MLB Column: Bob Motley, last living Negro Leagues umpire, dies at 94

The last living umpire from the Negro Leagues, Bob Motley, passed away at the age of 94. (Bob Motley, Facebook)

The Negro Leagues are a dark part of baseball’s long and turbulent history. The official color barrier was broken when Jackie Robinson suited up to start at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. Formerly a player for the Kansas City Monarchs, Robinson was the first player to transition from the Negro Leagues to Major League Baseball. He would be followed by giants such as Satchel Paige, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. All four of these talented players and great men would go on to earn an induction into the MLB Hall of Fame.

A story not told as often is the color barrier that continued to exist for umpires. Between the day that Jackie Robinson first played an MLB game and the day a black man was officiating an MLB game, 19 years passed. This man was Emmet Ashford. Before Ashford broke the color barrier, the Negro Leagues persisted and were the only league a black umpire could find work.

This brings us to Bob Motley. Motley just passed away on Thursday at the age of 94. He was the last living umpire from the Negro Leagues, but the legacy he has left behind goes far beyond that. Motley was an American hero. He was an activist for equal rights, inevitably helping to establish the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Later this year, a statue of Motley will be unveiled in that very museum.

The Montfort Point Marines were the first black marine regiment in World War II. Motley found himself in this regiment, and eventually all the way in Okinawa. There, he received a gunshot wound that required considerable recovery time. While at the military hospital, Motley would look out his window and see soldiers playing baseball. He was on crutches and couldn’t play himself, so he acted as their umpire.

Eventually, Motley was discharged from military service and earned a Purple Heart and a Congressional Gold Medal. He moved back to Kansas City and went to his nearby stadium looking for work as an umpire. He was initially turned away but Motley persisted. He kept coming back and, eventually, they let him umpire at third base.

Ten years into his career, Motley went to umpire school in Florida. He was the first black man to do so, being that a Florida state law had recently been lifted that banned white teachers from educating black students. For those unaware, all MLB umps are required to attend umpire school. After he graduated, Motley hoped for a job offer but none came.

I want to stress an important aspect that shows how strong Motley’s character was. While he was not immediately offered a job as an MLB umpire he was, at one point, given this opportunity. It was when the regular MLB umpires went on strike and the league offered Motley the job if he crossed the picket line. Motley refused, and from that moment on, decided he didn’t want to work as an MLB umpire.

Motley was instrumental in the founding of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and served as a member of the National Advisory Board. The final stop on the tour through the museum brings guests to a Field of Legends. This is a mock baseball diamond complete with bronze statues of players. In November, a statue of Motley will be revealed as the center piece of a new section dedicated to the umpires who served in the Negro Leagues.

Baseball broke the color barrier seven years before Brown v. Board of Education. That being said, race has played a controversial role in the history of the sport and it continues to persist to this day. It’s important that we, as baseball fans, take time to be thankful for those who dedicated their life to a sport that didn’t dedicate much in return. Bob Motley has done so much for his sport, for equal rights, and for his country. He will truly be missed.


Rachel Schaefer is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at rachel.schaefer@uconn.edu.