Today at 88, Bob Motley is part of living sports history. He’s the last surviving umpire from the Negro Leagues. While serving time in World War II, he found his passion for umpiring.
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In this CYInterview, Bob Motley takes us back to the historic Negro Leagues. The league was formed before the Major Leagues were integrated. Before looking at an important part of the games history, Mr. Motley told me why he liked umpiring:
“By being an umpire, you closer to the game and you in control of the game and you watch the guys who hit the ball. You watch the pitcher pitch the ball. So you feel, I felt like I was in the game by being an umpire.”
At a time in America when people of different races did not play on sports teams together, the Negro Leagues provided an opportunity for African Americans to play baseball. As someone who was front and center on the diamond, I wondered if Motley had any specific images etched in his mind, things he still thinks about today. He told me he thinks about the whole league:
“The whole league. I think about the whole league. I was in that league for most of all my life. I umpired when Satchel Paige pitched, Ernie Banks played, Joe Black, Don Newcombe. You name them, I was there. I was a chief umpire in that league…They saw some great athlete that played sport, baseball and they played, the guys in the Negro League, they played for the love of the game. They wouldn’t making that much money. They didn’t play for the money part. They played because they loved to play.”
In describing what it was like to umpire a game with the great Satchel Paige on the mound, Bob recalls a story of how Mr. Paige use to warm up:
“It was great to see a pitcher get on the mound and he was a control pitcher. I use to watch him warm up on the side and he use to use, he’d warm up on the side about three or four times and he use to take a piece of…wrapper and put that down for his plate and that’s how he use to warm up by throwing over that plate on that…wrapper.”
One of baseball’s living legends, Hank Aaron, also played in the Negro Leagues. Motley recalls watching him play and says it was a thrill to watch all the greats play.
“He was one of the greater ball players I have ever seen just to see. I saw all them great stars, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays. Just to, like I say, they were all superstars. They just came out to the ball game to play. They played. It was a thrill. It was a thrill to watch those guys every day.”
Besides the likes of Aaron and Mays, Motley says Willard Brown was the greatest player he saw in the Negro Leagues.
“Willard Brown was one of the greatest ball players I think that played. He could hit that ball and he’d walk around like he couldn’t even move, but he could hit that ball and when he hit that ball and knock it over, out of the ballpark, he’d run like a jackrabbit, but he’d walk around like he couldn’t hardly move. Willard Brown, he’s one of the greatest hitters in the Negro League.”
In wondering what the Negro Leagues mean to the history of baseball, Bob explains they were men who played for the love of the game:
“It showed that it was an American sport and again like I said, they played because they loved the sport and they didn’t play for the money of the game. They played for the love of the game and probably some of them played, wouldn’t even making back in those days, some of them probably wouldn’t even making $100 a week, $100 a month. So they played for the love of the game back in those days.”
Though Motley umpired the College World Series and other types of baseball, he never had the opportunity to umpire a game in the Major Leagues. It was something he wanted to do. He explains, however, that there was a three year period when, at the end of the baseball season, ball players from the Major Leagues would play ball players from the Negro Leagues. Mr. Motley says it ended because the Negro League teams were winning:
“They’d get the guys from the American and National League and they played the best guys in the Negro League and they did that for about three years until the Negro League players were beating them. So they stopped and they were showing them up. So I did get a chance to see some of the great ball players that played there.”
The Negro Leagues ended because integration took place in the Major Leagues, with the National League and American League taking all players Motley explains:
“The National League and the American League was talking all the great ball players into the American League and National League. That’s the reason. When Jackie Robinson went in there, that opened the door for the rest of the guys to go to the Major League. Everybody wanted to play in the Major League. So all the clubs was taking those guys into the American and National League…That’s where the money was because playing in the Negro League, they weren’t making no money. They were playing for the love of the game and at the end of the baseball season they all had to go get em a job to make ends meat.”
In looking at the game of baseball today, Motley says the players love the game, but they also play for the money:
“I get kinda upset because I know they not playing the way that they’re capable to play because I think they think if they can hit 40, 50 homeruns they get a big contract for next year and these guys for the last 10 or 15 years, they play for the money. That’s my thinking on it.”
Since his birth in 1923, Motley has seen many of America’s greatest events. He admits there has been a lot of progress. Though these are challenging times for America, Motley gives us something to remember in terms of where America was and how far it’s progressed, a still great nation continuing to offer plenty of opportunity:
“We have made a great progress in America. I mean, we have went up to the moon and made a great progress since I’ve been on this earth. You take, say 40 or 50 years ago, you could go and get a gallon of gas for nine cents or 18 cents. Now you almost pay four dollars for a gallon of gas. I mean everything has increased in progress. That’s what life is all about, progress in this world.”
The vintage photo in this piece is credited to the Bob Motley Collection.
The photo of Bob Motley today is credited to Byron Motley Photography.
Bob Motley’s official Facebook page is here
You can find more information and purchase a copy of Bob Motley’s recent book clicking here
Bob’s son Byron is working on a documentary about the Negro Leagues. You can find more information here.
Bob Motley’s online biography from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is here
You can email Chris Yandek at ChrisYandek@CYInterview.com