Arts & Culture / Mosaic / February 18, 2009

Expert speaks on Negro Baseball League

Byron Motley, brought in from L.A. by ABLE, spoke in Kresge auditorium Tuesday evening about the Negro Baseball League. Motley, wearing a red and white Kansas City Monarchs jersey, spoke for about an hour and a half. Motley wrote a book with his father about the NBL and is currently working on a documentary narrated by Levar Burton.

Motley’s father was an umpire for the NBL. Motley said he became interested in baseball “when I saw Ken Burns’ piece on baseball and he had one hour on the Negro Leagues. I heard way more than that growing up.” Motley spoke about the origins and history of the NBL, many of its famous players, as well as the difficulties that came with the integration of Major League Baseball. He talked about players like Jackie Robinson, Moses “Fleetwood” Waller, Josh Gibson, and Leroy “Satchel” Paige, as well as managers, umpires, and owners involved in the league.

Jackie Robinson was the first black man to play in the Major Leagues in the 20th century, though Moses Waller played Major League Baseball for a short time in 1886. Leroy “Satchel” Paige was the highest paid player, white or black, of his time, and in 1948 he became the oldest ever rookie pitcher in the Major Leagues at the age of approximately 42 (he did not know his real age).

According to Motley, the NBL was the third largest black industry in the nation and was responsible for the invention of the batting helmet and shin guards, among other things. They were also the first black people to play baseball in Japan. Three female players were allowed in the NBL (Connie Morgan, Toni Stone, and Mamie “Peanut” Johnson).

Andrew “Rube” Foster founded the Negro Baseball League on Feb. 13, 1920. His eventual goal was to have black teams accepted by the American and National Leagues. This never happened, but the popularity of the NBL eventually led to the integration of Major League Baseball. NBL teams continued play into the 1960s, even after the integration of the Major Leagues in 1948. According to Motley, approximately 40% of NBL players were college-educated.

After speaking about the NBL, he answered questions from the audience. There were approximately 25 people present for the talk, including a fifth grade teacher and her daughter. After the question and answer session, Motley showed a long clip from his documentary. The clip included former NBL players (there are about 150 still living) as well as some of their wives and people like former President Clinton and former Secretary of State, Colin Powell. The evening concluded with another short question and answer session after the documentary.

Ben Reeves

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