Before some Americans evolved into civilized human beings, certain people had to deal with segregation and were held back from reaching their true potential.
However, the laws did not stop African Americans from making their mark in history or being passionate about doing what they loved, which was playing baseball.
Around 75 people gathered in NKU’s Student Union Ballroom for a brief history lesson, examining who these players were and why they were so great. African American Student Affairs and Campus Recreation hosted this free public event, titled “The Negro Baseball Leagues – An American Legacy.”
Lecturer/filmmaker/author/entertainer, Byron Motley gave a presentation and showed a film clip highlighting “unforgettable moments” and notable players and managers from the historic league.
His father, Bob Motley, umpired in the Negro Leagues from 1949-58 and is currently the only umpire from that era who is still alive. He was also one of the first black marines in the U.S. and participated in World War II. Motley said there are only about 150 players still living.
“My passion and my love for Negro League history comes out of my family connection,” Motley said.
He said the Negro Leagues were a little bit more about athleticism and there was great showmanship involved in the game as well.
“My father would jump up in the air to call somebody out or he would do the splits to call somebody safe,” Motley said. “The players did extra things on the field to entertain the fans and to show off and prove that they were the best athletes to ever live.”
According to Motley, there were not any Negro League teams that played in Highland Heights, but the Cincinnati area did have four different ones. Two of the most predominate teams were the Cincinnati Bears and the Cincinnati Tigers. Kentucky didn’t have any professional Negro League teams, but there were semi-pro teams.
Motley said the Negro Leagues were multi-cultural and were a politically correct entity.
“Being politically correct was part of the American vernacular,” he said. “[The New York Cubans] was a team made up primarily of players that came from Latin American countries. They too could not play Major League Baseball in America, so they found a home playing in the Negro Leagues.”
Motley said there was a team named House of David, an all-white team that played in the Negro Leagues. The team had a religious identity that consisted of long beards and long hair. It was known to play baseball on mules. Baseball legend Babe Ruth was known to play a couple of exhibition games as a House of David player.
Motley was born and raised in Kansas City, Mo., and wore a Kansas City Monarchs jersey during the lecture. The Monarchs were considered the Yankees of the Negro League.
“They were the premier team of that time,” he said. “They had some of the best players and salaries. They were just a hot team. During the 40 years the Negro Leagues were in existence from 1920 to 1960, the Monarchs won 27 world championships.”
According to Motley, in 1931, the Monarchs were the first baseball team to ever play a game at night. The Monarch’s owner, J.L. Wilkinson, was one of the few white owners in the league. He came up with the idea that if the league could play games at night, everyone could make more money. Trucks were set up around the field with gas-lit lanterns, which took about an hour to crank up.
“This was unheard of in 1931,” Motley said. “Eventually it caught on. By 1934-35, both the majors and the minors started to do it. Seventy-five percent of Major League Baseball games today are played at night.”
Night games were not the only part of the game that the Negro League introduced to the rest of the world. Motley said it was the first to take baseball to Japan; two years before Babe Ruth did. He also said they invented batting helmets and shin guards.
“In Negro Leagues, the style of play back then was a lot more aggressive than it was in the major league,” he said.
According to Motley, if players hit a homerun, the pitcher would aim at their head next time they were up to bat, and it was not considered dirty; but competitive. He also said the players would wear steel cleats and sharpen them so whenever they slid into a base, they would cut up anything standing in their way.
Another reason Motley highlights the Monarchs in his lecture is because of Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play Major League Baseball in the 20th Century.
Motley said a lot of former Negro League players told him that Robinson was “mediocre at best” compared to the other players that were passed up to be in the majors. He said Robinson was chosen because he was college educated, served in the military and was the right man for the job.
“Can you imagine the talent that was left behind in the Negro Leagues who never got to make it to the majors?” he said. “That gives you an idea of the quality of players the Negro Leagues had at that time.”
Motley said contrary to popular belief, Robinson was not the first-ever African American to play in Major League Baseball. The first was Moses “Fleetwood” Walker, who played for one year in 1886, and was a bare-handed catcher.
Todd Asalon, NKU’s head baseball coach said he is glad he attended the event and that he learned a lot, including the Negro League inventing batting helmets and shin guards.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” Asalon said. “I didn’t know what to expect. I thought it would be all about baseball stories.”
Asalon thinks it is important that younger generations learn about the history of the Negro League.
“It’s really important to see where it all started, where the changes came and to where it has evolved. If our guys would learn more about the history, they would appreciate what they have more,” he said.
Matt Hackett, director of Campus Recreation, said the history of the Negro Leagues culturally benefits students and people in general, as well as players and fans.
“There won’t be anymore of these folks some day, so I think it’s important to take advantage of the stories and the information that’s out there now,” Hackett said.