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A Masked Man Everybody Knows : Amateur Umpire, 71, Maintains Friendly but Firm Style Behind Plate 40 Years

Times Staff Writer

He is an energetic little man, impeccable in blue and gray as night after night he travels his ball-diamond circuit. “Do I look good for 71?” asked umpire Sam Moses, knowing the answer as he put on his mask before a game last week at Heritage Park in Cerritos. “I’m running around better than some of these kids run the bases.”

An amateur umpire for 40 years, Moses is officiating more frequently now than ever before, spreading his authority five or six days a week over a territory that includes Cerritos, Norwalk, La Habra and Buena Park.

On this night he would work a boys Pee Wee baseball game, then a girls softball game. He is also a fixture at adult men and co-ed slo-pitch softball contests.

Not even a heart attack in 1982 could tear Moses from his avocation. Four months later, he was back behind the plate and he has not let up since.

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“Everybody knows Sam,” said Kenny Fewer, a Cerritos parks official who was among a small group of spectators in Heritage Park’s little grandstand. “He’s dependable, always there. All the parents like him. He’s not just an umpire, he’s (like) another coach.”

Moses said he has never had trouble with parents of young players. “I make ‘em laugh,” he said. “If they boo, I say, ‘I’ll boo with you.’ ”

The game was about to begin. A pitcher was ready to make practice throws, but his catcher was still putting on his equipment.

Moses turned to the dugout and said, “Give me your glove over there, fella.”

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But the glove was slow in arriving, so Moses caught the warm-up pitches barehanded.

During the game, Moses crouched in the classic stance and called the pitches, clicking the balls-and-strikes indicator in his hand. He wore his chest protector outside his shirt in the old-fashioned style.

He gave batting tips. He congratulated a catcher who had snared a pop fly.

The only umpire at the game, he had to make calls on the bases, too. Spry and wiry, he would be halfway down to first or halfway out to second in a flash.

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“My satisfaction in umpiring,” he said later, “is that I’m still doing it at my age.”

He ran the game with a combination of compassion and sternness.

“I don’t usually let ‘em wear no jackets,” Moses said between innings, “but it’s cold and windy and they’re kids.”

He enforced a no-jewelry rule. “That kid had a watch on,” he said.

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And noticing a bareheaded player, he warned, “You get a cap out there, or next time you won’t play.”

The players accepted Moses’ directives and decisions without question; it was impossible to picture them arguing with him.

Shivering on the bench of the Pirates, grass-stained center fielder Tim Ford, 7, said he thought Moses was a good umpire.

Told that Moses was 71, Tim said, “My grandpa’s old . . . 93.”

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During a 22-year career in the Air Force, Moses played, coached and officiated baseball.

“I played against Satchel Paige down in Puerto Rico in 1942,” he said.

How did Moses fare against the legendary pitcher?

“Fair. I only batted once against him. He struck me out.”

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A native of New Kensington, Pa., and a longtime resident of Cypress, Moses worked for finance and oil tool companies after retiring from the service in 1958.

“I could have been (a professional) umpire,” Moses said. “The way I look at it I had the ability, but I changed my mind because I was married. I would have been away too much. I’m away too much now and she (his wife, Mary) don’t like it. She’s not sports-minded.”

Moses steered his car into a parking lot Monday afternoon at Leffingwell Christian High School in Norwalk, where he would work a seventh- and eighth-grade girls softball game between Leffingwell and Brethren of La Mirada.

From his trunk he took his chest protector and blue shin guards. A pool cue also was in the trunk.

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“I’m playing in a pool tournament in Huntington Beach at 7,” he said. “I been shootin’ pool since 1937. This is the same pool stick I won in a tournament in Virginia in 1939.”

He said the men he would be playing against were all good pool shooters.

“And why not,” he said, his eyes so dark they looked fierce. “They practice every night in a bar. I don’t. I don’t drink. I drink a Coke.”

Moses, who said he is not against drinking, is aware of the problems alcohol can cause at a softball game. He recalled a game where he had to make a stand against it.

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“It was a slo-pitch softball playoff game,” he said. “They (the players) were drinking beer in the dugout. I told ‘em, ‘Hey, if you guys continue to be rowdy, I’ll stop the game.’

“And I did--in the fifth inning.”

Players know that the 5-foot-4 Moses will stand tall in the face of any argument.

“I straighten those guys out,” he said with a sneer. “I haven’t had no problems. I’ll say, ‘One more word out of you and you’re gone.’ They shut up like a clam.”

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Wearing a blue shirt and equally crisp gray slacks, Moses walked to the field. He had tugged his cap tightly over his silver hair, the bill angled down to shade his eyes from the sun. His face was smooth and tanned.

“Damn right,” he said when asked if he takes pride in his appearance. “You got to be neat. You notice guys in the big leagues? There are no sloppy umpires there.”

The Game Begins

Moses stepped onto the dusty diamond, its foul lines marked with a limestone powder that had been too heavily applied. Textbooks and Bibles were stacked on the grass behind the team benches.

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“Play ball,” Moses called out.

A Brethren player stepped into the batter’s box as her teammates sang: “Chrissie, Chrissie, she’s our star, she can hit it very far.”

The first inning was agonizingly long for Leffingwell, filled with walks, wild pitches, errors and stolen bases. With the aid of a few hits, Brethren scored 8 runs.

“Good, we got an inning in,” Moses said as he walked back to the screen. Moses has grown accustomed to such long innings, but they still slightly irritate him.

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Advice to Batters

“If I was the catcher, I’d be throwing out those girls at third,” Moses said. “I don’t know why they’re not hitting that ball. I told them to step up (farther). I used to hit those fast pitches when I was playing ball in Korea. Oh, boy.”

Jennifer Rudometkin, Brethren third baseman, had never seen Moses before, but got a kick out of him.

“He’s cute,” she said.

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Because the Leffingwell pitchers rarely got the ball over the plate, the Brethren batters seemed to be waiting to walk.

“C’mon, I want to see you hit the ball,” Moses said to Evette Valadez.

She slammed the next pitch into left-center field for a triple.

To Moses’ consternation, the merry-go-round of runs continued.

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“I can’t believe they can’t catch that ball,” he said. “We’ll be lucky if we get two innings in.”

Time Limit Expired

The game finally did reach the third inning.

“Hold it a minute,” Moses said, looking to his left. “Watch that little boy. Move those kids back. If the ball goes there and they get hit, I’ll get blamed for it.”

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And for a second, Moses lost his concentration.

“Three and one,” he announced, then corrected it to “three and two, I’m sorry, full count.”

Moses called an end to the game when the 1 1/2-hour time limit had expired. Only three innings had been played and Brethren was ahead, 27-0.

“Nice game, girls,” he said to both teams.

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Relieved, he walked back to his car.


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