Royals’ style of play conjures spirit of Negro Leagues baseball

The Royals are built on pitching, speed and defense — just like Negro Leagues baseball — and outfielder Lorenzo Cain contributes in two of those categories.
The Royals are built on pitching, speed and defense — just like Negro Leagues baseball — and outfielder Lorenzo Cain contributes in two of those categories. The Kansas City Star

From his seat at Kauffman Stadium, when the Royals blur around the bases, Bob Motley returns to his days as an umpire in the Negro Leagues and sees Kansas City Monarchs, Birmingham Black Barons and Chicago American Giants.

“Oh, yes I do,” said Motley, 91. “That’s more than true. I’d say the style I’m seeing was almost exactly what I used to see.”

The Royals swept their way into the World Series against the San Francisco Giants by maximizing all aspects. But speed and daring moves on the base paths have been the constant and defining symbols of the Royals’ offense.

As it often was when baseball was separated by race and into the Negro Leagues’ final years after the game’s color barrier was broken.

“Speed, pitching and defense,” said Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. “That was Negro Leagues baseball.

“They had guys who could hit it out the park, but they had more guys who could steal you 40 or 50 bases in a season.”

The Royals didn’t quite post those numbers this year, but they led the majors in stolen bases, pilfering nearly one per game. They had five players steal at least a dozen bases — Jarrod Dyson (36), Alcides Escobar (31), Lorenzo Cain (28), Nori Aoki (17) and Alex Gordon (12).

The Royals tied a postseason record with seven steals in the AL Wild Card Game victory over the A’s, and they’ve included Terrance Gore, a pinch-running specialist and perhaps the game’s fastest player, on their playoff roster.

“That athleticism we’re seeing with the Royals, that constant movement that puts pressure on the pitcher and on the defense,” Kendrick said. “It’s like what Buck O’Neil said, you can’t go to the concession stand because you might miss something you’ve never seen before.”

Like Cain, the American League Championship Series MVP, chasing down fly balls with a dive or a barge into the wall. Or Dyson’s gutsy swipe of third base to help send the Wild Card Game into extra innings.

“We’re basically bringing back old baseball,” Dyson said. “Doing things the way they used to be done.”

Before home-run totals soared. Teams didn’t average as much as one home run per game until 1986, then averaged fewer than one per game only twice between 1994-2013.

This season, teams averaged 0.89 home runs per game, the fewest since 1992, and the Royals contributed mightily to that total by finishing last in baseball with 95 homers.

It’s happened at a time when the number of black players in baseball is shrinking. According to baseball figures, only 8.3 percent of players on 2014 opening day rosters identified themselves as African-American or black. That’s down from 19 percent in 1986.

Cain’s path to the majors may be typical. He didn’t grow up playing baseball and only started as a high school sophomore on the encouragement of a friend.

“When you’re African-American, baseball just isn’t the first thing, growing up,” Cain said. “It’s mostly basketball and football.”

You know the story. Cain was cut from the basketball team and his mother wouldn’t allow him to play football. He tried out for baseball and made the junior-varsity team as a sophomore.

“To be in a World Series, I never thought that would happen,” Cain said.

Legendary Negro Leagues manager Rube Foster would have loved Cain and the Royals, Kendrick said. Foster made sure all of his players knew how to bunt — Cain sacrificed on his own in the first inning of the ALCS-clinching victory over the Orioles — gave most of them a green light on the base paths and expected all of his runners to go from first to third on a base hit.

Motley, the last surviving Negro Leagues umpire, came along after the league’s preintegration heyday. His career started during World War II, when he served with the first black Marine regiment, the Montford Point Marines. He was recovering from a gunshot wound at a military hospital in Okinawa and saw a baseball game outside his window. He volunteered to umpire while on crutches.

After he was honorably discharged, Motley started working Negro League games, calling balls and strikes on Satchel Paige, and seeing such budding talent at Willie Mays and Hank Aaron at the beginning of their professional careers.

Motley attends several Royals games and will take in the World Series, watching a home team that brings back memories.

“These Royals play hard,” Motley said. “When I was an umpire, I saw that every game.”

To reach Blair Kerkhoff, call 816-234-4730 or send email to Follow him on Twitter: @BlairKerkhoff.

Museum events on Wednesday

▪ Author Sharon Robinson, daughter of baseball legend Jackie Robinson, will read to students from Faxon Elementary School at 10 a.m. Wednesday and will participate in a public question-and-answer session about her father.

▪ Also on Wednesday, former Royals Frank White, Willie Wilson and Danny Jackson will discuss the 1985 World Series on a panel moderated by former Kansas City Star columnist Joe Posnanski. That begins at 11:30 a.m.

▪ At 1:30 p.m., the museum will play host to an autograph session with former Negro Leagues player Ulysses Hollimon, umpire Bob Motley and former major-league pitcher Diego Segui.

The Wednesday activities are free with a paid admission to the museum.