- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 10, 2016


Fifty years ago Monday, more than 44,000 baseball fans at D.C. Stadium saw something they had never seen before.

They saw a black man enforcing law and order in a Major League Baseball game.

Nearly 20 years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the men in blue who keep order in the game turned black when Emmett Ashford umpired the Washington Senators’ game against the Cleveland Indians.

And, just like Jackie Robinson and the African-American players who followed him, baseball would be better for the presence of Ashford.

“He was a favorite of the fans,” said Senators outfielder and African-American player Fred Valentine, who led off the bottom of the first inning against Cleveland fireballer Sam McDowell with a line drive to second baseman Pedro Gonzalez. “He was energetic. They loved watching him on the field. He was different from the other umpires in the game.

“He was a good umpire,” Valentine said. “From what I could see, most of the players respected him.”

He had paid his dues for that respect.

“I was glad to see him that day,” Valentine said. “They held the black umpires back for a long time. They stayed in the minors a long time and had to go through a lot more than other umpires had to in order to get to the major leagues.”

Ashford was a postal worker who began umpiring when, while playing semipro baseball in Los Angeles, he was asked to fill in as an umpire. The story goes that while serving in the Navy, he became inspired to become a major-league umpire when the news broke that Robinson had signed a contract with the Dodgers.

He took a leave of absence from the postal service to begin umpiring in the Southwestern International League. He would move up to the Pacific Coast League in 1954, where he spent 12 seasons, and, in 1963, was named the league’s umpire-in-chief. Ashford was promoted to the American League in September 1965 and made his debut on April 11, 1966 at what is now known as RFK Stadium.

Ashford was small in size — 5-foot 7, 180 pounds — but had a big size style and became a star, with a generation of young baseball fans drawn to his showmanship. He ran hard and fast on the field to call foul balls and other plays and made his calls with flair.

Bryce Harper would have loved Ashford.

“He wasn’t putting on a show,” Valentine said. “It was just his way of doing the job.”

Ashford once told The New York Times, “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. They don’t care whether you’re white or black, Eskimo or Indian.”

His fellow umpires for that game at D.C. Stadium were John Stevens, Bill Haller, and Bob Stewart. Ashford, at the age of 52, was the third base umpire, and, according to The Associated Press’ account of the game, made his presence felt on a Frank Howard home run.

Howard sent a ball deep on the left field line in the sixth inning.

“Many in the crowd and Howard himself thought the ball was going foul but Ashford ran down the left-field line and, with animated gestures, pointed toward the playing field to indicate it was a home run,” the AP reported.

Valentine said he had a situation similar to the Howard call during one of the games Ashford worked, and it played in Valentine’s favor — even though it was the wrong call. “One time in a game in Washington, I hit a ball down right field, and Emmett was the umpire making the call,” Valentine said. “He was chasing it. The ball hit over the right fielder’s head and bounced into the bullpen. He didn’t see where the ball bounced. He just saw it go in the bullpen, so he called it a home run and it stayed a home run.

“Later, he told me that while he was running, he had taken his eyes off the ball,” Valentine said.

The Senators lost that day to the Indians, 5-2. McDowell was the winner, while Washington’s Pete Richert was the losing pitcher. The Senators led, 2-1, until the top of the ninth when the Indians scored four runs to win.

After the game, the AP quoted Ashford as saying, “In the minors you might see a top-flight pitcher every few days, but in the majors every pitcher is able to pick up those corners so you have to bear down to some little bit more so that you don’t miss a call.”

He would umpire in the majors until 1970. He was hired by commissioner Bowie Kuhn was a public relations advisor, and held clinics and talks all over the world on behalf of Major League Baseball. He did some TV and movies as well, appearing as an umpire in the 1976 film about the Negro Leagues, “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings.”

Ashford died of a heart attack in 1980. He left behind a generation of baseball fans with fond memories.

Ashford did not become the first [African-American] umpire in the major leagues merely because he was fast on his feet,” George Vecsey, a columnist for The New York Times, wrote. “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.”

• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.

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