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Last surviving Negro Leagues ump recalls tough road

Motley overcame much to have long career but never got to work in Major Leagues

Special to

Byron Motley is still surprised that his father and many others who played in the Negro Leagues don't appear to harbor bitterness over being denied an opportunity to be part of the Major Leagues.

"I'm bitter about things that I haven't achieved in my life," said Motley, laughing. "And I certainly had more opportunities than my father had."

There's no doubt that the years before integration of the Major Leagues held fewer opportunities for black men than during the years afterward, but that didn't stop Motley's father, now 89, from dreaming grand dreams when he was younger.

And, oh, his dreams were grand: Bob Motley was a black man who wanted to umpire in the Majors.

The thought was laughable for most of the 1900s, and Motley, the last surviving umpire from the Negro Leagues, knew it as well as any other black man who grew up in those specks of towns in the Deep South. Yet segregation never stopped Motley from dreaming, because even if he couldn't get to the big leagues, he could build a career as an umpire elsewhere.

Bob Motley did.

Like most black youngsters of the 1920s and '30s, he got to watch baseball from the vantage point of Jim Crow. Motley and his peers, however, never looked at the Negro Leagues as a discount version of the bigs. They carried the same admiration for black baseball and its stars as white youth did for the stars for whom they rooted.

Motley's first dream was to make a living as a ballplayer. He was a pitcher, but as he's always told people, not a very good one. Given a tryout with a Negro League team, he didn't make the cut.

Not that it would have mattered much immediately, because Motley ended up having to go to war in 1943, joining thousands of U.S. soldiers in Japan. While overseas, he would umpire pickup games. He came home to the States in 1946 with a new dream in tow.

"I wanted to make a career as a Major League umpire," he said. "I knew I couldn't play, so the next step, if you wanted to be in the game, you had to be an umpire."

His experience in those pickup games led to opportunities in the Big 8 Conference. While he umpired college games, he tried to catch on with the Negro Leagues. Motley would hang around the Kansas City Monarchs' ballpark, asking crew chief Frank Duncan whom he should talk to about a job.

For almost two years, Duncan, a tough, former Negro Leagues catcher, gave Motley the runaround. But Motley was persistent.

"He had to have persistence, persistence and the desire to make the most of a bad situation," said Byron Motley, a filmmaker, historian and author.

Hanging around the ballpark got Bob Motley his break. One day in 1947, Duncan needed someone to work third base; he remembered Motley and decided to give him a shot.

It was all he needed. J.D. Martin, the league president, saw Motley's work and said, "You're a pretty good umpire. How'd you like to travel in the league?"

Motley didn't hesitate to say yes. He took the $300 a month that Martin offered and joined the league's crew of umpires.

Bob Motley spent the next 11 seasons calling strikes and balls. He was behind the plate to witness some of the greatest hitters in the history of the game. Motley watched Willie Mays, Ernie Banks and Hank Aaron break into pro ball; he was there when Monte Irvin and Willard Brown transitioned from black baseball to the bigs, and he was lucky enough, he said, to call games with Satchel Paige on the mound.

No one who saw Motley on the field could forget him. His style was purely his -- colorful, firm and decisive.

"A close play just got into my system," he said. "I'd jump over a player's head to call him out or safe. It just got into me -- a close play. I loved to call balls and strikes, too."

He brooked no nonsense, though. A ballplayer could scream, cuss, fuss, holler or display all sorts of crazy emotions, but none of it affected Motley.

"When he said that was the call, that was the call," said Byron Motley, whose book "Ruling Over the Monarchs, Giants and Stars: Umpiring in the Negro Leagues and Beyond" chronicled his father's life in baseball. "He stood his ground. He had to; he couldn't let those ballplayers push him around."

Just as in the big leagues, ballplayers would try to do that all the time, even ballplayers like Buck O'Neil.

O'Neil, known to be easy-going, was playing first base for the Monarchs. Motley, in his black uniform, was stationed nearby. On a popup, he signaled an infield fly. O'Neil disagreed. He exchanged words with Motley until ...

"He said the magic word," Motley said.

Umpires have long had a creed. They've generally given players and managers leeway in disputing a close call, but there are certain profane words one can never say and expect to stay around to witness the game's last out.

O'Neil said one of those words. Motley ejected him, the only ejection in O'Neil's long career.

In the Major Leagues, umpires pack up their gear, go back to his hotel and don't see the players until the next day. But it was different in the Negro Leagues. Umpires traveled from city to city on team buses, they ate at the same restaurants, and as was the case with Motley and O'Neil, sometimes shared hotel rooms.

"After the game, I had no place to stay," Motley said. "Buck, he wasn't mad; he didn't carry a grudge. He said, 'Well, Motley, you can stay in my room.' I said, 'OK.'"

O'Neil told Motley to head to the hotel. Motley got the key and went to the room ahead of O'Neil. Unable to sleep, Motley waited for O'Neil to show up. O'Neil came in a short while later, changed without saying a word, jumped into bed and fell asleep.

"The next morning I got up and got on out of there before he got up," Motley said.

That was how things worked in the Negro Leagues, where Motley spent a good chunk of his life. Yet, through all the years he spent in the Negro Leagues, he couldn't shake the dream he had held since the war.

He followed the exodus of black talent out of the Majors, hoping that he, too, could be a barrier-breaker like Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby were in entering the Major Leagues in 1947.

In his quest to do so, Motley learned the only way to get to the Majors was to attend umpire school in Florida. Turned down several times for admission, Motley persisted. He got an invitation to attend in 1959. He spent one spring in Daytona Beach, and although he was tops in his class, had to go back a second year when his first try didn't land him a position at any level of Minor League ball.

It was the late 1950s and early '60s, and baseball still wasn't ready for a black man to arbitrate a game. Even after Motley got an umpiring job in the Pacific Coast League, he wasn't seen as material for the Majors.

His dream eventually died a slow death, but it died absent of bitterness. Motley rolled seamlessly into a career with an automaker, hanging around baseball as a sandlot umpire, and, as one of the founders of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, playing a role in keeping the history of black baseball alive.

Bob Motley knew he was capable of umpiring in the Majors, and he still wishes that he had gotten that chance. He didn't, which is the hardboiled reality that men like him had to face for growing up a generation too soon.

"As far as carrying around a grudge or being disappointed, not in the slightest," Byron Motley said of his father. "If he had, he certainly wouldn't have lived to 90 years old. The bitterness would have ate him up inside."

Justice B. Hill is a contributor to