Emmett Ashford was the first African-American umpire in the MLB. He was an umpire in the American League from 1966 to 1970. His nickname was “Ash”. Emmett Littleton Ashford was born on November 23, 1914 in Los Angeles, California. He was married to Willa Gene Fort and had two children.
His father was a policeman and abandoned the family and left his mother, Adele, to raise Emmett and his brother, Wilbur. An energetic young man, Ash worked in the local grocery store after school and earned extra money selling “Liberty” magazine. He was voted senior class president, participated in baseball and track, and was editor of his high school newspaper. After graduation he went on to junior college and Chapman University. Ash played some semi-pro baseball and worked as a postal clerk for 15 years. One evening he was asked to fill in for an umpire who didn’t show up for a game and Emmett Littleton Ashford’s umpiring career had begun.
He served his country in the US Navy during World War II and was stationed in Corpus Christi, Texas. After the war he heard on the radio that Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier for players and aspired to be the first black MLB umpire.
In the Southwestern International League he became the first black umpire in what was traditionally the white baseball league system in 1951. Leaving his postal job, he never looked back and was given the opportunity to umpire for a full season. The Southwestern International League ended operations in mid-season and Emmett Ashford hooked up with the Arizona-Texas League. He umpired in the Western International League in 1953, ending up in the Pacific Coast League in 1954.
As the 1960’s began, sportswriters began writing that Ashford should be promoted to the MLB. In September 1965 his contract became the property of the American League. His first American League game was April 9, 1966 in D.C. Stadium. He soon became a popular umpire as he was known to hustle, unlike many umpires. He ran around the field after foul balls and hustled on the bases. He wore jewelry, polished his shoes, had his suits pressed each game and even wore fancy cuff links. Many critics believed that Emmett Ashford would have been an umpire in the MLB much earlier had it not been for the color of his skin. Others surmised that his flashy appearance and dress drew undue attention that other umpires did not practice. Some sport publications expressed that for the first time in baseball fans bought tickets to watch an umpire perform.
Some of his achievements as an umpire are that he worked left-field for the 1967 All-Star Game and umpired the 1970 World Series.
Ash reached retirement in 1965 at age 55 but worked as an umpire for one more season in 1970.
In retirement Ashford was hired by Bowie Kuhn to do public relations work for the MLB. He held clinics all over the west coast and even in Korea. He served in the Alaskan summer baseball league as umpire-in-chief for several years. He appeared in TV commercials and in the 1976 film “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings. He also acted in difference TV shows, including Ironside, The Jacksons, and What’s My Line. In November of 1955 he appeared as a contestant of You Bet Your Life.
Emmett Littleton Ashford died at age 65 in Marina del Ray, CA. Bowie Kuhn spoke of him at his death and issued a statement, “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.” He was eulogized also at his funeral by USC baseball coach Rod Dedeaux. Being cremated his wishes were that his ashes be interred in Cooperstown, New York.