BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — And now, a baseball story. Or a story about a baseball story. Actually, a story about a story about a story about a baseball umpire named Art Williams.
Williams was the first Black umpire in Major League Baseball’s National League, a pioneer whose career was cut short, far too short. Many viewers watched our story about the triumph and tragedy of this Bakersfield-bred athlete, which aired in February 2021. So did documentary filmmaker Ed Bartel of Atlanta, who was in Bakersfield in mid January to tell Williams’s story again in greater detail.
“I hope that this piece sheds light on someone who really contributed and opened the door for many African Americans and just people in general who have a dream,” Bartel said. “And they want to pursue it and they don’t let anything stop ‘em.”
It was at Bakersfield’s Sam Lynn Ballpark almost 70 years ago, that Art Williams laid the foundation for what would be a history-making career — not as a baseball player — but as a member of that third team on the field.
In 1971, Major League Baseball had one African American umpire — Emmett Ashford, who had worked in the American League since 1966. In 1972 — starting on Sept. 18 — it had two. That’s the day Art Williams — born in Arkansas, raised in Bakersfield — took the big step from the Triple-A International League to the bigs.
And from that day until the end of the 1977 season, Art Williams had the honor and the burden of being the NL’s only Black umpire.
He hadn’t set out to be an umpire. He started out a hard-throwing right-handed pitcher for the minor league Bakersfield Indians — and in 1953 became the first Black player drafted by the Detroit Tigers.
But he suffered an elbow injury and had to quit after three years. But then, in 1968, an umpire friend convinced him to give umpiring a try. He went to Major League Baseball’s umpiring school in Florida – and was hired.
It all came to an end for Wlliams after the 1977 season — Major League Baseball declined to renew his contract for reasons never completely clear. Williams suspected a one-Black-umpire quota system, and a new Black umpire was slated to move up to the majors the following year.
Williams returned to Bakersfield and took a job driving a bus. The following year he started having headaches and seizures — and it turned out he had developed a tumor on his pituitary gland. He didn’t survive the brain surgery. He was just 44.
Bartel the documentary filmmaker was transfixed by the Art Williams story, and he met up in mid-January with the late umpire’s brother to tell that story.
Audie WIlliams is pleased to have the opportunity to tell his brother’s story in greater detail.
“I know Art would be very pleased,” said Williams, who was seven years younger than his late brother. “And it’s something that makes me feel warm and appreciative. Even my kids. They will tell me, Dad, that’s history! That was my uncle.”
The title of Bartel’s documentary: “Unbelievable: The Art Williams Story.” His ambitious target release date is in February.
Bakersfield has always celebrated its heroes. Buck Owens and Merle Haggard and Frank Gifford. Here’s one more hero that we’ve not paid attention to for many years. And it’s about time.