Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Pioneering Ump Built New Life outside Baseball

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Pioneering Ump Built New Life outside Baseball

Article excerpt

Two decades after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, another black man, Osibee Jelks, hoped to make his own history on the diamond.

Jelks, a Bergen County resident who died recently at 83, was the second black umpire in organized professional baseball and had his sights squarely on the big leagues.

But the call never came.

Jelks had worked his way up to the Class AAA Pacific Coast League, where he joined Emmett Ashford, organized baseball's first black umpire.

Nine months after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech, Jelks was interviewed by the Indianapolis News for an article headlined, 'Talent Will Get Me to Majors,' Declares Negro Arbiter Jelks.

"I know I'm going to the top," he declared. "To me, it is not a matter of race or age. You have to be able to produce. I don't care what the endeavor is. If they feel I can do the job up there, they'll take me ... not because I'm a Negro."

Ashford, at 51, became the major leagues' first black umpire in 1966 upon his promotion to the American League. The stocky Jelks, in his 30s and with a decade of minor-league experience, seemed the logical choice to become the majors' second black umpire, and perhaps the first in the National League.

He never made it out of the minors.

Tired of the grueling travel -- the Pacific Coast League then stretched from Indiana to Hawaii, from Washington State to California -- and missing his wife and children in New Jersey, Jelks quit in 1969.

He lived the rest of his life in Bergen County, in Westwood and most recently Elmwood Park. He had import-export and water purification businesses and served as a trustee of St. James A.M.E. Church in Newark.

"When he walked away, he walked away," said his son Kevin, of Hackensack, explaining why his father never umpired another game -- even at the youth league level.

Asked whether his father was bitter about not getting called up to the majors, Kevin Jelks said: "I wouldn't say bitterness, but severe disappointment. He walked away disappointed, but not angered. He was a humble man and just started a whole new chapter in life."

Kevin Jelks said the family's understanding was that the major leagues "figured there was room for only one" black umpire.

Osibee Jelks -- his given name was Julian -- got his start umpiring in the recreation department in his native New Orleans and went to work in the minors after his Army hitch. He spoke about his umpiring career to the New York Daily News in 2007.

He told the newspaper that he never experienced threats or racial incidents involving players or managers while in the minors, but as a caveat added that he worked mostly in the West, not in the South, where racial attitudes were especially raw.

One year after Ashford moved up to the American League, the NAACP represented Jelks at a meeting with Bowie Kuhn, then the attorney for the National League and a future Major League Baseball commissioner. …

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