Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Emmett Ashford - W.I.L. Trailblazer

I haven't discovered yet who was the first black player in the Western International League as I plow through the game stories of the late 40s. Catcher John Ritchie was the first for the Capilanos in 1950; he was the first in the PCL with the San Diego Padres in 1948. But Vancouver baseball rooters of a certain vintage remember umpire Emmett Ashford doing some of the Mounties' PCL games in the late 50s. He appeared at Cap Stadium in Vancouver before that, as these wire stories attest:

Negro Ump Set In Western Int. Loop
VANCOUVER, B. C. — The only Negro umpire in organized baseball has been hired by the Class A Western International league, President Bob Brown announced today.
He is Emmett Ashford, 37, for the last two years an umpire in the Class C Arizona Texas League and currently an arbiter in the California winter league.

- Saturday, February 7, 1953

By Ed Orman
Yesterday was a swell day for the opening of the baseball season in the Fresno-State College Park.
The weatherman provided mild, sunshiny weather after a few blustery days the past week. The Tokio Giants from Japan and the Valley All Stars did their part, too, by supplying about 1,500 fans with a snappy exhibition of baseball for such an early date.
But it remained for the plate umpire to steal the show and if you were among the absentees from the sun splashed college ball orchard you missed the most amusing, entertaining as well as efficient job of ball and strike calling ever performed in the FSC park.
And it was by the first and only Negro arbiter in organized baseball—Emmett Ashford of Los Angeles.
Ashford came to Fresno, donned the umpiring gear and made his way to the plate unannounced. But it was not long before all of the fans were asking “Who is that fellow back of the plate; he sure is colorful; he knows his business?”
With his bellowing, booming,voice and emphatic arm gesticulations, and dramatic whisking of the broom as he manicured home plate, Ashford made a tremendous hit with the customers.
Got Standing Ovation
“But he's no fly by nighter as an umpire,” Les Powers, the public relations man for the touring Giants said. “I hired the fellow for the tailend of the 1951 season to umpire in the Southwest International League of which I was president.” He immediately caught the fancy of the fans with his colorful work. Why, one night in El Paso where Ashford's race ordinarily is not in good standing, the fans gave him a standing ovation at the end of the game.
“Every town in my league was clamoring for his services. He was just like money in the bank. He umpired in the Sunset League last season and was sent to the Western International League this year. I know the Pacific Coast League made a mistake by overlooking him.
“My prediction is, given the breaks, Ashford will be in the major leagues in five years. He's a high class fellow and a fine ball and strike man.”
Ashford, 34 years of age, is a native of Los Angeles and attended elementary, high school and college there. He was graduated from Jefferson High School where he competed in football and baseball, and later was graduated from Chapman College. Ashford planned a career in ministry, but didn't go through with it.
Basketball Ump, Too
He worked for about 15 years as a postal clerk in the Los Angeles Post Office and umpired semipro baseball games on weekends, and also umpired basketball games, including some Pacific Coast Conference contests in Los Angeles. Ashford was called back to the national semipro baseball tournament in Wichita, Kan., for a couple of hitches.
“When I ran short of umpires in my league in 1951, I called Ashford's wife to see if I could induce him to help me out,” Powers recalled. “She contacted Emmett and urged him to join me, which he did. He gives his wife credit for whatever successes he attains in life.”
The current umpiring chores constitute Spring conditioning for Ashford. He will work all of the Giants' games, many against PCL and major league clubs in California, and all back of the plate, Powers said.
Fans, can get a peek at him this afternoon in Visalia and again in Fresno tomorrow afternoon and we can assure you you won't be disappointed.

- Fresno Bee, Sunday, February 22, 1953

First Colored Umpire

Emmett Ashford, one-time athletic star af Jefferson High School in Los Angeles, will serve as one of the Pacific Coast League's umpires during the 1954 season. Ashford is the first colored umpire ever to call halls, strikes and plays in organized baseball.
Back in 1946 Ashford was lying on a cot at the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi, Texas, when news spouted over the radio that Jackie Robinson had been signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was the first colored player in organized baseball. Right then and there Emmett Ashford promised he would become the first of his race, too, in his line. He would become the first Negro umpire in baseball history with an eye on the Coast league and then the majors.
Les Powers signed Ashford for the Southwest International League back in 1951. Last year he worked in the Western International circuit.
His beefs have been few in his organized baseball career.
Last season he called “one” too fast in a game between Victoria and Vancouver. He turned to the stands and made a public admission that he had “kicked one.”
The fans gave him a terrific ovation and they later held a night for him. This chap must be a colorful umpire. Fans, players and managers of the Western International swear by him.
This winter Ashford is working Pacific Coast Conference basketball games. Writers on the coast say baseball's first Negro umpire is just as handy with the whistle.
-Ogden Standard-Examiner, Thursday, December 17, 1953

Negro Umpire Earns Respect
TORONTO (CP) — Emmett Ashford looked like anything but a world beater when two Canadians decided to make him the first Negro umpire in professional baseball 14 years ago.
But he set all the precedents on his way to the major leagues and now, at 49, Ashford is still “breaking barriers all over the place.”
Dianne R. Cox of Victoria recalls the day she first saw Ashford in December, 1952 at the annual meeting of the Western International Baseball League in Phoenix, Ariz.
“He was looking for a job,” Miss Cox said in an interview Monday night.
“He was certainly a scruffy character — practically threadbare.”
Miss Cox, currently visiting Toronto, was in Phoenix when Ashford arrived, attending the baseball meeting with her father, the late Arthur H. Cox, president of Victoria Tyees of the WIBL.
The Victoria club manager, Cec Garriott, recommended Ashford to Cox, who persuaded Bob Brown of Vancouver, owner of the Vancouver franchise and president of the league, to hire the umpire.
“He had been umpiring for a C-class league in the U.S.,” Miss Cox recalls. “But we've always considered that the Western International League was the first to hire a Negro umpire into professional ranks.”
Ashford was also in Toronto Monday night to appear on a television program.
Thirteen years from the time of his meeting with Cox and Brown, he finally reached the majors as the first Negro umpire last season.
Ashford says he's a good umpire, although not incapable of making mistakes.
However, he contends he has gained the respect of the clubs and their players through hard work.
“I think I was ready for the majors five years earlier. I just got stubborn and decided to wait it out until I got the call.”
Ashford's umpiring style is noisy and flamboyant but no one has tried to change it in the majors. American League president Joe Cronin told him to work his own way.
“I've always made it a rule to call a man out so he knows it and so does everybody else,” Ashford said.
- Wednesday, December 14, 1966

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