The book: “Ruling Over Monarchs, Giants & Stars: True Tales of Breaking Barriers, Umpiring Baseball Legends and Wild Adventures in the Negro Leagues”
The author: Bob Motley, with his son Byron Motley
The vital stats: Sports Publishing (Skyhorse Publishing), 229 pages, $24.95.
The pitch: Plenty of recent offerings have documented the plight, and delight, of the Negro League players, but this account from Motley (see bio linked here), the last living umpire from the Negro Leagues, actually first appeared in paperback in 2007. Now, it’s in a hardbound edition by a new publisher, in coordination with a TV documentary produced by his son, Byron, called “The Negro Leagues: An American Legacy.”
Byron is a singer, songwriter, filmmaker, lecturer, and photographer living in L.A. who was inspired to help his dad put this project together for PBS after growing up listening to his stories. (And, with his background, it explains why this could also be the first baseball book with a forward from Dionne Warwick, and comes with an endorsement from Ken Burns). The target launch for the documentary is Feb., 2013.
The documentary might come from the fact that Bob Motley was excited to take his family to see the 1976 Richard Pryor movie, “Bingo Long’s Traveling All Stars and Motor Kings,” but then found out it “was more farce than reality.” Motley’s reality is much more harsh, knowing there could have been plenty of times when he could have lost his life along the way, traveling with the teams in the Negro Leagues on buses from town to town.
This book is far more than just his melancholy memories of working games that involved Satchel Paige, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Bullet Rogan, Willard “Home Run” Brown (“the best ever”) and Willie Mays. It’s reliving his own dream to make something of himself after growing up in rural Alabama, fighting for his country in World War II, then trying to understand why not enough progress had been made for him to reach his ultimate goal — a big-league umpire.
Motley spent more than a decade umpiring in the Negro League, and it was Jackie Robinson’s ascent to the majors with the Dodgers in 1947 that inspired him to go back at age 26 and get his high school degree. The highest level Motley could reach as an umpire, after attending the Al Somers Umpiring School, was the Pacific Coast League. But after a few years, he realized he needed to provide for his family — he began as a janitor at General Motors and had been moving up the corporate ladder. He admits to living to the motto: “If you have a little faith, things often go the way they are supposed to, proving that life has a way of working itself out, as I say, for the best and better.”
An excerpt: Page 201:
“I could have been the first black umpire to make it to the majors, but I guess it wasn’t meant to be. My chances were just as good as anybody else’s, especially considering I was the minor league’s second black umpire. I had all the qualities — experience, talent and education (that important certificate from the umpire school). But Major League Baseball worked on its own clock, as usual, when deciding when to open the door to a black man. I, like all black umpires of my time, was cognizant of the fact that many people in the upper echelons of baseball, and some players as well, would take issue with a black man being in charge on the diamond …
“That door finally opened to a man who deservedly became the majors’ first black umpire, Emmett Ashford (right)…
“I will never forget my first assignment with Emmett at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles. i was assigned to umpire first base, while Emmett took his turn behind the plate. As we walked out onto the field, he sauntered over behind home plate and laid down his mask, shin guards and breast protector. I thought to myself, ‘What is he doing, stripping?’
“All of the sudden, he took off in a dead sprint toward center field. My gut reaction was one of nervousness, as I thought someone might be chasing him — or us. I almost started running, too. But as I watched his face I could see a wide toothy smile form and hear him chuckling to himself as he ran. I stood there watching this man, and I couldn’t believe my eyes.
“When he got to the warning track, Emmett leaped through the air, ran up the centerfield wall, turned a flip, landed on his feet and then ran all the way back to the infield and slid into home plate. The crowd went crazy! I was flabbergasted. I thought to myself, ‘Now here is an umpire!’
“Needless to say, between the two of us, we gave fans quite a show that day. … Emmett and I fed off each other’s energy and complemented each other’s showmanship. Being the only two black umpires in the league, sometimes our fellow white umps would say things to try to pit us against each other, attempting to get us to speak ill of one another. But like the Negro League ballplayers I had traveled with, Emmett and I had an unspoken bond of brotherhood between us, so their tactics fell short of ever causing any dissenion between the two of us.”
Footnote: On April 11, 1966, Ashford finally got to umpire in the big leagues, in Cleveland’s 5-2 win over the Washington Senators. “Listen,” said the stadium guard according to a news account from the time, “there are no Negro umpires in the major leagues.” Ashford replied: “Well, there will be, if you let me into the park.” A biography of Emmett Ashford was written by his daughter, Adrienne Cherie Ashford, in 2004 (linked here).
How it goes down in the scorebook: Safe at home.
That’s where Motley, who last month turned 89, is in Kansas City, on the board of directors for the Negro Baseball League Museum. All while his son works more to preserve his legacy.
It all goes back to the phrase he used to call Chapter 8: “I’ve seen it all — and then some.”
Also see: An interview the Motleys did with SABR in the Fall of 2010 (linked here)