City Cast

What Was Chicago's Role in the Negro Leagues?

Sidney Madden
Sidney Madden
Posted on July 25
The Negro League Chicago American Giants in 1922 pose for a photo

Chicago American Giants in 1922. (Mark Rucker / Transcendental Graphics / Getty)

While the Cubs and Sox face off in this summer's first Crosstown Classic on the South Side today, we’re looking at a different part of Chicago baseball history: the Negro Leagues.

“The League” is a new documentary exploring the history and legacy of the Black baseball leagues in the first half of the 20th century.

Byron Motley co-wrote the book the film is based on with his dad Bob, a Negro Leagues umpire. Motley shares his experience telling his late dad’s story and Chicago’s contributions to the leagues.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why’d you decide to write this book?

“Hearing my father’s stories since I was a child, I thought, ‘Wow, there's a lot of great information he has to share with the world and baseball fans.’ So I convinced him to work on writing this book. He told me the stories, and I handled the writing. We called probably 10 times a day.”

“Whenever he was promoting the book, he said I wrote the book and I said, “But you lived the book — these are your stories.’”

A flag from East-West All-Star Games for Negro League players

Souvenir from an annual East-West All-Star Games for Negro League players. (Heritage Art /Heritage Images / Getty)

What was Chicago’s biggest contribution to the Negro League?

“Without a doubt, the East West All-Star game, which began in Chicago in 1933. The white leagues started around the same time. But the Negro Leagues audiences outdrew the major league’s All-Star games. One player once told me they filled the stands with 70,000 people in the ballpark. White and Black crowds came to watch Black baseball players. It was a big deal.”

How has the Negro Leagues affected the game today?

“The way the players play the game is a little more stylish and with a bit more spirit than 40 or 50 years ago — and a lot of that comes from Negro League baseball, like the style of high fiving. There's an influx of players today that are from the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Latin American countries, and Japan. Black players were the first to take baseball to those countries.”

Negro League umpire Bob Motley jumps in the air

Late Negro League umpire Bob Motley. (Byron Motley / Magnolia Pictures)

+ Stream “The League.” Read the book.

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