Don Motley’s museum will keep Negro League baseball alive for black boys
His love of the game and support of those pioneering black players are his legacy
In baseball circles, people said farewell Tuesday to Don Motley, one of the founding fathers of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. Most folk who knew Don called him “Mr. Motley,” but I never did — not because of any arrogance or disrespect, he just felt like Don to me.
I remember sitting in Don’s second-floor office at the museum and listening to stories he told about the Negro Leagues, and Don, who was 89 when he died a week ago, had plenty of stories. For a person who never played baseball at its highest level, Don touched the lives of so many men.
Much like others who planted their baseball roots in the fertile terra of “black baseball,” Don showed an eagerness to retell those stories lest people forget them.
During our first meeting a decade ago, I was most fascinated by Don’s role in organizing an institution that will surely survive him. Yet as I’ve thought more about that meeting, I’m reminded of the joy and excitement he shared with me over keeping baseball alive among black boys. Don coached black boys in metro Kansas City for more years than I care to count, and had become an authority on the game from watching and playing it in his boyhood.
I once asked him what his thoughts were about why blacks don’t watch or play baseball much these days. To be sure, I had my own theories: The game had changed in front of us — or so I thought. To me, baseball had become, as I like to tell my sports-minded friends, jazz in a hip-hop world.
Don, however, never saw the dwindling presence of blacks in baseball as I did. He told me about being at a sandlot game in Kansas City once and talking to some parents. Their discussion turned to metal baseball bats their boys dragged to home plate with them, he said.
“Who can afford to pay $100 for a baseball bat,” Don asked one parent, a doctor.
“A hundred dollars,” the doc replied. The man was incredulous. He waved to his son, one of the scores of adolescents who was playing in the sandlot games that day, and called for him.
His son rushed over, his bat in tow.
“Show him your bat,” the man told his son. “That bat cost $450.”
Don was stunned. And so was I when I heard a number like that for a baseball bat.
Still, that number didn’t faze Don long. He figured that learning to love the sport enough would get black boys, their parents and others in the black community to pitch in with equipment or with money to buy the best of it. To Don, money wasn’t as central to reviving interest in the game.
He was great at the latter. Don brought a passion to the sport — a passion found in black ballplayers such as Ernie Banks, Monte Irvin, Buck O’Neil, men who made baseball America’s pastime for most of the past century.
Don’s passion for baseball was at the heart of the museum, in the historic 18th and Vine District he helped found in 1990.
What baseball will be for black boys remains a question with no certain answer, but we can hope that the sport they have shown such disinterest in will live on in an institution that houses black baseball’s history and then rekindle their interest.
If that happens – no, when it happens — they will be able to thank Mr. Motley, the one-time executive director of the museum, for caring more about baseball than it seemed to care about men like him – black men who played or fans who followed these great black players of an era when segregation had prevented them from becoming the household names that Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Lou Gehrig were.