View Full Version : Former Negro Leagues umpire shares stories in his book

07-01-07, 08:33 AM
Posted on Sat, Jun. 30, 2007
Former Negro Leagues umpire shares stories in his book
The Kansas City Star

Bob Motley just wanted to be close to the game of baseball. That’s how, in the most unlikely of ways, he stands today as the only living Negro Leagues umpire.

In the early 1940s, being part of the game meant taking your shot the only way a black man could. When two Negro League teams came to Dayton, Ohio, Motley went to try out.

“That’s how it worked back then,” he said. “No agents or draft. You tried out, and if you were good enough, you played.”

He walked to the mound, went into his windup and fired some pitches.

“You’ve got pretty good stuff,” the manager told him. “Come back tomorrow.”

The next day, Motley was waiting when the team bus pulled up at the ballpark.

“The manager got off and said, ‘You looked pretty good yesterday. You’re going to start today.’ ”

This is where the story changes a little. Because in a perfect world, Bob Motley would have walked out there, thrown a heck of a game, and began a long career in the Negro Leagues as a pitcher.

But here’s what actually happened: The first batter he faced laced a single. The second smacked a double. The skipper walked out to the rookie and said irritably: “I thought you could pitch. Nobody better get another hit.”

The next guy jacked a home run.

“It was my last time being a player,” Motley said with a chuckle. “The skipper ran out toward the mound. I ran toward him, and I kept on running, right out of the field.”

That should have been the end of his love affair with baseball. He joined the Marines. He was sent to the Pacific Theater. And there, thousands of miles from home, he got another chance.

They gave him a jeep and told him to go out and umpire some baseball games. It was something the men could do to clear a little of the fog of war. So each evening, the young Marine went back to the game he loved.

Even when he was wounded at Okinawa, the game pulled him back. When his older brother rushed to the hospital to visit him, all he found was an empty bed.

Motley, wearing a catcher’s mask and hospital garb, was calling balls and strikes at a nearby diamond. He couldn’t help himself.

“I couldn’t play, but I could umpire,” he said. “I loved the game and I wanted to be part of it.”

After the war, Motley returned home to Alabama. But he had family in Kansas City, and a little bit of money left over that bought him a car, so off he went in 1947, heading west.

The Kansas City Monarchs were in town that Sunday after he arrived in Missouri. He’d heard of them — everyone had heard of Kansas City’s Negro League team — and so the young man arrived at the ballpark with a plan.

He was sitting on the sidewalk, stalking the umpires’ entrance, when the crew arrived.

“Can I umpire this ballgame?” he asked.

The umpires looked at him like he was crazy. Get lost, they said. We don’t need you.

Motley was there the following Sunday, too. “I begged them again.”

They told him to talk to the owner. The owner told him to talk to the umpires. It was the runaround, so for the third Sunday in a row, the young man tried again.

“Kid,” one of them said, “go down to third base today.”

It was another chance. This time, he made the most of it.

They liked what they saw, so the following week, the umpire scheduled to work the plate turned to Motley. “You take over,” he said.

“That’s all I wanted,” Motley said. “I called balls and strikes. And when it was over, they said to me, ‘You did a hell of a job, kid.’ ”

From then on, Motley was an umpire at the Monarchs’ home games. The reviews were good enough that the next year, in 1948, he began to travel the country, working games, being close to it like he’d dreamed.

Umpires in the Negro Leagues hitched rides on team buses back then, often being ferried to towns like Memphis, St. Louis and Kansas City with guys they’d angered — or ejected — earlier in the day.

That’s how Buck O’Neil helped save his life.

Motley was on a bus with the Monarchs when one of the players he’d kicked out earlier in the day boarded the bus looking for blood.

“He pulled out a knife and said, ‘I’m going to cut you!’ ” Motley said.

The player sliced air, just missing Motley. Motley grabbed his catcher’s mask and swung back. That’s when O’Neil grabbed the attacker.

“If you swing at him again, you’re off this bus and this team!” O’Neil said.

That, though, didn’t stop Motley from kicking O’Neil out of a game a few years later — the only time, O’Neil would say, he was ejected from a game. Ever.

“There was a close play at the plate, and Buck didn’t like the call,” Motley said. “He said the magic word, so I ejected him.”

“Bob was known for that,” said Motley’s brother Don, now executive director of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

Don wasn’t spared. He was also kicked out of a game by his older brother.

“What happened was, Bob kicked me out of a game in the Ban Johnson league,” Don said. “Gave me 30 seconds to get off the field. The only way I could have gotten off the field that fast was with a helicopter.”

Bob Motley built a reputation for being tough. And flashy.

“He’d jump all in the air, kick up his right leg, scream, ‘YOU’RE OUT OF HERE!’ ” Don said. “People loved to watch him call a game.”

By 1950, Motley was the league’s chief umpire. Between the leg kicking and manager-tossing, he also was regarded as perhaps the league’s finest umpire. When professional umpire schools in Florida finally allowed blacks to attend, Motley was the first one there.

In 1957, in a class with 76 other umpires, he aced his written exam and was named the top graduate. And still no professional baseball leagues, other than the Negro Leagues, would hire him. He repeated the feat the next year at an advanced course. Again, a perfect score on the test. Again, top in his class. Again, no other job.

Until a call came months later. It was the Pacific Coast League. They wanted the best. That was Bob Motley.

“It was the first time in history a graduate of that umpire school went straight to AAA,” Motley said.

For the next 20 years, Motley umpired Class AAA ball and the College World Series, but never reached the major leagues. Emmett Ashford was the first black umpire in the major leagues in 1966.

Today, the 84-year-old Motley lives in Kansas City. He’s written a book about his experiences, “Ruling over Monarchs, Giants and Stars.” He’ll be signing copies from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. today at Kauffman Stadium as part of Negro Leagues Day.

He still loves the game. He still laughs when he thinks about ejecting his brother Don, and O’Neil. His eyes still twinkle when he talks about forcing his way into the business by sheer will, and the joy of a life close to the game.

“That was my life,” he said. “It was part of me.”
To reach Bill Reiter, sports reporter for The Star, call 816-234-4856 or send e-mail to wreiter@kcstar.com