The Black Ump

USPS Negro League stamp featuring a black umpire

USPS Negro League stamp featuring a black umpire

There’s an interesting article online concerning Jacob Francis, who appears to be the first black man to umpire a game between two white teams. The article is by Sean Kirst appeared in 2011 in the Syracuse newspaper (It can be found via Google. I found it by typing in Jacob Francis umpire). It’s an excellent article and well worth your time to read. Here’s some of the information paraphrased for you.

In June 1885, the Syracuse minor league team played an exhibition game against the Providence Grays. The Grays were the current world’s champions, having completed a three game sweep of the New York Metropolitans in the first of the 19th Century’s versions of the World Series. Their ace was Hall of Fame pitcher Charles Radborne. Francis was a known umpire in the town and both teams agreed to his calling the game. Providence won 4-1 and there were no complaints about Francis’ umpiring. He seems to have umpired a number of other games, but by 1890 his services were no longer used. It’s possible racism cost him his umpiring position, after all the Anson/Walker confrontation was 1883. It’s also possible he was dead by 1890 or had moved from Syracuse.

A few remarks are called for at this point. 1870 and 1880 census data available at show Francis was a “mulatto” (we’d call him mixed race) but don’t state which parent was white and which black. He was born about 1851 in Virginia, although the 1880 census specifies West Virginia. West Virginia was split off from Virginia in 1863 to form the current state, so it’s possible he was born in Virginia but that the specific county later became part of West Virginia. Being born in 1851 of a mixed race couple it is probable he was  born a slave, but not absolutely certain. As manumitted freemen were, by law, required to leave Virginia, it’s most likely he was born a slave, but it’s also possible (but not very likely) that he was born free of a mixed race couple who was living in West Virginia. There were few slaveholders in West Virginia, but it wasn’t unheard of at all. His census data does not appear in 1860, at least that I can find. His wife Sarah was born in New York (location not specified) and was a year older than her husband.

I have no idea when or how he became interested in baseball, just as I have no idea how or when he ended up in Syracuse. He is, frankly, a very difficult person to find out much about. The 1890 census was destroyed in a fire. He does not appear, again as far as I can determine, in the 1900 census.

I trust you will read the article I referenced above. If you happen to know anything more about Francis, I’d love to know. Please comment on this post if you do.


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