metro wrote. “I thought it was one of the most comical things I’d ever seen.”
On another occasion, Metro said, Ashford agreed to dance around second base “in a hula skirt and flower things around his neck, ankles and wrists” as a joke during the home team’s Hawaiian theme day.
“He put on a pretty good show,” Metro wrote.
But Ashford knew he was working under a microscope.
“I just couldn’t stand to do things halfway,” he said in The Men in Blue. “I always believed, whatever you do, do it well and do it right — give it the best that you have in you.”
By 1965, Ashford had seen it all in the PCL and, by his own admission, was ready to give up. He felt he’d never reach the Majors.
“I figured I was licked,” he said. “I had worked about 2,800 games and figured I wasn’t ever going to get called up. I thought maybe they weren’t ready for [me] yet in the Majors. I was almost ready to quit.”
Bratton believes it was more than his flamboyant style that kept him out.
“I don’t think he was held down because of the theatrics, I think they wanted to keep him in the Minors because it was a racial issue,” she said. “They were afraid of mixing — there was a fear of mixing races.”
But PCL president Dewey Soriano called Ashford in the winter of 1965 with a surprising development: his contract had been sold to the American League.
“It was one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever had,” Ashford said.
The media descended upon his home and many of his friends who had doubted his career path were now expressing pride.
“I stuck it out, worked hard and finally made it,” he said.
There was one final bump in the road to the Majors. Assigned to work Washington’s season opener on April 11, 1966, Ashford took a cab with his wife to the stadium.
Being Opening Day, Vice President Hubert Humphrey was invited to throw out the first pitch. Ashford arrived at the park and was nearly turned away by the Secret Service.
“There are no Negro umpires in the Major Leagues,” an agent told Ashford’s cab driver. “Well,” Ashford replied, “there will be a Negro umpire in the American League if you will lead me into the park.”
Ashford had finally made it. And the players, at least some of them, were accepting.
“Ballplayers are a peculiar lot. The game is their bread and butter. If you call ‘em right — the strikes and balls and the base decisions — that’s all they want,” Ashford told The New York Times. “They don’t care whether you’re white or black, Eskimo or Indian.”
“Ashford did not become the first Negro umpire in the Major Leagues merely because he was fast on his feet,” New York Times columnist George Vescey wrote in 1969.
“He survived the near-race wars of the Minor Leagues because he could talk better and think faster than the lugs in uniform and the louts in the grandstand. He overwhelmed people with his endurance and his charm.”
“He put people in the stands,” Bratton added. “People wanted to see.”
With Ashford working third base, the Indians beat the Senators, 5-2, in front of a sellout crowd. “It was the biggest thrill of my life,” he said.
“He talked to me more about the people he had to deal with or how he needed to present himself,” Bratton said. “The social aspect of it, to me, is as a great accomplishment. He did it, and that was the icing on the cake, he went further.”
Bratton believes her father, who died in 1980, deserves a spot in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. A campaign to get Ashford considered by the Veterans Committee failed several years ago, despite the recommendation of Robinson’s wife, Rachel.
“Someone had said he didn’t have the years, and I said, ‘Well, if you combine 15 years in the Minors and five years in the Majors, he does.’ And why was he not in the Majors? Because of his color,” Bratton said.
“I will write one more letter [to the Hall]. I’m a cancer survivor and I’m trying to still survive, but I will write a letter. They have a candidate category called ‘pioneer.’ Pioneer is certainly apt as far as I’m concerned.”