Count me among the millions of sports junkies now enduring withdrawal pains as the cancellations and suspensions mount across the land. Spring in America without baseball is extremely painful, having already witnessed the disappearance of basketball and the Olympics. I have no way of knowing if Smithsonian magazine was mindful of this dilemma when it featured a story on Emmett Ashford, the first Black umpire in Major League Baseball.
The story on Ashford was probably scheduled well in advance of the coronavirus pandemic, and most likely keyed to the opening of America’s summer pastime favorite. No matter what the purpose it arrives propitiously and is a good read without the players on the field and a moment to reflect on the Jackie Robinson of umpires.
Emmett Littleton Ashford was born on Nov. 23, 1914 in Los Angeles, Ca. His father, Littleton, was a police officer who abandoned the family leaving his mother, Adele, to raise him and his brother. As a youth, Emmett helped in family expenses by selling the Liberty magazine and holding down a job at a local supermarket. He attended Jefferson High School where he co-edited the school paper, was a member of the baseball and track team, and was the senior class president.
While attending Los Angeles Junior College and later Chapman University, he also played semi-pro baseball and worked part time as a post office clerk, later taking a full time position that he held for 15 years. During World War II he served in the Navy from 1943-46 where he first began thinking about becoming a professional umpire. That quest was ushered along by accident when a scheduled umpire didn’t show up and he was asked to fill in. “I gave them a little showmanship,” he recalled, “and the crowd loved it.”
Ten years later, after umpiring high school, college and semi-pro games, Emmett broke the color barrier in the low-level Southwest International League. Here he experienced a baptismal of insults and racist heckling, none of which distracted him from his flamboyant calls. In fact, he excelled so well that within a short period of time he was assigned to the Pacific Coast League, a step away from the big time.
Over the years on the coast, he established himself as a dedicated umpire with a flair for the calls he made. The commitment he brought to the field was consistent with the ones he had practiced throughout his entire life, whether as a clerk at the post office or cashier in the supermarket. “I think the reason why I do well working then is like everything else that’s filtered down through my life,” he said, “I just couldn’t stand to do things halfway. 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.”
Reporter Alex Coffey wrote that “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.” Coffey continued. “But after 15 years of proving skeptics wrong in the minor league circuit, Ashford was quite familiar with the situation.”
From his debut on the diamond and over the next several years, Emmett was sought out by fans requesting his autograph, which he readily did with the same wide grin and ebullience he displayed on the field. Of course, his exhilaration and showmanship were not universally approved, some citing it as clowning and less than professional. This criticism was particularly vocal among racist and conservative sportswriters and commentators, some of whom were African American.
In many respects, rather than comparing his breakthrough to Jackie Robinson, the immortal pitcher Satchel Paige may be a better comparison, especially since both were well past their prime when they began acquiring national recognition. Emmett was over 50 when he entered the Major Leagues. After umpiring in the 1970 World Series, Emmett hung up his spikes, having exceeded the mandatory retirement age of 55. Over the remaining years of his life he worked in the baseball commissioner’s office and even appeared with Richard Pryor in the 1976 comedy film “Bingo Long Traveling All Stars & Motor Kings.”
The question is often asked if Emmett and Jackie Robinson were ever on the field at the same time, and the answer is no because Jackie had retired ten years before Emmett arrived. And while Jackie is in the Hall of Fame that honor still awaits Emmett, who died of a heart attack on March 1, 1980 in Marina Del Rey, California.