Art Williams (umpire)
- Bats Right, Throws Right
- Height 6' 1", Weight 215 lb.
Art Williams was the second black umpire in major league history, following Emmett Ashford and the first in the National League. He was a major league umpire from the last days of the 1972 season until the end of the 1977 season, working 806 games. He also worked the 1975 NLCS.
Born in Arkansas, he grew up in Bakersfield, CA and began his career as a pitcher for his hometown Bakersfield Indians of the California League, in the Detroit Tigers organization, in 1953, going 11-6, 3.26 in 20 starts. He was the first African-American player signed by the Tigers. He moved to the Idaho Falls Russets of the Pioneer League in 1954, where he went 9-3, 4.81 in 25 games. In 1955, he was with the unaffiliated Visalia Cubs of the California League, but went a disappointing 7-16, 5.65. In his last season, 1956, he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies organization and suited up with two California League clubs, the Stockton Ports and the Bakersfield Boosters, putting up a combined mark of 9-16, 5.28. His highlight that season was winning both ends of a doubleheader while pitching a combined 16 innings. His career was ended by an elbow injury; he was on the roster of various Phillies affiliates over the next couple of seasons but was not able to work up the strength to return to the field. Overall, he went 36-41, 4.83. He went to work for the Bakersfield sanitation department.
Williams next showed up as an umpire in the Pioneer League in 1969. He had been an amateur umpire working around Bakersfield before that and showing good aptitude, he was encouraged to attend umpire school to make a career of it. Contrary to his work on the mound, his career as an arbiter progressed quickly, as he was up in the Midwest League in 1970 and in the Texas League in 1971 and 1972, from which he moved straight up to the major leagues. Emmett Ashford had just retired after the 1970 season, and doubtless that the National League, which had been a pioneer in integration, wanted to have a black umpire of its own, explaining his quick promotion to the big leagues. He would have benefited from more seasoning in the minor leagues, however. In his short big league career, Williams was noted for his quick temper; while he did not eject anyone in 1972 or 1973, he would give the thumb to 18 players, coaches or managers over the next four seasons, a rather high average. He was on a crew with Doug Harvey, Harry Wendelstedt and Nick Colosi, whose 1974 season was chronicled by Lee Gutkind in a controversial best-selling book published in 1975.
He was fired after the 1977 season, nominally for "incompetence after many warnings". He filed suit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming that his dismissal was based not on performance but on racial factors, i.e. that the National League wanted to promote another African-American umpire, Eric Gregg, and fired him because it did not want to keep two black umpires on staff. More than a dozen of his umpire colleagues signed a petition in his favor at the time. However, these were the days before the umpires' strike of 1979, and league offices could basically fire any umpire at will. He had to find work as a bus driver in his hometown. His suit was still pending when he died a little over a year after umpiring his last game. He had suffered a seizure in the fall of 1978, went into a coma and never recovered, passing away on February 8, 1979, at the age of 44.
One of his sons, Brian Williams, played in the minor leagues from 1981 to 1986.
- Lee Gutkind: The Best Seat in Baseball, But You Have to Stand! The Game as Umpires See It, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, IL, 1999 (originally published in 1975). ISBN 978-0809321957
- Bryce Martin: "Art Williams: 'The Jackie Robinson of Umpires'", in The Kern County Sports Chronicles: Colorful Athletes of the Central Valley, The History Press, Charleston, SC, 2013, pp. 152-153. ISBN 978-1-62619-144-0.