Motley: Baseball needs more young black players

Updated: February 16, 2007, 4:34 PM ET
By George J. Tanber | Special to ESPN.com

Don Motley won't say how old he is, but he's been a baseball man since 1951. For 40 years, he has managed in the legendary Ban Johnson Baseball League. As a youth, he played semipro ball against some of the Negro leagues players. As a scout for the St. Louis Cardinals and Kansas City Royals, he signed former Cardinals pitcher Ray Sadecki and Royals second baseman Frank White.

Don Motley
Don MotleyDon Motley stands next to a statue of Satchel Paige at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.
In 1990, Motley joined Horace M. Peterson III, Buck O'Neil and others to help found the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo. Motley has been the museum's executive director since 1991. Among his tasks is helping to raise $15 million for the John "Buck" O'Neil Education and Research Center.

Motley spoke with ESPN.com on the occasion of Black History Month. Among the subjects: the dearth of African Americans in the major leagues.

What was it like for African-American players in Negro League days, from 1920 until Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947?

It wasn't easy for some of them. They didn't make much. Some of them made $200 a month. We had some of the greatest ballplayers who ever lived. The thing about it is they played for the love of the game. My kids used to play the Kansas City Monarchs. If we lost, we had to buy the beer. If we won, they had to buy my kids a case of pop. I swear it was if we were playing for $500 or $1,000. You never saw such competition.

The Negro leagues teams played in the big cities, but along the way they played in small towns. They'd get 60 percent of the gate if they won; 40 percent if they lost. You always had sellout crowds. Even the Baptist churches would let their members out early in time for the game. It was a day of celebration. When Branch Rickey signed Jackie, he probably saw that the Negro leagues all-star game was drawing 50,000 to 60,000 people. It was very exciting baseball. Before Jackie played, it was a station-to-station game in the major leagues. Jackie would get a hit, end up on second and the next thing you knew he was stealing home. That was the type of play he brought with him from the Negro leagues, which is common today.

Jackie Robinson
AP PhotoBefore Jackie Robinson broke into the majors, the Negro Leagues all-star game was drawing 50,000 to 60,000 people.
Who is the best African-American ballplayer most baseball fans never got to see?

Oscar Charleston. He could hit, and he could hit for power. Buck O'Neil said that if you saw Willie Mays play, you saw a replica of Oscar Charleston.

Most of the top African-American athletes are playing basketball and football instead of baseball. Why? What needs to happen for that to change?

I have 25 ballplayers on my team. Only two are black. My coaches told me they couldn't make it. But when they played for 30 days they became starters. We all say it's only basketball and football, but what it all boils down to is economics.

I had two college recruiters come to see my team and the two African-American players didn't show up. I had a school call this year and wanted to give a scholarship to an African-American player, but I couldn't find one. One kid told me he couldn't afford to pay the league fee. That hit me. It's only $100. An aluminum bat is $300, a glove is $100. You have the shoes. Right on down. These kids are coming from fixed-income homes, and their parents can't afford it.

We said that 20 years ago, but it's just starting to get noticed. If they start playing in high school, they're already facing 87 mph fastballs. If you want to do something, start feeder programs in the junior high schools. Most school districts can't afford them but can you imagine if a local company would come up with $5,000 a year for such a program? Do you realize how many kids would be off the streets?

Barry Bonds could break Hank Aaron's home run record this season. If it happens, it's possible that outside of San Francisco the feat will be downplayed. Fair or unfair and why?

I think it's unfair. He has been tried in the newspapers and has been found guilty before he's even had a hearing. He's proven that he can hit the ball. If you've played baseball, you know you have a split second to hit the ball. What kind of pill could help you do that? Unless you can prove this man has done something wrong, you have to give him his due. [Also], you have to look at baseball during that era.

Larry Doby
AP PhotoMotley says Indians outfielder Larry Doby, shown here in March of 1951, "carried a race on his shoulders."
If you were commissioner of baseball, name one thing you would change and why.

I would do away with the DH rule, period. Some of your greatest hitters were pitchers. If you watch the National League manager, he's trying his best to maneuver to get that starting pitcher out of the game. In the American League, they don't have the same strategy. I think the pitcher should hit.

Name an African-American athlete you admire and why?

I'll have to name two: Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby. They carried a whole race on their shoulders. They were spit on, and they still had to perform. In St. Louis, black fans were segregated from white fans by a chicken fence. When Jackie and Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe saw that, they got together and said they weren't going to play unless they opened up those gates to the blacks. Newcombe recently told that story. He's 80, and he broke down and cried like a baby. I think all that hit him at once, that these guys had to play under those kinds of conditions. Black players today don't know their history. They don't know what these ballplayers went through. Some of them probably don't even know who Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby were.

Imagine you're a major league ballplayer. Name your dream moment.

To see myself on the mound with the bases loaded, the winning run at third base and striking out the side. That would be a great charge. That's really competition there.

Your all-time favorite sports moment, either as a player or a fan.

When Bob Gibson beat the Yankees in [Game 7 of] the 1964 World Series. I was in the stands. Gibson had to face Mantle, Maris -- all those guys. My brother, Bob Motley, who was a Negro leagues umpire, was with me and rooted for the Yankees. I thought someone was going to hit him in the mouth. I have never seen a baseball city like St. Louis during that time.

George J. Tanber is a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at george.tanber@iscg.net.

George J. Tanber is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com's golf coverage.