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Byron Motley

Documentary filmmaker Byron Motley signs a book on the Negro Baseball Leagues, which he co-wrote with his father, for junior Kameron Mason, an infielder on the Transylvania baseball team.

Byron Motley revives baseball’s forgotten history

The words rang especially profound on February 26 in the W. T. Young Campus Center gym when Transylvania displayed that its role in celebrating the chase for equality isn’t just a thing of the past, it’s a matter of the present.

In conjunction with the Offices of Diversity and Inclusion and Student Life, Transylvania Athletics sponsored Byron Motley’s presentation on the Negro Baseball Leagues, which included a clip of his forthcoming documentary about the historic sports icons who made a league of their own.

In a sign of solidarity with the evening’s purpose, Transylvania’s baseball team filled the front row, all in uniform, soaking in the history of this sport of summer they cherish. Coach Chris Campbell ’00, who presented Motley, hoped his team could gain new perspective by seeing the game’s past.

“A lot of us take for granted that baseball is just a sport, when it was a lot more of a way of life,” Campbell said. “I think it is important for our guys to not just think of it as a sport, but as something that has contributed to the social background of an entire nation.”

That contribution was on full display in Motley’s lighthearted presentation. Even the biggest baseball fans in the room learned about innovators of the game and the cultures that are largely lost in the narrative.

It was those shadows in the history that inspired Motley to be a voice for the voiceless.

“What really inspired me is when I saw Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary,” Motley explained. “He only spent one hour on the Negro Leagues, and I knew that wasn’t enough. Those weren’t the stories I grew up hearing as a kid. I knew there was a lot more to be told.”

For more than 50 years, the Negro Baseball Leagues provided a showcase for African American players who were barred by race from playing in Major League Baseball. The Negro Leagues helped bring about the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s while providing a venue for future Major League stars such as Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, and Willie Mays.

Motley had heard those stories from his father, Bob Motley, now the last living man to have umpired in the Negro Baseball Leagues. Together, they co-wrote the book Ruling over Monarchs, Giants & Stars, which told the story of a life as seen from behind the plate.

But in bringing other voices of the Negro Leagues to the silver screen, Motley admits he “went in blindly.”

“I didn’t know anything about filmmaking at all,” he said.

Ten years later, he’s touring the country and bringing tidbits of his documentary to college campuses. No longer blind, he’s allowing others to see these stories of barrier-breaking, unsung heroes.

His purpose is simple. “A forgotten chapter of American history should be remembered for what it was,” Motley said.

Now, thanks to his efforts, it will be. His documentary, “The Negro Baseball Leagues: An American Legacy,” has been green-lighted by PBS to premiere in February 2014.

But it won’t take a year for his narrative to make an impact. Campbell thinks that his players can learn from this right now.

“I think it’s important for us to keep things in perspective. The fact that, for us, it is for the love of the game, and for the guys that did play in that era, it was for the love of the game,” Campbell said.

“To keep things in perspective is something, for sure, we can take from it. But it’s also a history lesson,” he added. “There’s a lot that led up to us being able to play college baseball.”

In those words, you can see that Motley’s story doesn’t come too late.

It’s right on time.

This article by Cory Collins ’13 originally appeared in the February 28, 2013, edition of The Rambler, Transylvania’s student newspaper. It was part of a series of articles in The Rambler related to Black History Month.

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