'Major League or bust': Moore paves way for Black umps

February 23rd, 2024

February is Black History Month, and throughout the month, MLB.com will be looking back at Negro League legends who have richly contributed to baseball history. The following feature originally ran in 2023.

When Malachi Moore’s phone rang on the Wednesday before Christmas, he saw an incoming call from Rich Rieker, director of umpire development for Major League Baseball.

Moore was in his childhood bedroom in Compton, Calif., the one he shared with his late brother, Nehemiah, while they were growing up in the 1990s and early 2000s. Nehemiah was shot and killed in '06 at the age of 19; Moore, who was 15 when it happened, describes it as a case of “wrong place, wrong time.”

Within the next three years, Moore would also lose his grandmother and grandfather, both of whom helped raise him. A household of five was left with only two under its roof -- his father and mother separated when he was young, and he lived with his mom -- which meant Moore had to grow up faster than most of his friends. Though his father, a truck driver, was part of their lives when he wasn’t on the road, Moore felt as though he had to help carry the load for his mother, who worked for Los Angeles County.

Flash forward to 2022, and Moore was surrounded by his wife and his two young sons as he picked up the phone. Rieker wasn’t alone on the call; he told Moore that Michael Hill, MLB’s senior vice president of on-field operations, and Matt McKendry, senior director of umpire operations, were on the line with him. That’s when Moore started to think, “Either this is going to be really, really good or really, really bad.”

“They broke the news to me and said, ‘Hey, you know we had 10 retirements. That means we need to hire 10 new umpires,’” Moore recalled in a recent phone interview. “‘We’re going to hire you as a full-time umpire for the 2023 season.’

“That one phone call changed my life forever.”

It was a full-circle moment for the 32-year-old Moore, who has been a Minor League umpire since 2012, with 156 games of big league experience as a callup ump to his name. Moore lives in Phoenix with his family now, but he just so happened to be in Compton, where he runs an umpire camp each December at the MLB Youth Academy. The same place his own baseball journey began.

“To be there where it all started, to get the news that I’ve always wanted to hear, it was really, really special,” Moore said. “It’s pretty crazy how it happened. It still doesn’t seem real, but it’s real alright.”

MLB’s first Youth Academy opened in Compton in 2006, offering high-level baseball and softball instruction to young boys and girls from urban communities (there are now eight academies in operation across the country). At the same time, Rieker began administering MLB Umpire Camps at the facility, which was the first step in the developmental pipeline on the way to a career as a professional ump.

Moore attended the Academy from its inception, as it was only a few miles away from his mom’s house. As he put it, “I have held every position known to man at that Youth Academy. I watched it be built from the ground up.”

Meanwhile, Moore was a two-sport athlete at Dominguez High School, playing football as well as baseball; he was even teammates with Super Bowl champion cornerback Richard Sherman. But as he spent more time at the Academy, he began to think there could be more career opportunities for him if he pursued baseball. Moore spent several years working on a grounds crew, hoping that he might become the head groundskeeper for the Dodgers or Angels. He dabbled in coaching. And then, he found umpiring. Or rather, umpiring found him.

Moore continued to work at the Academy while attending Compton College and playing on the baseball team under longtime head coach Shannon Williams. One day, Kerwin Danley, a Los Angeles native who became MLB’s first Black crew chief in 2020, saw Moore and sought him out for an invitation.

“‘You’re going to come with me to the batting cages, and we’re going to try to umpire,’” Moore recalled Danley saying.

He tried to politely decline the offer, but Danley insisted: “‘I didn’t ask you; I’m telling you. You’re going to come to the cages, you’re going to try this thing out and we’re going to see if it works.’”

“I went to the cages, and I ended up loving it," Moore said. "I fell in love with it.”

So Moore attended the free one-day Umpire Camp at the Academy on a Saturday. The following Monday was the start of a week-long camp they held at the time to determine who could move on to the Wendelstedt Umpire School in Daytona, Fla., the leading independent training program recognized by both the Major and Minor Leagues. The coordinators, including MLB’s sole Black umpire supervisor Cris Jones, were interested enough in Moore that they covered the cost of the second camp on his behalf. Then Jones, who heads the scholarship program, gave Moore a free ride to Wendelstedt.

“Not only did it change my life, it saved my life,” Moore said. “Being in the environment that I grew up in, just trying to make it out of that cycle where you’re only an athlete or someone that wasn’t progressing in life, dead or in jail or you name it. A lot of my friends, we would always say, ‘Man, we’ve got to do something to get out of Compton.’ You don’t want to spend the rest of your life there.

“By receiving a scholarship, I was heavily invested. I was all in. It was Major League or bust.”

Moore attended the Wendelstedt Umpire School as a 20-year-old in 2011, spending five weeks learning the ropes from active Major and Minor League umps, many of whom were paying it forward after having attended the school themselves. But when the program reached its conclusion, Moore wasn’t chosen as one of its top performers who would be assigned to jobs in the Minor Leagues.

“They told me they’d be doing me a disservice had I moved on at that time,” Moore said. “Physically, I could do the job. Mentally, I could do the job. But I needed more experience; I needed just another year. And I’m glad I got it, because that made all the difference.”

Moore returned and then graduated as part of the class of 2012. He quickly went to work in the Minors, with stints in the Northwoods League, Arizona Instructional League, Arizona Fall League, South Atlantic League, California League, Texas League and Pacific Coast League as he climbed the ladder from Single-A to Triple-A over the course of the past decade. He was even assigned to the staff of the '18 All-Star Futures Game at Nationals Park. At the Dream Series in '19, he spoke to aspiring players about his journey.

All the while, Moore worked paycheck to paycheck while raising his young family with his wife, whom he met during his junior college days and says “put her dreams on hold so I could pursue my dream.” Now, he will earn an annual salary for the first time as one of the Majors’ 76 full-time umpires.

Of the 10 who were recently promoted for the upcoming season, Moore will be one of four graduates of the MLB Umpire Camp in Compton, but he will also become the first person from the MLB Youth Academy to reach the Majors as an umpire. Darrell Miller, the Academy’s vice president of youth and facility development, has known Moore since he was a 15-year-old kid with big league ambitions.

“Over the moon is the best way I can describe it. It’s kind of like you’re hoping it’s going to happen, you’re knowing, you’re believing -- but I’m really over the moon,” Miller said via phone. “It’s very validating, and it makes me really feel good that what we’ve been preaching, we’ve been able to realize -- it’s bearing fruit, if you will.

“Dreams come true, and they become a reality if we work hard enough and we just don’t give up. That’s why baseball is a great game. It’s an individual determination sport. It’s just like life.”

Come Opening Day, Moore will be one of five Black umpires at the game’s highest level, following in the footsteps of Adrian Johnson and Alan Porter -- who were recently named the second and third Black crew chiefs in AL/NL history -- as well as Jeremie Rehak and C.B. Bucknor. Moore will wear uniform No. 44 in honor of Danley, who retired after the 2021 season.

Moore made the request because, in his mind, “It would make more sense for me to wear that number than someone else. It would mean more to me.” In addition to Danley, he grew up idolizing Hall of Famer Henry Aaron, and perhaps even more strikingly, U.S. President Barack Obama was the 44th man to hold the highest office in the land.

In so many ways, Moore feels like he is the continuation of a legacy that has been built by those who came before him and by those who have dedicated their lives to creating opportunities for folks like him. He prefers to see his success as a case of “right place, right time.” And what he hopes is that this journey leads him to be yet another person passing the baton, helping to form a foundation that continues to bear fruit.

Less than a dozen days before he got the call to the Majors, when Moore was hosting his own umpire camp at the Academy in Compton, he met two young kids who showed him that process has already been set in motion.

“They said, ‘I started umpiring because I saw you work a game at Dodger Stadium,’” Moore recalled. “That alone is like, what the heck? How do I even put that into perspective? That keeps me going. That’s energy. That’s fuel. That’s motivation. They inspire me just as much, maybe more so, [as] I can inspire them.

“I think when you don’t see enough people that look like you, you get curious naturally and say, ‘Well, why not?’ And I took it as a challenge.”

This season, kids all over the country will be watching, believing that they could very well be next.