Bob Motley, Last Surviving Negro League Ump, Recalls Baseball History

Aug 24, 2014
Originally published on August 24, 2014 4:18 pm

Bob Motley, a 91-year-old from Kansas City, Mo., has lived through remarkable times in our history.

His story is one of a black man in love with baseball. Racial integration didn't come to the major leagues until 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke the color line at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

But it was another 19 years before a black man, Emmett Ashford, appeared behind home plate. In the interim, black umpires called balls and strikes in the Negro League.

Motley is the last surviving ump from Negro League baseball. He also served with the first-ever black Marine regiment in World War II, the Montfort Point Marines.

He tells Tess Vigeland, guest host of NPR's weekends on All Things Considered, that his umpiring career began as he recovered from a gunshot wound at a military hospital on Okinawa.

"I could look out the window and see there was a ball field, so I decided I'd hop down with my crutches. And they needed an umpire," he says.

So they gave him a mask and chest protector, and he began calling balls and strikes for the Marines.

Motley was eventually discharged from the U.S. military with a Purple Heart. When he moved to Kansas City, he went to the nearby stadium and asked if they needed an umpire. The chief umpire initially turned him away.

"He said, 'Kid, you don't know nothing about umpiring.' I said, 'I umpired in the Marine Corps,' " he says. But the chief umpire sent him away.

He was back the next week, asking again. Eventually, thanks to his determination, he was given a chance to umpire at third base. The president of the league happened to be there and told Motley he did a good job, and offered him a job to start traveling with the league.

There was one condition: he had to ride on the bus with the players, the same players he'd be making calls against.

"Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Satchel Paige; I didn't know at that time they [were] that good," he says.

Ten years into his umpire career, Motley finally went to umpire school in Florida. He was the first black person to do so after, a law in the state banning whites from teaching blacks was lifted.

Going to umpire school is required to be an ump in the major leagues. But once he graduated, despite finishing at the top of his class, Motley was not offered a job. The only time he got called to the major leagues is when their umpires were on a strike, and Motley was asked to cross the picket line.

Motley says he asked if he would have a job after the strike was over.

"They said, 'We will let you know at that time,' " he says. "I said, 'I'll let you know right now, I'm not crossing the picket line then.' "

After that, he said he wasn't going to try for the major leagues anymore. But he kept umpiring — and eventually, helped found a museum dedicated to preserving the history of the Negro League.

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Transcript

TESS VIGELAND, HOST:

Every now and again, we hear about people who have lived through remarkable times in our history. Ninety-one-year-old Bob Motley of Kansas City, Missouri, is certainly one of them. His is a story of a black man in love with baseball. Now, racial integration didn't come for major league ball players until 1947, but it was another 19 years before a black man, Emmett Ashford, appeared behind home plate. In the interim, black umpires called in strikes in the Negro league and Bob Motley is that league's last surviving ump. Motley also served with the first ever black Marine Regiment in World War II, the Montford Point Marines, and his umpiring career began as he recovered from a gunshot wound at a military hospital on Okinawa.

BOB MOTLEY: I could look out the window and see there was a ball field. So I decided I'd hop down with my crutches and they needed an umpire. So I said if you don't mind, I call balls and strikes. They gave me a mask. And I got one of the breast protectors, and I started calling balls and strikes.

VIGELAND: Right, so you were eventually discharged with a Purple Heart.

MOTLEY: Yes.

VIGELAND: Thanks for your service.

MOTLEY: Thank you.

VIGELAND: Then in Kansas City, I was told that you lived two blocks from the old stadium there and you wandered over and asked if they needed an umpire and what did they say?

MOTLEY: Well, I went to the stadium and talked to the umpire crew and chief umpire at that time - he said, kid, you don't know nothing about umpiring. And I said I umpired in the Marine Corps, please let me umpire. He said, well, get out of here. Next Sunday, the team came back to town. And here I was again pleading to him. So finally, they let me umpire third base. The president of the league was there. He said you did a good job, I'm going to give you $5. And he said go and get your gear ready, call me tomorrow, and I want you to start traveling in the league. He said one thing about it, you have to ride on the bus with the ballplayers.

VIGELAND: What was it like being with all those names that we all know so well from baseball history? What was it like being around them?

MOTLEY: To me, it was just another ballplayer - Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Satchel Paige. I didn't know at the time they was that good.

VIGELAND: Bob Motley, we have a photo of you at umpiring school in Daytona Beach. What sent you there, because that was about a decade into your umpiring career wasn't it?

MOTLEY: The only way to go to major league you have to go to an umpire school. And it took me 10 years ago to get to umpire school because the only school they had at that time was in the state of Florida. The state of Florida had a state law that white couldn't teach black. Finally, they lift that law, and I was the first black to go to umpire school.

VIGELAND: So you graduated top of your class and yet major league baseball still would not let you in.

MOTLEY: Yeah. The only time I got called to the major league - major league umpire they went on a strike.

VIGELAND: Right.

MOTLEY: And they want me come across the picket line. And I ask them would I have a job after the strike is over with? And they said we will let you know at that time. I said I'm going to let you know right now, I'm not crossing the picket line there.

VIGELAND: So your first offer to umpire in the majors is during a strike and was that your last opportunity?

MOTLEY: That's when I said I wasn't going to try no more.

VIGELAND: You were born in a tiny town outside of Selma, Alabama, in 1923. Can you give us a sense of what it was like to go from that childhood to become now the last living umpire from the Negro leagues?

MOTLEY: Well, when you're young like that, you don't realize life. Back in those days, The Ku Klux Klan was pretty heavy in Alabama. And I seen a lot of stuff happen. And I'm glad I left because I probably wouldn't be talking to you today.

VIGELAND: Bob Motley has been speaking with us from his home in Kansas City, Missouri, where he holds the title of last living umpire from baseball's Negro leagues at age 91. Sir, thank you so much for sharing your time with us.

MOTLEY: I appreciate you letting me talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.