Monarchs, Giants, and Stars
June 8, 2021
This feature originally appeared in the June 2015 print edition of The Grand Salami.
Were it not already filled by actor Jonathan Goldsmith, the title of “The World’s Most Interesting Man” might have gone to Bob Motley. Having celebrated his 87th birthday in March 2015, Motley is one of the last living links to the days of Negro League baseball, as well as its only living umpire. Now, his experiences in and out of baseball are captured in a highly entertaining book titled Ruling Over Monarchs, Giants, and Stars: True Tales of Breaking Barriers, Umpiring Baseball Legends, and Wild Adventures in the Negro Leagues (Sports Publishing, hardcover and paperback available).
Being a pioneer seems to be a running theme in Motley’s life. He recounts his growing up in the Deep South (where cars full of Klansmen racing through the streets of his neighborhood at night was commonplace) and his early experiences with baseball. His own Negro League playing career began and ended as a teenager; it consisted of throwing five pitches for the Cleveland Buckeyes, each of them hit for extra bases, and allowing five earned runs. Before he could continue in baseball, however, World War II broke out and, in 1943, Motley became one of the first blacks to be-come a United States Marine in the still-segregated American military. Serving first as an MP, he was later assigned to an infantry unit that participated in the invasion of Okinawa. During a firefight, Motley was shot in the foot, an injury that not only earned him a Purple Heart, but ultimately led to the career that would be his life’s calling.
During his injury rehabilitation, Motley umpired several “pickup” games involving service teams. “Unlike playing the game,” he writes, “umpiring was a natural fit for me. Everything about it jived with my personality...” Indeed, he umpired games that involved players who would, after the war, go on to productive careers in the Negro Leagues. Motley’s rehabilitation, however, was his ticket back to the battlefield, and he recounts—in chilling detail—a frightening incident where he had to hide himself under the dead bodies of several Japanese and American soldiers to avoid being discovered by Japanese troops.
After the war, Motley relocated to Kansas City, a hotbed of Negro League baseball, where he competently umpired amateur ball for two years. Success in amateur ball, however, didn’t automatically open the door to pro baseball. In the book, he recalls how, in the summer of 1948, he set himself up at Blues Stadium in Kansas City (home of the Kansas City Monarchs, arguably the Negro Leagues’ flagship franchise), umpiring gear in hand, waiting for the game umpires to show up to ask for a job. Rebuffed several times over a period of months, his persistence finally paid off when he was allowed to umpire third base in place of the scheduled umpire who had failed to show. The rest, as they say, is history.
Motley developed an energetic, showman-like style that became his trademark. “The point,” he writes, “was to be dramatic and to make my actions as clear as day; I didn’t want any doubters in the stands.” While few doubted his umpiring skills, many doubted the future of the Negro Leagues. Motley’s career began at a time that the Negro Leagues were at a crossroads. Major League integration was in its infancy (Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby had joined the Major Leagues the season before) and, as more Negro League stars were accepted into the Majors, several teams struggled to stay viable.
That’s not to say, however, that the Negro Leagues were completely devoid of stars. Motley writes glowingly about his experiences with Negro Leaguers who are today considered baseball royalty. He devotes an entire chapter to his experiences with ageless Satchel Paige, as well as watching the “incubation” of future Major League stars like Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks, and Willie Mays. While the Negro Leagues were losing their best players to the Majors, it didn’t necessarily dampen their competitiveness. “The level of play on the whole was impressive in the Negro Leagues,” Motley recalls. “These guys were tough competitors. They wanted nothing but to be the best and to play every day.”
Motley served with distinction during a nearly decade-long career in the Negro Leagues. When it came to umpiring in the minor leagues and the Majors, however, he again had to be a pioneer. After being rejected by the first Florida-based umpiring school (because of a law at that time that forbade whites and blacks from teaching each other), he was one of the first black umpires to be accepted into the prestigious Al Somers umpiring school in 1957. Despite being one of the school’s highest-rated graduates, no professional league would accept a black umpire until 1958, when the Pacific Coast League finally accepted him to fill in for, ironically, an injured Al Somers.
Motley umpired in the PCL for nearly three seasons before, as he put it, “the responsibilities of my primary role as a bread-winner and father began to supersede my dream of a big-league career.” Indeed, it would be several years after Motley’s retirement before Emmett Ashford became the first black Major League umpire in 1966. For his part, Motley would umpire in the 1973 College World Series as umpire-in-chief. He would also be offered a fill-in role as a Major League umpire during a possible umpires strike in the late ’70s, but declined because it would have meant crossing a picket line.
Today, Bob Motley serves on the Board of Directors of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, where there is a permanent display honoring him, with his umpiring suit and gear, in the museum’s centerpiece exhibit—the “Field of Legends,” with bronze statues of such greats as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and others. It is a fitting tribute to a fascinating, courageous, and inspirational man who, nearly as much as Jackie Robinson, broke down barriers to truly make baseball our “National Game.” Whether you are a fan of baseball or social studies, Ruling Over Monarchs, Giants, and Stars is a very entertaining and enlightening read that deserves a place on your bookshelf.