Umpiring in the Negro Leagues & Beyond
By Bob Motley with Byron Motley
Sports Publishing LLC. 212 pp. $16.95
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Reviewed by John Rooney
For The Inquirer
nolead ends I would love to sit down for an hour or so with Bob Motley and jaw about our memories of old-time baseball. He spent much of his life umpiring in the Negro Leagues, and relates his experiences there to his son, author Byron Motley. I lived across the street from Philadelphia's Shibe Park, and knew most major league players before I started school. Yet, I had never heard of the Negro Leagues until my early teens. Then, after a classmate argued that blacks were not good enough to make it in the major leagues, I asked that question of my father. "No, it's that they don't let them in," he responded, "Besides, they have their own leagues, the Negro Leagues." When I asked if any of them had the ability to make it in the majors, he began rattling off names of players that I had never heard of and concluded that about half of them could step right in and play with any major league team.
Today, the stars who played in the Negro Leagues are no longer unknown to baseball fans. Not only have many of them shone brightly in the majors, but the exploits of others who had finished their careers or were past their prime before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier - 60 years ago this month - have been depicted in books and movies. Motley adds his reminiscences about the game, including his one disastrous game as a pitcher.
After talking his way into starting a game, he soon found himself standing on the mound having allowed five runs without getting a man out. As the disgruntled manager came storming out of the dugout, Motley turned and ran - and never stopped until he was out of the ballpark and at his home, still wearing his uniform. After that humiliating experience he decided that the best way to get into baseball was as an umpire.
He recounts his journey from early attempts to gain a foothold in the profession to his present role as "the only living umpire from the Negro Leagues." Mostly he paints a mural of the fun and excitement, the difficulties and frustrations of the life he and the players experienced. He tells of barnstorming trips in ramshackle buses, when none of them had the opportunity to shower after the game, wondering if they could find a place to eat and accepting the likelihood that they would have to sleep on the bus and be ready to play ball the next day. And an umpire would have to be a light sleeper in case a player decided to retaliate for a disputed call from the previous game.
Players played, even when hurt. With the aid of remedies such as coal oil (kerosene) and goose grease for internal and external ailments, everyone was expected to perform.
And perform they did. Not only did they play great baseball, but they made showmanship an integral part of the game. Comic teammates Tut and Rehop entertained fans between innings, getting spectators involved in the action much as today's Phillie Phanatic does. Theatrics was a big part of the umpire's repertoire too, and Motley played his part to the hilt. When a runner was safe, everyone knew it. Motley would leap high in the air, arms outstretched, shouting "Y-O-O-U-U-R'E S-A-A-Y-F-E!" before landing spread-eagled on the ground. A fellow ump always started a game by making a mad dash to center field, running up the wall, doing a flip, racing back and sliding into home plate with a flourish.
The book is not without flaws. Like most tales based on memories, it includes "facts" that are questionable at best, like the claim that shin guards and batting helmets originated in the Negro Leagues. The description of the elder Motley's early life in rural Alabama might have been condensed or omitted. On the other hand, a chapter on the combat service of Motley Sr. and other African American Marines in World War II is a story that needs to be told and could form the basis for another book.
All in all, this tale of Umpiring in the Negro Leagues and Beyond is an easy and enjoyable read about an intriguing chapter of our not-too-distant past.