Wearing an old Kansas City Monarchs jersey, number eight, Byron Motley addressed the audience in the Music Building’s concert hall about a subject he called “very near and dear to my heart” – the Negro Baseball League.
“This is a story about men and women who simply wanted to play ball,” Motley said.
Motley’s father, the only living Negro league umpire, played for the Monarchs.
The East Coast was a hotbed for the Negro league, Motley said in his Feb. 13 lecture. According to Motley, there were about 200 teams total, including the Philadelphia Stars, considered one of the most promising teams. The Monarchs were one of the first teams created, one of the last to shut down and had 27 championships.
Motley explained that the Negro league was not like the minor leagues, but rather comparable in skill to the Major League. The only difference was that it was segregated.
Jackie Robinson, the best-known Negro league player, was with the Monarchs for one year. At best, Motley said, Robinson was a “mediocre player in the Negro league.”
He wanted the audience to imagine how much talent there was in the league, considering how well Robinson did in the majors. When the Negro league played exhibition games against the white teams in the majors, they won more games than they lost, according to Motley.
Robinson was not the first black player in the majors – Moses “Fleetwood” Walker played in 1886, before the American League even existed. He was, however, kicked off the team after a year because of racial tension.
The Negro league was the third largest black-owned business. It was the first to take baseball to Japan, even though Babe Ruth is widely credited for the feat.
Forty percent of Negro league players were college-educated and Negro league players invented the shin guards and batting helmets still used in play today, Moley said.
The Negro leagues also had three women players. Toni Stone was the first female to play. She was followed by Connie Morgan and Maime “Peanut” Johnson, who is still alive today.
The superstars of the league were three players who made it to the National Baseball Hall of Fame with Robinson.
Leroy “Satchel” Paige “probably played for all the teams,” Motley said.
Paige was considered a phenomenal pitcher and made a lot of money playing baseball, primarily because he would play for whichever team paid him the most, according to Motley. He was known for several pitches, including the b-ball, “because it bes’ where I throws it,” Motley quoted him as saying.
In regard to Paige’s pitching, Motley’s father once said, “sometimes it was like the ball did the jitterbug.”
Paige was the oldest rookie in the majors, at 42.
Another Hall of Famer was Josh Gibson, the only player to ever hit a ball out of Yankee Stadium. It was estimated that he hit more than 90 home runs, though it is hard to say because the Negro league didn’t keep statistics.
“There was no way in hell he was juiced up at that time,” Motley said, referring to the alleged steroid use of Mark McGuire and other power-hitters.
James “Cool Papa” Bell was the last Hall of Famer Motley mentioned. He revolutionized base stealing and was said to be amazingly fast.
Motley showed the audience a section from a documentary on the Negro league he has been working on for seven years. Narrated by LeVar Burton, it contains interviews with Bill Clinton, Henry “Hank” Aaron, Tiger Woods and a number of former Negro league players. Motley said he interviewed 60 former players and plans to air the documentary on PBS.
Though the Negro league players were segregated from the Major Leagues, the fans and the players took it in stride and made the best of it, allowing for a highly entertaining and skill-filled league, Motley said.
John “Buck” O’Neil, a Negro league player, was quoted as saying, “so waste no tears for me, I wasn’t born too early. I was right on time!”