MLB’s Rickwood Field game will make history with all-Black umpiring crew (2024)

History will be made Thursday night, and not simply because Major League Baseball will be played at the nation’s oldest professional ballpark for the first time.

The entire umpiring crew for baseball’s tribute to the Negro Leagues at 114-year-old Rickwood Field will be Black, a first in NL/AL history.

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Only 11 Black people have been full-time umpires in NL/AL play, starting with Emmett Ashford in 1966. All five Black umpires currently working in the league will be part of the crew in Birmingham, Ala. — four on the field, one as a replay official.

Adrian Johnson, 49, will be the crew chief. Alan Porter, 46, will be behind the plate. C.B. Bucknor, 61; Jeremie Rehak, 36, and Malachi Moore, 34; will round out the group.

The umpires said they appreciated not only the opportunity to work a game of such significance, but also the chance to work with each other. Each will wear a patch in honor of Ashford, similar to the one umpires wore in 2016 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of him working his first game.

“The fact that we have enough guys to form a whole crew and have a replay guy as well, that says a lot,” Johnson said. “It’s been a long time coming. And it makes me very happy.”

The choice to use only Black umps at Rickwood might seem obvious, but the impetus had to come from somewhere. Rob Field, the league’s senior manager of global events, was the first to broach the idea, according to Matt McKendry, vice president of umpire operations.

The league previously had thought about putting an all-Black crew together in spring training, but the logistics never worked out. For the Rickwood game, the league made an exception to its normal scheduling process, ensuring it would get the umpires it desired.

In assigning its 76 full-time umps prior to each season, the league creates 19 different schedules, trying to balance the assignments as fairly as possible. The crew chiefs, in an order determined by the umpires’ union, then select the schedules they want. Special events such as the London Series and Little League Classic are part of the normal bidding process.

The Rickwood game was not.

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Commissioner Rob Manfred, senior vice-president of baseball operations Michael Hill and the umpires’ union all supported the idea of using an all-Black crew, McKendry said. At the umpires’ annual meeting in January, McKendry and umpire supervisor Cris Jones asked the Black umpires if they were interested in working the Rickwood game.

“To a man, immediately, we all said yes,” Johnson said.“Myself and the other guys, we were honored to be asked to work this game.”

Rehak said he welcomed the opportunity with “open arms.”

“We’re more than happy to go down there to do this,” he said. “It will be special, a cool moment.”

Johnson and Porter originally were supposed to be home for time off, but adjusted to work the game. Bucknor, Rehak and Moore will temporarily separate from their crews, replaced by minor-league call-ups, then resume their normal schedules on Saturday (Friday is the potential makeup date).

MLB’s Rickwood Field game will make history with all-Black umpiring crew (1)

Adrian Johnson (left) and fellow ump Stu Scheurwater (right) visit with Negro Leagues umpire Bob Motley at Dodger Stadium in 2017.

The five umpires’ knowledge of the Negro Leagues varies. Johnson said he visits the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum each year, as long as his schedule brings him to Kansas City. Several years ago, he met the late Bob Motley, a Negro Leagues umpire, at Dodger Stadium.

“He was a character,” Johnson said. “He never talked about the racial overtones or anything like that. It was just the players. There were so many stories about how the players were actual characters. It seemed like it was a really, really fun time to work.

“I saw a photo of him up in the air calling a guy out just like he was sliding through the air. When you see that still photo, that’s stuff that if we did right now, we’d get killed in the media. But it was such a different era. It was truly entertainment.”

Rehak, who grew up in Pittsburgh, recalls his parents often talking about the Homestead Grays, who played in Homestead, Pa., a neighboring steel town. The Grays existed from 1928 to ‘48. As a child, Rehak had a team photo above his bed.

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Bucknor, who is from Jamaica, said some of his sandlot clubs growing up used the names of Negro Leagues teams. Porter and Moore both said they wished they knew more about the Negro Leagues, and were looking forward to gaining a greater understanding of that era.

“One of my aunts, when I told her I was working this — she’s in her 60s — this was a big deal for her,” Porter said. I was like, ‘OK, it’s cool, I love it.’ But it was way more important to her that I actually was on the field for this than it was for me.”

The league hopes the umpires will serve as inspiration to Black umps in the minors, as well as younger Black potential umpires who one day might join the profession. Moore, the youngest member of the crew, is an example of the kind of success story that can occur.

In 2010, Moore was a second baseman and outfielder at Compton College in Los Angeles. Kerwin Danley, who would become the league’s first Black crew chief, was running an umpiring camp at the school. He encouraged Moore to become an umpire.

“I thought he was joking,” Moore said. “In the cages, I started doing drills, calling balls and strikes. Somehow, I earned a scholarship to go to umpiring school. From that point on, my life changed. I fell in love with umpiring. I spent 11 years in the minor leagues and now I’m a full-time major-league umpire. It’s surreal.”

Moore, seeking to mentor others the way Danley guided him, plays an instrumental role in helping teach teens umpiring at MLB’s Compton Youth Academy. He helped launch the program, created by Umps Care Charities in 2021. The course in umpiring and leadership skills lasts six weeks. One of its goals is to diversify the next generation of umpires.

“We all need role models,” Darrell Miller, VP of the Compton Youth Academy, told Fox Sports in 2023. “To see someone who looks like you in a spot where you hope to be in the future, it means everything.”

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Bucknor, in researching a speech he gave for Black History Month in February, learned there have been more Black astronauts (20 who traveled in space) than Black umpires (11). He found the discrepancy notable, considering, as he put it, “it takes so much more to be an astronaut.”

Maybe Thursday night will be a spark for the next Malachi Moore. At the very least, it will be a unique moment for the members of the crew, one they’ve texted each about in anticipation.

“I will be living in the moment,” Moore said.

“I’m going to try my best to slow everything down,” Rehak said.

“This is my 26th year,” Bucknor said. “And given the opportunity to be part of history, I’m going to look at it as one of the highlights of my career.”

(Top photo of Alan Porter, C.B. Bucknor and Adrian Johnson (l-r): Getty; G Fiume, Brandon Sloter / Icon Sportswire, Brian Rothmuller / Icon Sportswire, Jessica Carroll / MLB Photos)

MLB’s Rickwood Field game will make history with all-Black umpiring crew (2)MLB’s Rickwood Field game will make history with all-Black umpiring crew (3)

Ken Rosenthal is the senior baseball writer for The Athletic who has spent nearly 35 years covering the major leagues. In addition, Ken is a broadcaster and regular contributor to Fox Sports' MLB telecasts. He's also won Emmy Awards in 2015 and 2016 for his TV reporting. Follow Ken on Twitter @Ken_Rosenthal

MLB’s Rickwood Field game will make history with all-Black umpiring crew (2024)
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