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Forgotten milestone: MLB’s first Black umpire took the field for Cleveland Indians game – cleveland.com

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Emmett Ashford, first Black umpire signed by the Major Leagues, is shown in a spring-training game a month before his Major League debut. On April 11, 1966, Ashford umpired the Cleveland Indians-Washington Senators game.AP
CLEVELAND, Ohio – In 1947, integration came to Major League Baseball, giving Black players a chance to take to big-league diamonds, to hit away, to steal a base, to round third on a close play and head for home.
It would be almost two decades later before the men calling them safe or out, who would ring them up or send them to first on a checked swing, would look like them.
And the Cleveland Indians would play in that first game.
Jackie Robinson broke into the Majors in the National League with the Brooklyn Dodgers in April 1947, followed three months later by Larry Doby in the American League with the Indians. But it wasn’t until April 11, 1966, when Emmett Ashford would break in as the Major Leagues’ first Black umpire.
Mark Armour’s fine biography of Ashford for the Society for American Baseball Research paints a picture of a Black man in the 1960s “whose job required maintaining authority over white men.”
Emmett Ashford makes a call during a June 16, 1966, game between Detroit and New York in Yankee Stadium.ASSOCIATED PRESS
Ashford was born in 1914 in California. In what would be harbinger for his umpiring career, he became his high school’s first Black student-body president. He played baseball and graduated from Chapman College in Orange, California.
Ashford went on to work for the Post Office while playing semipro baseball. In those days, few men had a burning desire to become umpires, and Ashford’s path was typical: An umpire didn’t show up one day, and Ashford was asked to step in.
He found himself umpiring everything from girls softball to college baseball. He kept moving up. In 1954, he was assigned to the Pacific Coast League.
He gained a reputation as being a bit of a showman, energetic on the field, always making calls with pronounced flair. Longtime baseball man Dick Williams called him a little clown – aligning his first name with that of one of the more famous actual clowns, Emmett Kelly.
That extroverted style might have been a defensive mechanism, former Indians pitcher Sam McDowell told cleveland.com from his home in Florida. McDowell’s autobiography, “The Saga of Sudden Sam: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of Sam McDowell,” came out in March.
“He was a showman,” McDowell said. “I think that was a defense that he had being the only black umpire in the league. … He did have fun. I remember that more than anything. He had a lot of fun on the field, with all the other umpires being so stoic, that it stood out. Overall, I would say he was a mediocre umpire.”
Off the field, Ashford – a fine dresser – enjoyed opera and Latin dancing. But on the field, Ashford was not a passive, fade-into-the-wall umpire. Prior to making the Majors, he got into his share of on-field battles, once fighting with Orlando Cepeda over a strike call during a 1965 playoff game in the Dominican Republic – Cepeda of the Giants throwing punches, the umpire swinging with his mask.
Once, in a game in El Paso, the visiting team loaded the bases with a 3-2 count on the batter. Ashford called a ball; the forced run came in. The hometown crowd was the least of Ashford’s problems. El Paso players surrounded him at home plate. Ashford told the story over the years, with one account going like this:
“I felt like a rope was near my neck. I knew those rumbles in the stands had a message of danger for me. But I told those El Paso players, ‘Gentlemen, I know where I am, and I know what’s going on. But I’m the umpire here by appointment. It may be the last game I ever work in my life but while I’m here I’m in charge. Now, I’m going to go over to get some new baseballs. When I come back there’d better be nothing but air around home plate, else I’ll run every man out of the park even if I get killed for it.”
With the backing of Pacific Coast League president Dewey Soriano, Ashford got the call in 1965. He would be 51 when the season began.
Somewhat surprisingly, his take on acceptance and his experiences differed from that of many Negro League and Major League players. Generally, Ashford said he few problems when he officiated in the south. The region, notorious for upholding the Jim Crow climate of the day, was known for proudly waving the flag for segregation – keeping Blacks off the fields and out of team hotels when Robinson and Doby were coming up.
“I find that in sports a man is judged by what he does,” he once told a reporter.
Emmett Ashford, first African-American umpire in Major League Baseball, in action at third base in the Washington-Cleveland opener in Washington on April 11, 1966. (AP Photo/Harvey Georges)AP
Players are scrutinized but few are judged like umpires. And on April 11, 1966, Ashford was tabbed for the Cleveland Indians-Washington Senators’ game, the traditional presidential opener.
It actually wasn’t the first time the Indians had played with Ashford on the field. A week before the Senators’ opener, Cleveland, managed by Birdie Tebbetts, had seen Ashford up close, in an exhibition game. Ashford was not immune to clowning with fans. At one point during that game, as managers conferred after a lineup change, Ashford turned to the fans and announced: “Mr. Tebbetts has come out here to confer on a matter of strategy.” Tebbetts, a reporter wrote, grinned and walked back to the dugout.
Ashford, it seemed, could walk the line between showmanship and showing someone up.
But one time, in a PCL game at Multnomah Stadium in Portland, McDowell said some teammates were razzing Ashford from the bench. The umpire couldn’t tell who the culprits were, so he took drastic measures.
“He went so far to throw the entire team out of the game,” he said.
On April 11, 1966, though, Ashford wasn’t tossing anybody.
He told reporters prior to his Major League debut that day: “I’ve got butterflies. I’ve waited a long time for a chance to make the major leagues.”
It would have been a sight, the stocky 5-foot-7, 185-pound Ashford walking to his left-field position (with tears in his eyes, he later wrote) as 6-foot-5 Tribe hurler McDowell headed to the mound on that cool April day in the nation’s capital. McDowell was coming off a 17-11 season with a 2.18 ERA. He was a first-time All-Star.
At 44,468, it was the largest attendance for an opener at D.C. Stadium. Vice President Hubert Humphrey tossed the ceremonial first pitch. Chief Justice Earl Warren and Postmaster General Larry O’Brien flanked Humphrey, who greeted Ashford.
Ashford almost didn’t get into the stadium. Secret-service agents initially didn’t believe that he was an umpire.
Venerable sports columnist Dick Young of the New York Daily News pointed to Ashford’s assignment for the home opener in Washington as a political maneuver on the part of baseball, the league being embroiled in antitrust battles at the time. President Johnson was not in attendance, preferring to be home in Texas.
Either way, it was Opening Day, and Ashford would make history.
Early in the game, though, McDowell took note of something regarding Ashford.
“What was interesting to me, amid all the hoopla about Emmett Ashford going to be there, it was either the first or second inning,” McDowell said. “The visiting team was at the third-base dugout. He was at third base, and I remember walking off the mound. He always came down the third-base line a little bit in between innings. As he came down, I turned to him and said something to the effect, ‘Hey Emmett, what’s happening?’ because he knew me from the Pacific Coast League. What was very interesting was he turned his back and went away, not saying anything. And then I remembered him looking into the dugout as I was sitting there. I got the impression that he didn’t want any of the hometown fans to think he was a special friend of mine.”
The game was a milestone, though not a very exciting one. Cleveland’s Vic Davalillo was the first player to step into the batter’s box with Ashford on the field. Ashford had to make few calls. One involved Davalillo at third, but it wasn’t close.
In the sixth inning, Ashford had to rule on slugger Frank Howard’s shot off the left-field foul pole – a home run that gave the Senators a 2-1 lead.
The Senators held that lead until the top of the ninth, when back-to-back RBI singles from Davalillo and Max Alvis helped lift the Tribe to the victory.
Chuck Heaton, covering the game for The Plain Dealer, wrote: “McDowell is the big man for the Tribe. He can be the stopper who will keep the team from going into a major tailspin. Until he tired, Sam showed that he still has all the weapons in the arsenal – the blazing fast ball, the sharp curve, and the ability to respond to tough situations.” The paper devoted only two paragraphs to Ashford.
McDowell was on, retiring the first nine Senators – six with strikeouts. He would go eight innings, allowing two runs on four hits and four walks. He struck out nine.
The box score shows a solid pitching performance by McDowell, Howard’s home run, and a perfect ninth in relief by Sonny Siebert. Alvis and Rocky Colavito each would go 3-for-5. And Ashford would get a line as one of the assigned umps.
Cleveland Indians pitcher Sam McDowell is shown in a 1970 game when he struck out 15 Chicago White Sox.ASSOCIATED PRESS
“I thought Emmett was a very nice guy,” McDowell said. But he remembers Ashford’s flair in his job.
“Today that is accepted. Back in the day, that was not really accepted, putting on a major show for an umpire.”
But simply by walking onto the field that day, Ashford would own a place in baseball’s history books. However, like Satchel Paige’s Major League spotlight shining in the twilight of his career, Ashford’s time came late in life.
(Side note: A year earlier, Burl Toler became the first Black official in the NFL. The Cleveland Browns had drafted Toler in 1952, but an injury curtailed his career. Amazingly, his first game – like Ashford’s – was Cleveland at Washington, on Sept. 19, 1965. It also was the season opener for the two teams and played in the same stadium where Ashford would be seven months later.)
A handful of Black umpires have worked in the Majors since Ashford. In 2020, Kerwin Danley became the first Black umpire crew chief.
Ashford worked the All-Star Game, also in left field, in 1967 and the World Series in 1970. Baltimore defeated Cincinnati in Game 5, and Ashford retired.
He worked in an MLB advisory role and continued umpiring minor-league games.
The 1966 Indians went 81-81 and finished in fifth place. Tebbetts never managed again in the Majors.
Incidentally, it was McDowell who graced the cover of the 1966 Indians yearbook. The shot shows McDowell in follow-through, with the ball blazing out of his left hand.
“That took all day to do in Tucson,” said McDowell, who said it took “20 or 30 takes” to get the photograph. And, he said, they wanted to make it look like it was at night. (If you look at that photo now, the background is dark – but McDowell’s long shadow can be seen on the mound.)
Cleveland would play another role in the game’s integration, in addition to Doby on the roster in 1947 and the team on the field with Ashford in 1966. The Indians’ Frank Robinson would become the first Black manager in 1975.
A Hall of Fame biography quotes Ashford as saying: “It wasn’t easy being an umpire, let alone being a Negro umpire. But since the game is the ballplayer’s bread and butter, all he wants is for you to make the right calls. He doesn’t care if you’re white or Black, Eskimo or Indian. In turn, I worked like hell. I was an umpire, not a Black umpire.”
Ashford would die in 1980 of a heart attack. His ashes are interred in Lakewood Cemetery in Cooperstown, New York, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. He is not enshrined.
A few years ago, writer Charlie Vascellaro created a trophy case as an homage to Ashford, and had the umpire’s gravestone refurbished.
The final chapter in Larry Gerlach’s exceptional “The Men in Blue,” which came out the year Ashford died, is devoted to the ground-breaking umpire. On umpiring that 1966 Indians-Senators opener, Ashford says:
“It was the biggest thrill of my life.”
I am on cleveland.com’s life and culture team and cover food, beer, wine and sports-related topics. If you want to see my stories, here’s a directory on cleveland.com. Bill Wills of WTAM-1100 and I talk food and drink usually at 8:20 a.m. Thursday morning. Twitter: @mbona30.
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