Bob Motley called game with grace

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Satchel Paige is on the mound, Josh Gibson is behind the plate, and Martin Dihigo is up at bat.

It could be a dream, but it's not. It's the Field of Legends at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, a hauntingly beautiful tableau of bronze statues standing on a baseball diamond. There's a faux dugout along the first-base line, and in the shadows between home plate and the dugout is a display case with the uniform and paraphernalia belonging to former Negro American League umpire Bob Motley.

His puffy hat is there, as are his ball bag, his whisk broom, his ball and strike counter, his shoes, his shin guards, his chest protector and a photograph of him making an out call while jumping in the air. But the most stunning thing about the display is his black suit, freshly pressed, with a white shirt and bow tie.

"Handsome, isn't it?" says Motley. "Like formal wear. We were the men in black, not the men in blue."

Yes, Motley is alive and well at 91, a breathing reminder of the glory -- and outrage -- of segregated baseball. As his 2-year-old great-granddaughter Chrisslyn scurries around his living room in northwest Kansas City on this January morning, he is happy to recount an extraordinary life that began in Jim Crow Alabama and took him into the Marines, past a Purple Heart at Okinawa and then into the Negro Leagues, where he upheld justice in an institution borne of injustice.

Had minds been more open, or had he come along a few years later, he might have become one of Major League Baseball's men in blue. But that's not his biggest regret.

"I do wish I'd kept all those lineup cards I threw away after games," he says. "The ones with Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks and Satchel Paige and Buck O'Neil and Willard Brown written on them. Imagine how valuable one from the East-West Game would be."

Over the years, Kansas City has done a remarkable job of keeping the memories of the Negro Leagues alive. There's the museum, on East 18th Street, just two blocks east of the Paseo YMCA, where Rube Foster first organized professional black baseball and a mural of former Monarchs player and manager O'Neil now stands sentinel.

But there's no better way to relive those times than with someone who lived them. Both the city and the Royals -- for whom he has sold season tickets as a Lancer -- have often recognized Motley for his contributions to the game. If you were at Game 6 of the 2014 World Series, you might have seen his smiling face up on the big screen at Kauffman Stadium.

And if you were in the umpires' room below the stands that night ... well, let's save that story.

Motley has written a wonderful book with his son Byron titled "Ruling Over Monarchs, Giants & Stars." He keeps a few copies of it at home, along with the framed Purple Heart, citations from the Marines and President Barack Obama and an extensive gallery of photographs -- not only of himself but also of his wife Pearline and their two children, Bobette and Byron, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

"I have been truly blessed," he says. Among his blessings is his sense of recall -- as evidenced in both the book and in casual conversation with a perfect stranger. Either way, the stories come with a twinkle in his eye.

Robert Carter Motley was born March 11, 1923, in Autaugaville, Alabama, halfway between Selma and Montgomery. He was the sixth of eight children born to sharecropper William Motley and his wife Eula. When Robert was 4, his father died from drinking well water that the family suspects was poisoned by a member of the Ku Klux Klan who didn't like that William wanted to expand his land.

Eula moved the family to her hometown of Anniston, Alabama, where young Robert's days were spent sitting in a one-room schoolhouse in his church, doing chores for his mamma or stealing off to the woods with his best friend to throw rocks. When members of the KKK would drive through the neighborhood at night, Eula made sure her children lay on the floor below the windows.

Thanks to his four older brothers, Robert discovered baseball, but it was a kindly, white shopkeeper named Locker Burns who stoked his passion for the game. Robert would clean and stock Burns' market every morning before school, and in return, the Santa lookalike would pay him $4 a week and share stories about Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Walter Johnson and a league "for you people."

When Burns died suddenly, his wife arranged for Robert to become a bellboy at the hotel where she and her husband had lived -- the Jefferson Davis. It was there that he met a resident who called her black dog the N-word, leading to some confusion when she summoned the dog in Robert's presence.

Robert grew up at the hotel, literally and figuratively. As part of his job description, he supplied booze and arranged "dates" for the soldiers from nearby Fort McClellan. By the time he was 16, he was a man of the world, with his own car, a knapsack stuffed with money and an invitation from his older brother William to join him in Dayton, Ohio.

He arrived in Dayton in October 1939, and soon enough, Robert was working at Inland Manufacturing, reaming out the barrels of M1 carbines -- not knowing he would soon be carrying one of them.

It was in Dayton that he was introduced to Negro baseball. The all-black semipro Dayton Marcos played at Ducks Stadium, but once a year, bona fide Negro League teams would come through town on a barnstorming tour, and in the spring of 1940, all of black Dayton came out to see the Toledo Crawfords, featuring player-manager Oscar Charleston, play the St. Louis Stars. Robert was particularly taken with a young, lanky Crawfords pitcher named Connie Johnson. In what little spare time he had, Robert worked on his own pitching.

When the next spring rolled around and it was announced that the Cleveland Buckeyes would be playing the Detroit Black Sox at Ducks Stadium, Robert convinced himself he was ready. The day before the game, he talked Cleveland manager Walter Burch into giving him a tryout, and Burch was impressed enough to tell him to show up the following day.

The next day, when the Buckeyes arrived at the park, Burch told him, "Kid, you got the apple today." If Robert didn't know he was in over his head before he started the game, he found out quickly enough -- single, double, double, triple on his first four pitches. Burch came out to the mound and told him, "Boy, I thought you said you could pitch! No one else better get another hit off you."

On the next pitch, the batter hit a home run. As the incensed Burch came running out of the dugout, Robert bolted right past him. "I ran as fast as I could down the dugout stairs, through the clubhouse, out the stadium gate, and all the way back to my bedroom," he says. "... There I sat on my bed, huffing and puffing and incredibly embarrassed, when I realized I was still in the team uniform."

He thought of sending the uniform back to the Buckeyes, but after a few weeks, he merely tossed it into a dumpster, along with his glove -- and his dream.

Motley found another calling two years later. He enlisted in the Marines on May 21, 1943, and was shipped off to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, a base with two distinct camps divided by the New River. "Black and white soldiers could die together," writes Motley, "but God forbid they have a chance to live together."

Assigned to the 52nd Infantry, he was shipped off to Okinawa as part of the third wave of Americans to invade the Pacific island. Once his company established a beachhead, he found himself in a fierce battle and ducked into a foxhole. "We were taught to stick our feet out first, not our heads," he says. "I stuck my right foot out twice, and the second time, a bullet went through it."

That's how he got his Purple Heart -- and became an umpire. While recuperating in the hospital, he took a walk on his crutches, heard the sounds of a softball game and wandered over to it. He couldn't play, not with the hole in his foot, but he could call balls and strikes, safe and out. The players liked his umpiring, so Motley spent more and more of his time as an arbiter.

Too much time, as it turned out. When his brother James, who was serving in the Army, showed up at the hospital looking for him, the supervising nurse went to get him and found him behind the plate of a game. He was immediately released from the hospital and shipped out.

On Aug. 15, 1945, the Japanese finally surrendered. Thirteen days later, Jackie Robinson of the Kansas City Monarchs met with Branch Rickey and agreed to join the Brooklyn Dodgers as a minor leaguer. Motley didn't know it at the time, but he and Robinson were about to pass in the night.

Upon his discharge from the Marines, Motley went home to Alabama to visit his mother. While there, he agreed to drive James to Kansas City to see their sister Geraldine. Motley had every intention of returning to Dayton, but he fell in love with Kansas City -- the thriving black community, the jazz, the food ... and the Monarchs.

Even without Robinson, they were the kings of black baseball: Paige and Johnson, O'Neil and Brown, Hilton Smith and Othello Renfroe, Ted Strong and Earl Taborn.

When Motley wasn't mopping floors at the local General Motors plant, he would either head over to the Parade Park fields in the umpire equipment he bought with his hard-earned money or study for his high school diploma, which he received at the ripe old age of 24.

In 1947, Motley became the first African-American to umpire in Kansas City's respected Ban Johnson League. He had his sights set on the Negro Leagues, but he also didn't want to make the same mistake he had years before when he prematurely thought he could pitch to Negro Leaguers. He took his time, honing his craft and style.

By 1948, he felt he was ready. On Opening Day at Blues Stadium, equipment in hand, he approached the three umpires working the Monarchs game and told them he wanted to join their ranks. The head umpire, former Monarch catcher and manager Frank Duncan, told him to come back in a few months. But Motley kept showing up, week after week, wearing Duncan down. One Sunday, when Vernon Johnson, a veteran umpire given to drinking, failed to show up for a game between the Monarchs and Memphis Red Sox, Duncan told him, "Kid, you're at third base."

His debut went a lot better than the last time Motley had tried to break into Negro baseball. Duncan asked him to show up the next Sunday, and Tom Baird, the cane-wielding owner of the Monarchs, said he would pay him $5 a game. (It was later revealed that Baird, who saw the Monarchs as good business, was actually a member of the KKK.)

As time went on, Motley moved up the ranks of both General Motors and the Negro American League. Duncan, who was feeling the effects of a lifetime of squatting, let Motley take his place behind the plate, so he found himself calling balls and strikes for his onetime idol, Connie Johnson.

Once he was firmly established as an umpire, Motley took it upon himself to embody the showmanship of the Negro Leagues, exaggerating signals and shouting out calls. He would jump in the air, just like he did in that photo in his display case, and sometimes do a split on an out call. He remembers one lady telling him, "Do it pretty for me, baby."

"The closer the play, the better I liked it," he says. "It just got into my blood."

But he never lost sight of the business at hand, or of the players he was doing business with. When Robinson, Paige, Larry Doby et al left for the major leagues, the eastern Negro League teams suffered, but the western and southern teams were still going strong and attracting young talent.

Motley remembers Hank Aaron when he batted cross-handed for the Indianapolis Clowns. He once umpired a Birmingham Black Barons game in which there were two players named Willie Mays; the one we've come to know was at second base while his father played center field. To this day, Motley swears the greatest double play combination of all time played for the Monarchs: shortstop Ernie Banks and second baseman Gene Baker.

Being an umpire is a tough enough job, but Motley often found himself riding buses with the losing team. He recounts one such occasion in the opening chapter of his book, when he boarded the bus with the Monarchs in Chattanooga after they had lost and he had ejected Hank Baylis, their third baseman. On a dark stretch of the highway, Baylis went after Motley with a butcher knife. The umpire parried with the face mask he carried for just such an occasion. Fortunately, Monarchs manager Buck O'Neil leaped to his defense, telling Baylis, "If you ever touch that umpire again, you will never play another game in this league."

Not long afterward, Motley got into another dispute, this time with O'Neil. He had to throw the manager out of the game after he called him "a blind son of a bitch." But on the bus back to the hotel, Motley realized that he didn't have a room for the night. He sheepishly explained the situation to O'Neil, who told him, "Kid, no problem. Don't worry, you can sleep with me." And so Motley and O'Neil slept back-to-back on the same small bed that night.

Motley found a different partner in 1952. He met Edna Pearline Hayes of Sioux City, Iowa, at a concert at Kansas City's Municipal Auditorium; they came to see the great Louis Jordan ("Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby") perform that summer. After a long-distance courtship, it was clear that she was "is," and so they began their long, fruitful life together.

It was a thrill taking Pearline to Chicago for the annual East-West Game, the premier showcase for the Negro Leagues. But with each passing year, the writing on the wall became larger. So Motley began applying to the umpire schools that fed organized baseball. The best one, run by Bill McGowan, was in Florida, and McGowan informed him that state law prohibited whites from teaching blacks, and vice versa. It was only after Al Somers took over that Motley was accepted -- in January 1957, 10 years after Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier.

The school lasted six weeks, and Motley graduated with honors, acing both the written and on-field portions of the test. Most of the umpires were given professional assignments. But when Somers called Motley into his office, he had tears in his eyes.

"Bob Motley," he said, "I have tried my best to place you somewhere. But no general manager in Triple-A, Double-A, Single-A or B ball seems to have an opening for a black umpire. I am so sorry to have to tell you that."

Motley returned to Kansas City to finish out the final days of the Negro Leagues and resume his job at General Motors, where he had become the maintenance supervisor. Somers extended him another invitation for his 1958 school, on the advanced level, and Motley finished at the top of his class, ahead of two umpires who would go on to fame: Bruce Froemming and Brent Musburger. (Yes, that Brent Musburger.) When Motley again failed to get any offers from organized baseball, he took a brief gig in Cuba.

It wasn't until the summer that he got the call he had been waiting for. Somers, who was working in the Pacific Coast League, had broken his arm, and he had told his bosses to hire Motley as his replacement. So on Aug. 18, 1958, Motley made his minor league debut, umpiring third base in a game between the visiting Spokane Indians and the Phoenix Giants. Here's how the local Phoenix paper described it:

"Tonight's series opener marks the debut of the Pacific Coast League's second Negro umpire. He's Robert C. Motley, Kansas City, who has the distinction of being the only man to answer all 200 questions correctly last year on the final exams of Al Somers's umpire school."

The PCL's first African-American umpire had been Emmett Ashford, who would also become MLB's first black man in blue -- in 1966, a full year after the Voting Rights Act had been signed into law.

One was enough for the majors. So Motley settled down in Kansas City, raising his family, working at GM and officiating local baseball, basketball and football games. He was the chief umpire for the 1973 College World Series, where he got to see another future Hall of Famer, University of Minnesota outfielder Dave Winfield.

He finally got a call from MLB in 1979. The umpires had gone out on strike, and he was asked if he could work some games in Kansas City. Yes, it had been his dream to make the majors, but no, he would not cross a picket line.

Besides, he could satisfy his love for sports by being a booster for the Royals and Chiefs and making annual trips to spring training and the Super Bowl with Pearline and the kids.

Then along came the museum, which Motley helped start in 1990 along with current president Bob Kendrick and O'Neil.

Pearline suffered a stroke a few years ago and now uses a wheelchair. But Bob has risen to that occasion as well. As Byron wrote in his preface to the book, "Just like everything you have undertaken in life, we have watched you handle this mission, as challenging as it is, with grace and dignity."

Bob Motley doesn't just live in the past. He's excited about going to the Super Bowl the next week in Phoenix and then to another spring training with the Royals in Surprise, Arizona. He is still tickled that they got to the World Series, and only a little ticked that they left the tying run on third in the ninth inning of Game 7.

Then he remembers something: "Wait here." He goes to a closet and brings back an official MLB umpire uniform, No. 65.

The number belongs to longtime umpire Ted Barrett. It seems that Barrett was getting a tour of the Negro Leagues Museum from Kendrick on the day of Game 6 of the World Series. When they came to Motley's display case, Kendrick told Barrett that the old ump was still around, still going to Royals games.

So Barrett made arrangements for Motley to visit the crew in the umpires' room before Game 6. While he was there, Barrett asked Motley to sign his autobiography then gave him his spare jersey in return.

And on this cold January afternoon, Bob Motley is fondling the shirt. "Isn't this something?" he says. "I finally have my major league uniform."