Sixty years ago in Daytona Beach, Fla., baseball -- and American -- history was made when Jackie Robinson took the field for the International League's Montreal Royals in an exhibition game against their parent club, the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Although the game did not count, Robinson became the first African-American to play in the IL, a year before making his much-heralded Major League debut with the Dodgers and instantly becoming an inspiration to blacks across the country.
Nearly 1,200 miles away, lying on a standard-issue military cot at the U.S. Naval Air station in humid Corpus Christi, Texas, a 32-year-old former U.S. Postal worker promised himself he would follow Robinson to the big leagues. His name was Emmett Ashford and he made good on that promise 20 years later when he became the first black umpire in Major League history.
Ashford's road to the Majors was much longer and more arduous than Robinson's one-year layover in Montreal. While today's racial climate certainly is not as charged as it was in the mid-20th Century, African-American umpires remain few and far between.
Umpiring requires a great knowledge of baseball as well as time to refine the necessary skills, which may have convinced some in the 1950s that African-Americans were not capable of doing the job. Ashford often used that prejudice to his own benefit, approaching hotel clerks and requesting a room by saying: "Sir, I am that barefoot and uncultured Negro man you have been reading about. I wish to seek lodging in your handsome establishment."
Lack of knowledge is still impacting African-American umpires but in a different way, explained current Minor League umpire Greg Tucker.
"One of the biggest problems in getting African-Americans involved in umpiring is that no one really knows anything," said Tucker, a 43-year-old who works in the California League. "Even when I first started at the Wendelstedt School for Umpires, I didn't even know they had a scholarship [the Minority Umpire Scholarship Program. I was like, 'Well, that's pretty neat. I could have known about that ahead of time, though.'"
The program is the brainchild of Cris Jones, a former Minor League umpire who is Major League Baseball's Triple-A umpire supervisor, and Sylvia Lind, senior manager of Minor League Operations for Major League Baseball. It is designed to stimulate interest and participation of all minorities. Once selected for a scholarship, candidates attend the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring or the Wendelstedt School, both located in central Florida.
The decade-old program has had some success, but Jones admitted it is not without flaws.
"The tough thing with these umpiring camps is that they aren't really screened out on their abilities and potential. It's really more sight unseen," Jones said. "You qualify for one of the scholarships and we send you to one of the schools, and I think what's lost in translation is the ability of some of the recipients of the scholarships."
Until recently, there was no reliable method of recruiting new umpire candidates. Tucker learned about the program while working as a software engineer in Houston. A co-worker explained that he helped pay his daughter's college tuition by umpiring. Ashford's introduction to the vocation was a little different.
As he explained to Larry Gerlach in his book, "Men in Blue," Ashford was dragged behind the pitcher's mound by his semi-pro teammates when the regular umpiring crew did not show up for a game.
"By the seventh inning, they loved my umpiring," recalled Ashford, who spent 11 of his 15 Minor League seasons in the Pacific Coast League. "They would take up collections during those games, and the collection that Sunday was extremely heavy. Thenceforth, the team decreed that I should umpire."
Ashford helped himself become baseball's first black umpire by standing out from the crowd -- in more ways than one. Aside from being a snappy dresser, the naturally upbeat and flamboyant Ashford often exaggerated his calls, drawing both attention and criticism to one of the game's traditionally invisible characters.
That lack of visibility could be impacting baseball's minority recruitment effort.
Even a mildly interested candidate can identify the herky-jerky windup of Dontrelle Willis or the near-perfect swing of Barry Bonds. But who can recall Chuck Meriwether's strikeout call or how Kerwin Danley ejects a manager?
An even bigger impediment, however, is the rigorous trip through the Minor League ranks.
If an umpire candidate successfully completes his schooling and is recommended by the Professional Baseball Umpires Corp. (PBUC), he usually must start in the low Minors, like the Pioneer, Northwest or Appalachian League. A good umpire will climb the ladder year by year -- like Tucker, who went from the Arizona League in 2002 to the Pioneer League in 2003, the Midwest League in 2004 and the Class A Advanced California League last season.
Once that umpire reaches Double-A or Triple-A, there's no guarantee that coveted Major League promotion awaits, even if he continues to improve.
"Ninety-nine percent of all Minor League umpires do not make it to the Major Leagues," Jones said. "We can't create positions in the Major Leagues and we haven't hired anybody there over the last five or six years. And having seen that trend, it's tough for this to be attractive to an attractive candidate; to ask him to bide his time for the next six to 10 years.
"We have guys in Triple-A that have been going up and down the big leagues for eight-plus years that haven't had the opportunity yet because of no openings."
Umpiring's biggest problem, however, may be the same one faced by baseball as a sport: declining interest, compared to football and basketball, particularly in inner cities. It is much cheaper and convenient to lay down a basketball court than it is to build and maintain a baseball diamond.
Three years ago, however, Major League Baseball built the MLB Youth Baseball Academy in the Compton section of Los Angeles. Similar sites are scattered throughout the Caribbean, but this project was the first of its kind on U.S. soil. Spearheaded by Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's excutive vice president of baseball operations, the program not only provides several full-sized baseball, Little League and softball fields but equipment and facilities to teach youths other aspects of baseball. Included are coaching, athletic training, scouting, journalism, groundskeeping and, yes, umpiring.
Jones visited the academy on February with fellow supervisor Rich Rieker with umpiring in mind.
"The reason I went out there with Rich is to help set up an umpire camp," Jones explained. "We'll have 10 one-week umpire camps in November of this year and dedicate some of those slots for possible minority scholarships. After all, this is still groundbreaking stuff that we're doing here, but as of today, we'd like to offer a couple scholarships to some of the better guys that come out of those camps."
Tucker believes the buzz generated by facilities like the one in Compton is exactly what the process needed.
"Whenever I talked about umpiring and all the good things that come with it, all the kids stare at me in amazement because this is all news to them," he said. "This gives other African-Americans a chance to stay with the game of baseball, even if they aren't able to play at higher levels and the pay is better than some of the other options they have out there, too."
While umpires at the higest levels of the Minor Leagues earn between $2,200 and $3,400 a month, they get free lodging and, in some cases, a complimentary rental car and group health insurance coverage.
It could take a few years, and the opening of other Youth Baseball Academies, but the Minor League landscape may see more African-American umpires, each trying to be his own Emmett Ashford.