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Emmett Ashford made history; will he make Hall of Fame?

BASEBALL

Ashford broke the color barrier for umpires in the major leagues in 1965. Now his daughter, with help from Jackie Robinson's widow, is working to get him into the Hall.

July 26, 2009|Baxter Holmes

He was already 51 when he made the major leagues in 1965, but in breaking the color barrier for umpires, American League showman Emmett Ashford proved home plate was his stage, baseball his love.

Umpires call them as they see them. And Ashford, until he retired at 56, one year past the recommended retirement age, did that with a flourish.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, August 04, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Umpire Emmett Ashford: A caption accompanying a Sports article July 26 on his daughter's attempt to get major league umpire Emmett Ashford into the Hall of Fame said the photograph showed Ashford arguing with Jack Lohrke of the Hollywood Stars in 1956. The photo was taken on Sept. 11, 1955.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, August 09, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Umpire Emmett Ashford: A caption accompanying a Sports article July 26 on his daughter's attempt to get major league umpire Emmett Ashford into the Hall of Fame said the photograph showed Ashford arguing with Jack Lohrke of the Hollywood Stars in 1956. The photo was taken on Sept. 11, 1955.

If a fly ball sailed toward foul territory, the L.A. native would barrel down the baseline to make the call, sometimes speeding by the outfielders. If he called you out on strikes, it was a Hollywood production: He'd shoot his hand from his hip, then straight up to the sky before he dropped the hammer, "Steee-ee-rike!"

Yet, 40 seasons after leaving the game, and 29 years after his death, Ashford remains excluded from the Hall of Fame -- even though he was kept out of the majors simply because of the color of his skin.

"Umpires are supposed to be in the background, but he wasn't," said Ashford's daughter, Adrienne Bratton, who is helping to lead a new effort to get her father's name on the next ballot. It isn't the first attempt, but this time she has Jackie Robinson's widow, Rachel, publicly in her corner.

Today, three players will be enshrined -- Joe Gordon, Jim Rice and Rickey Henderson -- but the last umpire to make it was Nestor Chylak in 1999. And one umpire, Doug Harvey, missed it this time by one vote.

But for umpires, the key measuring stick is years of service, although contributions to the game also come into play. Ashford was in the majors for only five years but had a great eye, a boyish charm, and the quick feet of an avid salsa dancer (which he was), so that watching him work was an event seared into the memory.

To be sure, the election process is no simple matter. There are 289 members of the Hall of Fame, but only eight are umpires, with careers averaging 27.4 years.

"In Ashford's case, he simply didn't umpire long enough to warrant going on the ballot ahead of people like [Hank] O'Day, Doug Harvey, Cy Riger . . . " said Bill Madden, baseball writer for the New York Daily News who is on the 11-member Historical Overview Committee that creates the ballot for managers and umpires.

If Ashford's name makes the ballot, a separate 16-member committee then votes. Election requires 12 votes.

"As far as breaking the color line," Madden said, "it was a notable achievement, but I don't think you can put somebody in the Hall of Fame just on that alone.

"Let me give you an example. Buck O'Neil didn't get into the Hall of Fame. The Veterans Committee didn't put him into the Hall of Fame, and this is a committee that voted on strictly Negro League guys. Buck O'Neil was a groundbreaker in every way, shape or form.

"The reason Buck O'Neil, I suspect, was not voted into the Hall of Fame," Madden said, "was because he was a good Negro League player, not a great Negro League player."

Zev Chafets, author of "Cooperstown Confidential," noted that the Hall has "a convoluted history of grappling with racial issues in baseball."

In Ashford's case, no one seems to question that he brought something special to the game after laboring in the minor leagues for 15 years, 12 of them in the Pacific Coast League.

"If you watched PCL games or were involved in baseball around L.A., you knew Emmett Ashford," said Mike Port, Major League Baseball's vice president of umpiring, who saw Ashford during the umpire's PCL days.

"And if you didn't like Emmett Ashford, you had to be visiting the planet."

Tom Verducci, senior writer for Sports Illustrated who is on the 16-member committee that has the final vote, wants to look beyond length of service.

"I think you also look at, you know, did an umpire do something to change or elevate the profession?" Verducci said. "And that's why I think a guy like Emmett Ashford deserves notice, or at least some serious discussion, because clearly he did, even if it was for a brief period of time."

The impact of Ashford isn't lost on Chuck Meriwether, who in 1993 became the first black umpire in the American League since Ashford's retirement in 1970.

"We have a black president right now," said Meriwether, in his 18th season and one of three black umpires currently in the majors. "Can you just imagine a kid -- 10, 11 years old -- and they see him on TV and think, 'I have a chance and I have the possibility of doing that.' And when I stop and think about Emmett, it just lets me know I could fulfill that dream."

Ashford's dream was to be a major league umpire, a commitment he made when he heard Branch Rickey had signed Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945. But first Ashford had to break the minor league color barrier for umpires, which he did.

There was no mistaking Ashford had style -- French cuffs, gleaming cuff links and shoes buffed to a pristine shine. And he always brought a typewriter with him on the road so he could answer fan mail. He signed autographs before and after games.

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