Emmett Ashford broke a significant color barrier in Major League Baseball by becoming the league’s first Black umpire 50 years ago this week. Ashford was inspired by a previous barrier breaker in Jackie Robinson, and was determined to make his mark on history in similar fashion.
Ashford was born November 23, 1914 in Los Angeles, California. He played baseball in high school and continued playing while he at Chapman College. In 1936, Ashford took a job as a postal clerk and worked there for 15 years. It was around this time Ashford tried his hand at semi-pro baseball, He wasn’t successful as a player, so he took up umpiring after he was asked to fill in for an absent official.
During World War II, Ashford, now part of the U.S. Navy, heard the news that the Brooklyn Dodgers signed a Black player. In an interview, Ashford said that Robinson’s signing inspired him to try to become the MLB’s first Black umpire.
19 years after Robinson integrated major league baseball, Ashford would join him in the record books. On April 11, 1966, Ashford umpired the contest between the Washington Senators against the Cleveland Indians in D.C. Stadium.
Ashford made a name for himself in the minor leagues as a flamboyant and animated umpire who continued that trend when he got to the majors. He was 51 when he started in the majors and continued working until 1970. In his short time officiating the game, Ashford was a crowd favorite though he did hear his share of racist and hateful jeers.
When it came to baseball players, Ashford said in an interview that they didn’t care much about his race so long as he got the call right. Although Ashford’s history-making achievement has been recognized several times by the MLB, he still not been enshrined in the MLB Hall of Fame, an effort his family continues to push for.
Ashford worked in public relations for baseball after his retirement and was a well-known ambassador for the game. He died in 1980 at the age of 65 in Marina del Rey, Calif.