Remembering pioneer umpire Ashford

Remembering pioneer umpire Ashford

In a scenic sloping hillside cemetery overlooking Otsego Lake in Cooperstown, New York about a half-mile from the National Baseball Hall of Fame a modest gravestone marks the burial plot of former Major League umpire Emmett Ashford. The engraving on Ashford's stone is inscribed: "He believed an umpire should have integrity, perserverance, dedication as an American League umpire, 1965-1970. He added drama to baseball with his zestful flamboyant style."

Ask baseball fans to name the first African-American player in the Major Leagues and they will immediately tell you Jackie Robinson, whose number "42" has been unilaterally retired. Many will also recall that former Rookie of the Year, two-time MVP and Triple Crown winner Frank Robinson was baseball's first black manager.

Nearly 20 years after Jackie Robinson made his barrier-breaking debut and a full generation into African American players' integration of the Major Leagues, Ashford made his big league debut on Opening Day in Washington D.C. on April 9, 1966.

Baseball recognized the 50th anniversary of Ashford's ground-breaking achievement on Opening Day, adorning every current umpire's uniform with a patch bearing "E.A," Ashford's initials. A video tribute was played at every game in his honor.

MLB celebrates Ashford

Ashford recalled Jackie Robinson's breakthrough as the inspiration for him to pursue a career as a professional umpire, with his sights set on the Major Leagues.

"I was lying on my cot one evening when the announcement came over the radio that Jackie Robinson had signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Right then, I said to myself, 'I'm going to be the first black umpire,'" Ashford told author Larry Gerlach in the book "The Men in Blue: Conversations with Umpires."

Known for his widely theatrical calls, a stylish wardrobe that often included cuff-linked shirts and uniquely entertaining approach, Ashford reached the majors at the age of 51 in 1966 following a distinguished 15-year Minor League career, which included becoming the first black umpire in organized (white) baseball in the Southwestern International League in 1951. He eventually rose to the ranks of the Pacific Coast League in '54.

Ashford's Major League career continued for five years (1966-70) until his retirement at the age of 56, one year after the American League's suggested retirement age of 55, and culminated with his appearance as a member of the umpiring crew for the 1970 World Series.

"It's been a long hard climb but here I am," Ashford said at the time, "I've made it. This is the epitome of my life."

Subject to the everyday indignities associated with being the lone African-American Major League umpire, such as being denied access to the umpire's dressing room by security guards at the Washington Senators' D.C. Stadium at his 1966 Opening Day debut. Ashford confronted racism head-on with his cheerful and ebullient personality to win over his detractors.

Umpires honor Emmett Ashford

Following his retirement, Ashford accepted a position as a public relations advisor for commissioner Bowie Kuhn in April of 1971 and continued to umpire occasional Minor League, college games and old-timers games at Dodger Stadium in his native hometown of Los Angeles. He also appeared in television commercials, programs like "Ironside" and "The Jacksons," and played an umpire in "The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings" 1976 feature film on life in the Negro Professional Baseball Leagues. Ashford also was a contestant on the "What's My Line" television program during his inaugural big league season.

This past September, Ashford's daughter, Adrienne Bratton, donated a collection of her father's memorabilia -- photographs, awards, certificates, his American League umpire's patch, and a variety of personal items ranging from cuff links to tie tacks and an electric shoe polisher -- to the Institute for Baseball Studies, a collaborative effort of Whittier College and the Baseball Reliquary, a traveling baseball museum based in Pasadena, Calif. Ashford was elected to the Baseball Reliquary's Shrine of the Eternals (the organization's equivalent to the Baseball Hall of Fame) in 2008.

Documentary film producer Doug Harris is in the process of creating "Called Up," an hour-long retrospective on Ashford's life story and journey to become MLB's first black umpire.

Although Ashford is not honored by the Baseball Hall of Fame, he is the only high-profile baseball personality to be buried in Cooperstown, N.Y. After Ashford suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 65 on March 1, 1980, his wife Virginia sent her husband's ashes to Cooperstown in a brass urn that was later interred at Cooperstown's Lakewood Cemetery.

"We hadn't made any provisions for such an event," former Hall of Fame director Howard Talbot said in a 1992 interview with Referee magazine.

"We briefly thought about creating an area within the museum, perhaps in a wall, but discarded that in favor of buying several plots overlooking Otsego Lake about a half-mile from the museum."

Ashford's name has never appeared on the Hall of Fame's previous Veterans committee ballots, but Jackie Robinson's widow, Rachel, lobbied the Hall of Fame's Historical Overview Committee, which is in charge of creating the ballot for managers and umpires in 2009.

Since then the Hall of Fame's committees have been restructured. If Ashford's name were to be added to a committee ballot, he would be considered by the Golden Days (1950-1969) committee, which will consider candidates again at the 2020 Winter Meetings for induction in 2021.

"I have intimate knowledge of the challenges he faced," Robinson wrote in a letter to the Hall of Fame's board of directors. "At that time in America, the need for social change was intense and still to come. Mr. Ashford carried out the role with great skill, determination and courage, thereby, creating opportunities for others to follow him."

For the time being Ashford's place in Cooperstown remains his burial plot at the Lakewood Cemetery.

Charles Vascellaro is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.