Today, April 11, marks the first time Emmett Ashford stepped onto a major league ballfield as the first Black umpire in Major League Baseball.
Known for breaking down barriers, Ashford’’ made his monumental debut at third base at the Cleveland Indians-Washington Senators game, at Washington’s D.C. Stadium on April 11, 1966. Tens of thousands of people witnessed Ashford becoming the first umpire to break Major League Baseball’s color barrier. But the most important day of his career almost didn’t’ become his to claim.
Upon his arrival at the ballpark, Ashford was blocked from entering by a force of Secret Service agents because they didn’t’ believe Ashford was an umpire. The agents were responsible for security for then-Vice President Humphrey, who was scheduled to throw out the game’s first pitch.
They told him, “There are no Negro umpires in the major leagues.”
Ashford responded, “Well, there will be a Negro umpire in the American League if you will let me into the park.”
Ashford was eventually admitted after his credentials were validated.
“It wasn’t easy being an umpire, let alone being a Negro umpire,” he said, according to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. “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.”
Born in 1914, Ashford grew up in a deeply segregated Los Angeles, where he was used to hearing “no” based on the color of his skin. He has since recounted his experiences with pride rather than remorse. Ashford’s’ perseverance led him to play pro-semi baseball as the first Black player on a team in the area.
Determined to umpire in the big leagues, Ashford dedicated 15 years to working games in the lower levels. In 1951, he had also been the first Black umpire in Organized Baseball, as per the Society of American Baseball Research. He was eventually put in charge of umpires for the Pacific Coast League, where he worked 11 seasons. On the verge of giving up, Ashford became the oldest rookie in the American League at 51 years old.
Ashford’s’ historical milestone came two decades after Jackie Robinson broke the barrier against Black players in the National and American Leagues.
“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,” Ashford told Gerlach. “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.”