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Emmett Ashford, first black umpire in the majors, makes his debut

‘He overwhelmed people with his endurance and his charm’

Was it a bird? Maybe a plane? No, with catlike quickness and a knack for theatrics, it was none other than Emmett Ashford running down the third-base line.

The third-base umpire could turn his hips to chase down a ball with better precision than a cornerback. He had eyes like a hawk to make the calls and the ability to entertain everyone in the stadium.

Almost 20 years after Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Ashford did the same when he became the first black umpire in the majors.

Ashford debuted on April 11, 1966, in the Washington Senators’ game against the Cleveland Indians in D.C. Stadium. He worked alongside John Stevens, Bill Haller and Bob Stewart.

More than 44,000 spectators watched Ashford bring the flair he had nurtured while working in the Southwest International League and Pacific Coast League.

Senators outfielder and leadoff hitter Fred Valentine discussed with The Washington Times how fans and players reacted to Ashford.

“He was a favorite of the fans,” Valentine, who is also African-American, told the Times. “He was energetic. They loved watching him on the field. He was different from the other umpires in the game.

“He was a good umpire. From what I could see, most of the players respected him.

“I was glad to see him that day. They held the black umpires back for a long time. They stayed in the minors a long time and had to go through a lot more than other umpires had to in order to get to the major leagues.”

Before working in baseball, the 5-foot-7, 180-pound postal worker played semi-pro baseball in Los Angeles and was asked to be a fill-in official. Ashford enjoyed it so much that he decided to take a leave of absence in 1951 to become an umpire. He began his career in the Southwest International League and jumped to the Pacific Coast League in 1954.

In 1963, Ashford worked his way up to the Pacific Coast League’s umpire-in-chief, and two years later his contract was sold to the American League.

What Ashford lacked in stature he made up for in charisma, as well as a love for the people he worked with and the game itself.

Emmett Ashford, the American League’s first African-American umpire, shown in action on June 16, 1966, during the New York Yankees-Detroit Tigers game at Yankee Stadium. His position for this game was at first base.

AP Photo

“He wasn’t putting on a show,” Valentine said. “It was just his way of doing the job.”

Said Ashford to The New York Times: “Ballplayers are a peculiar lot. The game is their bread and butter. If you call ’em right — the strikes and balls and the base decisions — that’s all they want. They don’t care whether you’re white or black, Eskimo or Indian.”

As if the baseball gods knew Ashford was monitoring the third-base line, they gave him an opportunity to show fans in D.C. Stadium how he put his touch on umpiring. Frank Howard hit a home run that flew deep down the left-field line in the sixth inning.

“Many in the crowd, and Howard himself, thought the ball was going foul, but Ashford ran down the left-field line and, with animated gestures, pointed toward the playing field to indicate it was a home run,” The Washington Times reported from the Associated Press.

The Indians scored four runs in that sixth inning to erase a 2-1 deficit and defeat the Senators 5-2.

Ashford enjoyed a short career in the majors, umpiring until 1970. He became a public relations adviser for commissioner Bowie Kuhn and traveled the world, talking at clinics as a representative of MLB. In 1976, he portrayed an umpire in The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings, a film about the Negro Leagues. Four years later, Ashford died of a heart attack.

“Ashford did not become the first [African-American] umpire in the major leagues merely because he was fast on his feet,” wrote New York Times columnist George Vecsey. “He survived the near-race wars of the minor leagues because he could talk better and think faster than the lugs in uniform and the louts in the grandstand. He overwhelmed people with his endurance and his charm.”

Rhiannon Walker is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a drinker of Sassy Cow Creamery chocolate milk, an owner of an extensive Disney VHS collection, and she might have a heart attack if Frank Ocean doesn't drop his second album.