When they yelled ‘Play Ball!’ NL’s first Black umpire, Art Williams, was all about the game, not the abuse

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BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — It was at Bakersfield’s Sam Lynn Ballpark almost 70 years ago that a minor league baseball player named Art Williams laid the foundation for what would be a history making career — not as a player, but as a member of that third team on the field, the team in the nondescript blue.

Art Williams was an umpire.

The first Black umpire in the National League.

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 Williams — born in Arkansas, settled in Bakersfield — took the big step from the Triple-A International League to the Bigs.

Williams’s brother Audie was there that night in San Diego and he remembers glimpsing the stadium message board just as the game was about to begin.

“‘Welcome Art Williams,'” Audie Williams say, recalling the words on the board. “I mean — that was very touching.”

The three man crew that worked the Dodgers’ 3-2 extra inning victory over the Padres was in fact an all-Bakersfield crew — with Williams, Bob Engel, and Hall-of-Fame crew chief Doug Harvey, whose wife’s family lived in Bakersfield.

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 was handled poorly by his coaches — in one case, throwing every inning of a 16-inning game, something no coach would allow today — and permanently damaged his elbow.

After three unsatisfying years in the minor leagues Williams quit baseball and took a job in the Bakersfield sanitation department, eventually rising to supervisor. But in 1968 his friend Engel convinced him to give umpiring a try. With wife Shirley’s support, he attended Major League Baseball’s Umpire Academy in St. Petersburg, Fla.,– where 200 applicants were vying for 30 jobs. Williams got one of them — and took a pay cut.

And it was off to the northern Rockies and the Single-A-level Pioneer League. It was here that Williams first really heard the catcalls, the n-words. But he kept his head down and at mid-season was promoted to the Double-A Texas League.

At the conclusion of his second year at the Triple-A level he went home to Bakersfield where, no sooner had he walked in the door, the phone rang.

His son, Art Williams Jr., home on leave from the Navy, answered. It was Fred Fleigg, secretary treasurer of the National League.

“He said, ‘Well, Art Jr., tell your dad that he’s not going to the PCL All Star Game in Hawaii. He’s going to Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego, and congratulations on becoming the first Black umpire in the National League.'”

Williams became a celebrity of sorts.

“People would just — shoom! — gather around him,” Audie remembered.

He performed well enough to be selected to the umpiring crew for the 1975 National League Championship Series between the Reds and the Pirates.

He heard criticism for being too timid — odd for an athletically built man 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds.

But he stood his ground often enough — ejecting players and coaches 20 times over a five year span, including Cincinnati Reds Manager Sparky Anderson three times and, on one occasion, a coach with whom he shared unique notoriety.

Larry Doby had been the first Black player in the American League and the second in Major League Baseball behind Jackie Robinson, who played in the National League. Robinson is the one best remembered today — despite Doby’s having integrated AL stadiums that Robinson never visited. As the New York Times put it in Doby’s 2003 obituary, “In glorifying those who are first, the second is often forgotten.” Art Williams, who followed Emmett Ashford, knew all about that.

It all came to an end for Williams after the 1977 season — the National League declined to renew his contract for reasons never completely clear. Williams suspected a one-black-umpire quota system; a new Black umpire was slated to move up the following year.

Bakersfield’s George Culver, who pitched for six major league teams over 10 years, said the abrupt end of his umpiring career hurt Williams badly.

“It just broke his heart when he got fired like that,” Culver said.

Ashford himself told one sportswriter he thought it might have been a performance issue associated with Williams’s too-fast ascent through the minor leagues.

Williams returned to Bakersfield and took a job driving a bus for GET, the regional transit agency.

He lasted barely a year. In late 1978 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.

To those who knew Williams, his legacy remains strong. Kevin Keyes, an assistant coach at CSU Bakersfield, grew up with Williams’s son Brian.

“He really was a true champion and a trailblazer for umpires today,” Keyes said. “He really was the Jackie Robinson of umpires.”

Art Williams was good for baseball, even if baseball wasn’t necessarily always good to Art Williams. You would have never known it talking to him, though. Like those other Black pioneers of baseball — Emmett Ashford, Larry Doby and Jackie Robinson — it wasn’t about the struggles associated with race — once they yelled “play ball,” it was about the integrity of the game.

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