Negro Leagues Made Baseball History, Speaker Says
Providence, R.I. -- For his lecture at Providence College about the Negro baseball leagues, filmmaker and entertainer Byron Motley sported the red-and-white jersey of the Kansas City Monarchs, the dominant franchise in black baseball that won 27 championships from 1920 to 1960.
The colorful shirt was representative of Motley’s presentation, which was a feature of the College’s SPORT:ART celebration and Black History Month. His talk took place on February 16 in the Ryan Concert Hall in the Smith Center for the Arts.
Motley, who also is a singer and photographer, grew up in Kansas City and now lives in Los Angeles. His father, Bob Motley, is the only surviving umpire from the Negro leagues. Five years ago, Byron Motley co-wrote his father’s memoir, Ruling Over Monarchs, Giants, and Stars: True Tales of Breaking Barriers, Umpiring Baseball Legends, and Wild Adventures in the Negro Leagues, which is being republished next month by Skyhorse/Sports Publishing.
Motley also is producing a documentary for PBS, The Negro Baseball Leagues: An American Legacy, narrated by LeVar Burton. He played an excerpt during the lecture.
Motley was introduced by Elena T. Yee, director of the Balfour Office for Multicultural Activities. He painted a bright portrait of the leagues, discussing the players who were proud to be showmen as well as athletes, the African-American businesses that flourished around teams and their fans, and the ways the leagues made baseball history.
While African-Americans were excluded from Major League Baseball until Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, the Negro leagues gave them the opportunity to be stars, Motley said.
Motley quoted John “Buck” O’Neil, who played for the Monarchs in the 1930s and became the first black man to coach in Major League Baseball in 1962: “Baseball fulfilled me like music. I played most of my life and loved it. Waste no tears for me. I wasn’t born too early. I was right on time.”
Teams that made history
Forty percent of the players in the Negro leagues were college-educated men, Motley said. The leagues welcomed the New York Cubans, a team of Latino players from Puerto Rico, Mexico, Venezuela, and Cuba, and the House of David, an all-white team from a religious sect in Michigan, thereby becoming “a multicultural entity while segregation was still a big part of our country.”
In 1931, the Monarchs played baseball’s first night game under the lights, thanks to an owner who saw promotional value in night baseball. Black players were the first to take baseball to Japan, two years before Babe Ruth and other white players went in 1934.
A Negro leagues player invented the first batting helmet, a battered coal miner’s hat that protected him from the brushbacks that were notorious after home runs, while another fashioned the first shin guards from wooden posts to protect himself from razor-sharp cleats.
Motley detailed the accomplishments of three famous Negro leagues players: pitcher Satchel Paige, the highest-paid athlete -- black or white -- of his time; Josh Gibson, the only player to hit a baseball completely out of the old Yankee Stadium; and James “Cool Papa” Bell, who ran so fast that Olympics track champion Jesse Owens refused to race him.
Robinson was chosen to be the first to cross baseball’s color line mainly because of his temperament and his perceived appeal to white audiences, Motley said. Yet many Negro leagues players considered him a mediocre player, and Robinson himself said that of the four sports he played, baseball was his weakest. Despite that, he became Major League Baseball’s Rookie of the Year.
“Imagine the caliber of the talent that was left behind, the people that were better than Jackie,” said Motley.
As part of SPORT:ART -- PC’s two-month exploration of sport, art, and identity sponsored by the Department of Art and Art History and the Department of Athletics -- a lithograph display about the Negro leagues is featured in the Reilly Art Gallery in the Smith Center for the Arts through March 22. The lithographs are by Joe Norman, an art professor at the University of Georgia.
-- Vicki-Ann Downing