FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
Major League Baseball's Web site let's you know exactly how many minutes you have until opening day. Well, we'll round things off and tell you it's about nine days until the new season. And today, NPR's Tony Cox takes us to a man who made history.
Bob Motley is the last umpire who worked in the legendary Negro Leagues. But, like most of the players there, Motley never took place in a Major League Baseball game. He tells Tony he had what it takes.
Mr. BOB MOTLEY (Author, "Ruling Over Monarchs, Giants, and Stars: Umpiring in the Negro Leagues and Beyond"): I don't know if I was that tough, but I was, I think, a great umpire.
TONY COX: Bob, you were pretty animated out there on the bases.
Mr. MOTLEY: Yes. I readily believed in the rulebook, so I was strictly a rulebook man. And if you violate the rulebook, then I stuck it to you. It's just that simple.
COX: You took your work behind the plate very seriously, didn't you?
Mr. MOTLEY: I sure did. When you're behind the plate as an umpire, you're actually in charge of the game. So being in charge, you've got to take charge. You've got to be in charge.
COX: You know, you talk about Satchel Paige in a chapter in the book and how you thought he was the best player in the history of baseball. But were you intimidated at all calling balls and especially strikes against a legend like him?
Mr. MOTLEY: Well, when I call balls and strike against Satchel Paige, his ball seemed like, when it left his hand, before it got to the home plate, it gain another speed, go right to the catcher's mitt.
COX: What was the most amazing thing that you personally saw during a game, with either Satchel or anyone, during the years that you were an umpire with the Negro Leagues?
Mr. MOTLEY: How the ballplayers, all the ballplayers, never complained about being hurt. If they was hurt, they didn't tell anybody that they were hurt. I never have heard a ballplayer wasn't going to play today because he's, you know, got a ache or pain or hurting somewhere. I never did hear that the whole time I umpired in the league.
COX: Now there are also - there must be, Bob Motley, some myths about the Negro League games where the ball traveled miles and miles and miles. We've heard all of these stories. Were there a lot of myths about what really happened during Negro League games and how proficient some of these players really, in fact, were?
Mr. MOTLEY: Yeah. You take a guy like Willard Brown, he walk around on the sideline like he couldn't hardly walk, but when he hit that ball over the fence he'd run like a jackrabbit.
COX: So there was a lot of gamesmanship going on?
Mr. MOTLEY: Right.
COX: Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, Joe Black and others eventually migrated to the major leagues. It was just as tough, though, for umpires. I know that you eventually called some Triple-A games, but did you ever get the opportunity in the majors that you were looking for?
Mr. MOTLEY: No, I didn't. I never did.
COX: How do you feel about that now, looking back?
Mr. MOTLEY: Well, I don't have no regrets because nothing I can do about it. It was just one of those things that kept me from getting into the Major League. I tried to go to umpire school for 10 years, and I was refused to even attend the umpire school because the state of - they only had two umpire schools going on at that time, both of them was in Florida.
And like I said, every year I applied to that umpire school because I know that's the only way you had to get to the Major League. And I was refused for 10 years. I got a letter back from the guy who ran the school, Al Somers, stating that the white couldn't teach black and black cannot teach white in the state of Florida.
And finally, I got a letter after 10 years to come on down. You can - to start the umpire school, which I did.
COX: And when you finished umpire school, you eventually called some Triple-A games. What did you notice most about the difference, if there was one, between white baseball and black baseball?
Mr. MOTLEY: Well, in the Pacific Coast League when I was an umpire, that was a high-class league. Those ballplayers in the Pacific Coast League, they were outstanding ballplayers. They still wasn't like the Negro ballplayer. Every ballplayer played in the Negro League could have played in the major league. That's how good they was.
COX: Let me ask just one other question. Bob, you were part of the creation of the Negro League Museum in Kansas City, and in fact I have personally seen your umpire's uniform on display there. When you pass by that display, Bob Motley, does a smile come across your face?
Mr. MOTLEY: Every time I see it, I smile. Every time I see a umpire, period, I smile. And especially when they start taking black umpire into the major league I smile, because I love to be an umpire. And that's the only thing I ever want to be in my whole life, to be a umpire.
COX: And you were.
Mr. MOTLEY: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: Bob Motley is the last surviving umpire from the legendary Negro Leagues. He spoke with NPR's Tony Cox about his book, "Ruling Over Monarchs, Giants, and Stars: Umpiring in the Negro Leagues and Beyond."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.