Documentary Celebrates the Life of NL’s First Black Referee, Bakersfield’s Art Williams

BAKERSFIELD, California (KGET) —And now a baseball story. Or a story about a baseball story. Basically 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 of the triumph and tragedy of this Bakersfield-bred athlete, which aired in February 2021. Also documentary maker Ed Bartel from Atlanta, who was in Bakersfield in mid-January to tell the story of Williams again.

“I hope this piece sheds light on someone who really contributed and opened the door for a lot of African Americans and just people in general who have a dream,” Bartel said. “And they want to pursue it and they won’t let anything stop them.”

It was nearly 70 years ago at Bakersfield’s Sam Lynn Ballpark that Art Williams laid the foundation for what would become 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 — as of September 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 greats.

And from that day until the end of the 1977 season, Art Williams had the honor and burden of being NL’s only black umpire.

It had not been his intention to become a referee. He started a hard-throwing right-handed pitcher for the minor league Bakersfield Indians – becoming the first black player to be drafted by the Detroit Tigers in 1953.

But he sustained an elbow injury and had to retire after three years. But then, in 1968, a friend of the referee convinced him to give it a try. He attended Major League Baseball Umpire School in Florida – and was hired.

It all came to an end for Wlliams after the 1977 season – Major League Baseball refused to renew his contract for reasons that were never quite clear. Williams suspected a quota system with one black umpire, and a new black umpire would move to the majors the following year.

Williams returned to Bakersfield and took a job as a bus driver. The following year, he developed headaches and seizures — and it turned out he had developed a tumor on his pituitary gland. He did not survive the brain surgery. He was only 44.

Bartel, the documentary filmmaker, was fascinated by Art Williams’ story and he met the late referee’s brother in mid-January to tell that story.

Audie WIlliams is excited to tell his brother’s story in more detail.

“I know Art would be very happy,” said Williams, who was seven years younger than his late brother. “And it’s something that makes me feel warm and grateful. Even my kids. They’ll 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 another hero we haven’t paid attention to in years. And it’s time.

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