Aug. 4—When Audie Williams set out to write about his late brother Art in 1999, he checked the encyclopedia to see what remained of his brother's baseball accomplishments. He found disappointingly little.
Now, between the recent release of Williams' long-awaited book and his talk at Cal State Bakersfield Thursday, he is doing what he can to celebrate Art, "his persistence, his willingness to sacrifice and his skill and abilities."
From the Stockdale Room at CSUB, Williams joined the Long Beach-based radio show "Coffee Conversations with Greg J." He regaled host Gregory Johnson and guest Sharon Mclucas — curator of a traveling museum on Black history — with tales of Art's tenure as the first Black umpire in the National League.
"We have to be the stewards of our legacy," Johnson said.
Art grew up between Arkansas and Bakersfield as a standout pitcher during a time when few Black players had crossed the color line. He was drafted by Detroit in 1953, and went 16 innings in a win at the start of his minor-league career. Audie Williams said that stands as the most exciting baseball game he's seen.
Those sort of showings taxed Art's arm. He lasted just three years in the minors due to an elbow injury.
"That door will close, and another will open," Williams said. "That's what happened to Art."
Art worked in sanitation but couldn't leave baseball for long. He began umpiring and rose from youth baseball into the minor leagues. Williams recalled going to a game in Utah his first year, in 1969, and hearing the fans toss racist epithets like "gorilla" at his brother.
"It was unbelievable what they were calling him ... Those people just went crazy, but Art just went on, did his job," Audie Williams said.
Art Williams got called to the majors for a Dodgers-Padres game at Jack Murphy Stadium on Sept. 18, 1972. That made him the first Black umpire in the NL, after Emmett Ashford reached the American League six years prior.
Williams reflected on his time accompanying Art through the hallowed halls of big-league baseball: chatting with "gentleman" Vin Scully in the elevator, sitting in the stands with Hank Aaron and Ted Turner, and more.
One time in Atlanta, the brothers were in a cab when the driver started talking excitedly about a Black umpire who was coming into town for a game. After Audie explained that he would have the chance to meet him — because he was in the car — Art invited the driver to the game and gave him four tickets without hesitation.
Retelling that story Thursday brought his brother to tears.
Art's career was cut tragically short. The NL didn't retain him after 1977, and he died two years later at 44 due to complications from a brain surgery.
"It was very hard on me to write about him because we were so close," he said. "He was seven years my senior, and sometimes he acted like my mom and dad."
In time for the 50th anniversary of Art's call-up, Williams released "Unbelievable! The Life Journey of Art Williams, Baseball's First Black National League Umpire" in May, and sat for this interview as part of a three-day event with the African American Cultural Center of Long Beach. Mclucas suggested during the interview that someone should sculpt a bust of Art. It's taken decades, but the local sports trailblazer seems to be getting his due.
Reporter Henry Greenstein can be reached at 661-395-7374. Follow him on Twitter: @HenryGreenstein.