The Negro Baseball Leagues by Bob Motley with Byron Motley

This was a fairly easy bookmark choice. Bob Motley called Willard Brown “The absolute best player I have ever seen don a baseball uniform.” Unfortunately, the Ted Williams Co. did not include Home Run Brown in their 1993 Negro Leagues subset, so I went with Hall of Famer Dave Winfield who wrote a brief foreward for the book.

Winfield and Motely first crossed paths in 1973 when Motley was umpire-in-chief of the College World Series and Winfield was the series MVP as a pitcher for the Minnesota Gophers. Winfield was also a part of the Gophers team to win the Big Ten Conference in basketball. In fact, he was such an amazing all-around athlete that he was drafted five times in three different sports. He was drafted out of high school by the Baltimore Orioles then by the San Diego Padres following the 1973 College World Series; The Atlanta Hawks of the NBA and Utah Stars of the ABA drafted him; and, despite not playing football in college, he was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings. ESPN ranked him the third best all-around athlete of all time in any sport.

Dave Winfield’s career was quite a ride. His college career ended just short of the College World Series championship when Minnesota lost to eventual winners USC on June 12. Exactly one week later, with not even a single game in the minor leagues and moved from pitcher to right field, Winfield made his Major League debut, hitting .271 the rest of the way and getting the first 39 of his eventual 3,110 hits. After signing with the Yankees as the highest paid player in history, he became a constant focus of criticism from owner George Steinbrenner, who famously called him Mr. May as a critique of his September and October struggles. At a game in Toronto in 1983, Winfield’s throw struck and killed a seagull, and he was charged with animal cruelty. For years after he would be greeted with boos and flapping arms every time he was in Toronto.

Until, that is, he signed with the Blue Jays as a free agent in 1991. Putting his Mr. May reputation behind him, Winfield helped lead Toronto to the 1992 World Series, driving in the series-winning run with an 11th inning double in game six.* It looked like Winfield would have a storybook end to his career when after winning the World Series he signed with his hometown Minnesota Twins. In 1993, he collected his 3,000th hit with the Twins. Ending a hall of fame career at home would have been perfect, but on August 31, 1994, Winfield was traded to Cleveland for a player to be named later. Thankfully, every cloud has a silver lining, and this trade that lead to Winfield retiring elsewhere and ending his career after a disappointing .191 season with Cleveland, gives us one of the great trade stories of all time. When Minnesota traded Winfield, the sport had already been shut down for 19 days by the players’ strike. When baseball didn’t return in ’94, no player was named and the trade was never completed. Executives from both teams met at a restaurant over the winter, and the Cleveland execs picked up the tab, making Winfield the only player to be traded for dinner.

*Somehow I have forgotten much of the 1992 World Series and had forgotten that Winfield’s 11th inning game-winning hit means Atlanta lost back to back World Series on extra inning losses, having lost the 1991 World Series to the Twins on Jack Morris’ famous 1-0 ten inning shutout.

Bob Motley’s life and career was equally eventful. Motley was one of the first Black marines, storming Okinawa as part of the all-Black Montford Point Marines. As part of an intense battle, he took a bullet to the foot and had to hide under the bodies of fallen soldiers pretending to be dead already to survive, earning him a Purple Heart. While recovering he began umpiring, and he spent the next 28 years as an arbiter* for the Ban Johnson League, the Negro Leagues, the Pacific Coast League, and the NCAA. He would also officiate and coach youth football and basketball. Motley went to the Al Somers umpiring school and received a perfect score on his final test, but struggled to be placed in any league as owners and executives were still not hiring Black umpires. In August, 1958, Motley became the second Black umpire in the minor leagues, joining eventual first Black MLB umpire Emmett Ashford.

*The use of the word “arbiter” was one of my favorite parts of the book. I think the word needs to be revived as a term for officials in all sports.

I’ve given a lot away about this book, but also nothing, because the joy of the book is in Bob Motley’s telling it. The stories are entertaining, and his descriptions beyond enjoyable. On discovering his umpiring flair, Motley writes “I found myself leaping, twisting, and turning through the air like Mikhail Baryshnikov gone mad.”

Both Dave Winfield and Bob Motley have had some pretty great quotes over the years, so I’ll finish with one from each.

Dave Winfield, upon hitting his 400th home run: “Three-ninety-nine sounds like something you’d purchase at a discount store. Four hundred sounds so much better.”

Bob Motley, when a fan would ask him after a game if he was one of the umpires: “No, I’m a spectator like you. If you see that bastard let me know, cause I’m looking for him, too!

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