Little Known Black History Fact: Bob Motley, Negro League Umpire

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  • Bob Motley is the only living umpire of Negro League Baseball. A shot-calling legend, Motley is known for his splits, lunges and dramatic calls at the plate. It was Motley who made the game-time decisions with Satchel Paige, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Willie Mays on the field. Bob Motley was not only a Negro League pioneer, he was also a member of the honorable Montford Point Marines of WWII.

    Motley was born in Autaugaville, Alabama near Selma, in 1923. The Ku Klux Klan was heavy in his town and there were frequent memories of their actions on the black townspeople. While working for a local hotel in the town of Anniston, Motley had his first acquaintances with baseball player of the minor leagues.  He knew he would one day play baseball like the gentleman he admired as a young man.

    On May 21, 1943, Motley enlisted in the U.S. Army. He would be among the first group of black Marines to serve; the Montford Point Marines. He was honorably discharged in 1946 after the war. Like many early black soldiers, Motley fought for his country on dangerous grounds then returned home to a place of bigotry and racism. Even though he served time with the decorated pioneering Montford Point Marines, he was still privy to the ‘whites only’ Jim Crow laws of the south.

    When he joined the Negro Leagues as an umpire, Motley faced a different challenge; he would ride along with the players on away games, and was forced to answer to them on his calls in previous games. In one instance, Motley called a strikeout on Hank Bayliss of the Kansas City Monarchs. Bayliss was so upset, he started by cursing Motley, then bumping him and later refusing to retire to the lockers. That was followed by a later attempt by Bayliss to stab Motley with a knife on the bus.

    Motley was a diehard fan of the game and despite any animosity expressed by players both black or white, he continued to umpire the Negro Leagues for 25 years. Though much of his memorabilia was discarded before he realized its worth, he kept a few baseballs with special dates and notes on them to remember the experience.

    In 2012, Motley received the President’s Congressional Medal of Honor.  As he looks to celebrate his 90th birthday this month, Motley reminds baseball fans about his release entitled “Ruling Over Monarchs, Giants & Stars: True Tales of Breaking Barriers, Umpiring Baseball Legends, and Wild Adventures in the Negro Leagues” with foreward by friend, Dionne Warwick.

    Bob Motley currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Negro Baseball Leagues Museum in Kansas City, MO. He lives with Pearline, his wife of sixty years. His son, Byron Motley, has captured his father’s legacy in his television own documentary, The Negro Leagues: An American Legacy.

    Watch video of Bob Motley recalling his time an a Negro League umpire below.

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