Emmett Littleton Ashford: Baseball Pioneer (1914 - 1980)

“My five-year tenure in the majors was one of satisfaction and gratification at having conquered the biggest challenge in my life and in some measure opening the door for black umpires.  I feel proud having been an umpire in the big leagues not because I was the first black man but because major league umpires are a very select group of men.  But the greatest satisfaction I’ve gotten is the feeling of accomplishment in doing what I set out to do in the first place when they said it couldn’t be done.  I only wish it had happened sooner, but there’s no point crying about it.  It took a long time, sure, but it also took the covered wagons a long time to get across the plains.”
~ Emmett Ashford, from The Men in Blue: Conversations with Umpires,by Larry R. Gerlach (New York: The Viking Press, 1980)

Born in 1914, Emmett Ashford holds the distinction of being the first African American umpire to officiate in both minor and major league baseball.  A native Angeleno, Ashford spent time as a youth in San Francisco before returning to Los Angeles in the late 1920s.  He attended Jefferson High School, partook of the delights available on Central Avenue, and continued his education at LAJC (later renamed Los Angeles City College) and Chapman College (class of ’41).  Taking a job with the Post Office, Ashford became involved in umpiring Post Office games in an independent league.

After service in the Navy during World War II, Ashford returned to a world suddenly fraught with new possibilities for a black man interested in umpiring: Jackie Robinson had integrated the major leagues in 1947.  Roles for black umpires couldn’t be far behind.  Ashford started paying his dues.  In 1951, Ashford umpired in the minors, including the South Western International League and the Pacific Coast League, where he was later named Umpire in Chief.  Ashford was not a big man, roughly 5’7” and 180 pounds, a fact that seemingly made him easy pickings for racists.  But like most racist threats in the wake of baseball segregation, most were hot air, even when the object wasn’t a player but a *!^#*!! umpire.  His size and personality caused him to develop an animated style, where he was often described as dancing with great agility around the plate.  He indulged in extra physicality and animation, and often made his voice boom to gain attention.  Ashford was a tremendous showman, a styler.  He was also a very sharp dresser, a reputation that would follow him the rest of his career. 

Ashford umpired in the Pacific Coast League through 1965 when the American League, recognizing the social changes happening around the country, bought his contract.  Beginning in 1966, Ashford became the most visible and easily the most animated and best dressed umpire in American League parks.  He worked the 1967 All-Star Game and the 1970 World Series.

After his mandatory retirement at the conclusion of the 1970 postseason, Ashford kept his hand in baseball as a special assistant to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, and he umpired various alumni games at the University of Southern California for Rod Dedeaux.  Ashford also found work as a performer in the entertainment industry, both in television and motion pictures.  In 1976, he starred as the plate umpire in The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings, a comedic film about a team of enterprising Negro League ballplayers in the era of racial segregation.

This brave and resolute man died from a heart attack in 1980.  Even after his death, Ashford continued to be a pioneer of sorts.  His widow, Virginia, sent his ashes in a brass urn to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, where a special burial plot – the first of its kind for baseball personalities – was established in the nearby Lakewood Cemetery.  Ashford was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals in 2008, the second umpire to be so honored.

~ Biography written by Albert Kilchesty and Terry Cannon

Discussion and book signing on “Emmett Ashford: Los Angeles Baseball Pioneer”

In celebration of Black History Month, the Baseball Reliquary and Pasadena Public Library present a program honoring Los Angeles baseball pioneer Emmett Ashford, the first African American umpire to officiate in both minor and major league baseball, on Saturday, February 25, 2012, at 3:00 pm, at the Allendale Branch Library, 1130 S. Marengo Ave., Pasadena, California.

Emmett Ashford’s daughter, Adrienne Cherie Ashford, will discuss her father’s extraordinary career and legacy; will sign copies of her biography, Strrr-ike!!: Emmett Ashford, Major League Umpire; and will show video clips of her father working games in the 1970 World Series.  Ashford’s biography will be available for $15.00 per copy.

For further information, contact the Baseball Reliquary by phone at (626) 791-7647 or by e-mail at terymar@earthlink.net.  For directions, phone the Allendale Branch Library at (626) 744-7260.

The program is made possible, in part, by a grant to the Baseball Reliquary from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors through the Los Angeles County Arts Commission.