November 23, 1914|
Los Angeles, California
|Died||March 1, 1980
Marina del Rey, California
|Occupation||American League Umpire|
|Years active||1966 – 1970|
|Spouse(s)||Willa Gene Fort (m. 1937 – c.1946)|
Ashford was born in Los Angeles, California. His father, Littleton, was a policeman, but abandoned the family, leaving Ashford's mother Adele to raise Emmett and his brother Wilbur. Ashford earned money selling Liberty magazine, and as a cashier in a supermarket. Ashford attended Jefferson High School, and was co-editor of the school paper, played baseball and track, and was the senior class president.
Ashford attended Los Angeles Junior College and Chapman University. In about 1936, Ashford took a job as a post office clerk, a position he held for 15 years. In the late 1930s, Ashford briefly attempted to play semipro baseball, but turned to umpiring when he was asked to fill in for an umpire that didn't show up to a game.
Ashford served in the Navy during World War II, and was inspired to become the first black major league umpire while stationed in Corpus Christi, Texas, when an announcement came on the radio that Jackie Robinson had broken baseball's color barrier.
In 1951, Ashford took a leave of absence from his post office job to umpire in the Southwestern International League, becoming the first black umpire in the traditionally white professional baseball system. When he was offered a full-season umpiring job, Ashford resigned from the postal service.
After the Southwestern International League folded mid-season, Ashford joined the Arizona-Texas League. He moved on to the Western International League in 1953, and was promoted to the Pacific Coast League in 1954.
Ashford spent 12 years in the PCL, and became known for his exuberance, showmanship and energy, even interacting with the crowd between innings. During the off-seasons, Ashford refereed Pac-8 basketball games and college football. He also umpired in the Caribbean winter leagues, and ran several umpiring clinics. In 1963, Ashford was named the PCL's umpire-in-chief, making him responsible for training crews and advising the league on disputed games or rules.
Major league career
By the early 1960s, many West Coast sportswriters began to suggest that Ashford be promoted to the major leagues. In September 1965, Ashford's contract was sold to the American League. Ashford made his debut at D.C. Stadium on April 9, 1966. He quickly became a sensation, becoming known for sprinting around the infield after foul balls or plays on the bases. Ashford also brought a new style to being an umpire. He wore jewelry, including flashy cuff links, and wore polished shoes and freshly-pressed suits. While some observers believed that his race prevented him from working in the majors earlier than he did, others maintained that his flashy style actually delayed his major league debut due to general disdain for umpires to draw attention to themselves. The Sporting News stated that "For the first time in the history of the grand old American game, baseball fans may buy a ticket to watch an umpire perform."
Ashford reached the American League's retirement age of 55 in December 1969, but still umpired one additional season in 1970 before retiring.
In 1971, Ashford was hired by commissioner Bowie Kuhn as a public relations adviser, in which Ashford spoke and held clinics on the west coast, and at places as far away as Korea. He also served as umpire-in-chief for the Alaskan summer league for three years. He appeared in television commercials, playing a cashier in an ad for A&P Grocery stores. Ashford also appeared as an umpire in the 1976 film The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings, and in episodes of Ironside, The Jacksons, and What's My Line?, in which Ashford appeared in his first major league season. Ashford was also a contestant on the 17th November 1955 TV edition of You Bet Your Life.
Ashford died of a heart attack at age 65 in Marina del Rey, California. Upon his death, Bowie Kuhn issued a statement, saying, "As the first black umpire in the major leagues, his magnanimous nature was sternly tested, but he was unshaken and uncomplaining, remaining the colorful, lively personality he was all his life." At his funeral, Ashford was eulogized by Kuhn and former USC baseball coach Rod Dedeaux. Ashford was cremated, and his ashes were interred in Cooperstown, New York.
- Adrienne Cherie Ashford (2004). Strrr-ike!!: Emmett Ashford, Major League Umpire. Author House. ISBN 1-4184-2790-X.
- Armour, Mark. "Emmett Ashford". sabr.org. SABR. Retrieved 10 June 2012.
- Echan, Michael. "MiLB augments Ashford's achievement". mlb.com. MLB Advanced Media, L.P. Retrieved 10 June 2012.
- Wild, Danny. "Ashford broke barriers behind a mask". milb.com. Minor League Baseball. Retrieved 10 June 2012.
- "Emmett Ashford". retrosheet.org. Retrieved 10 June 2012.
- Irving, Doug. "Chapman students want black ump in Hall of Fame". ocregister.com. Orange County Register Communications. Retrieved 10 June 2012.