Dennis “Bose” Biddle told the audience about the days of segregation, when blacks and whites didn’t use the same restrooms or water fountains, …
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Dennis “Bose” Biddle told the audience about the days of
segregation, when blacks and whites didn’t use the same restrooms
or water fountains, go to the same schools — and didn’t even play
professional baseball in the same league.
Biddle, who joined the Chicago American Giants of the Negro
Baseball League in 1953 at age 17, has written a book about his
baseball experiences and the league called “Secrets of the Negro
He also helped establish Yesterday’s Negro League Baseball
Players to support surviving members of the league, and he travels
around the country to speaking engagements as a way to help
preserve the picturesque history of the Negro Baseball League.
The Student Affairs Office at Arapahoe Community College invited
Biddle to speak, and a small crowd gathered in Littleton on Feb.
22. Biddle began his comments by giving a brief history of the
Negro Baseball League.
“Everyone talks about Jackie Robinson breaking the professional
baseball color barrier when he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in
1947,” Biddle said. “Actually, there were black athletes playing
professional baseball as far back as the late 1800s.”
Biddle said Robinson wasn’t really the first African-American to
play major league baseball because way back in 1883, Moses
“Fleetwood” Walker signed with Toledo in the Northwestern League.
The next year, Toledo joined the American Association, thus Walker
was the first black player on a major league team.
Biddle said black players were on the rosters of many teams in
the minor leagues and a few major league teams in the late 1800s
and early 1900s, until there was what he called “a gentlemen’s
agreement” among the major league club owners not to sign black
He said since the black athletes were not being signed by white
teams, organizers got together in 1920 and formed the Negro
Baseball League to give these athletes a place to play
The Negro Baseball League began in 1920, folded in 1930 because
of the Depression and was started up again in 1933. There was a
Negro National League and a Negro American League. There was an
annual East-West All-Star Negro League game at Chicago’s Comiskey
Park that was always sold out.
“The achievement of players since Jackie got in the league are
well-documented,” Biddle said. “However, for decades there were
great black athletes playing baseball, but most people have never
heard of them or their accomplishments because they played in the
Negro Baseball League.”
He said players didn’t get a lot of money for playing league
games. But it helped when, while traveling from one league game to
another, they would stop and play a local team.
“We called those money games because the winning team got 60
percent of the gate and the losing team got 40 percent,” he said
with a smile.
The beginning of the end for the Negro Baseball League came when
the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Robinson in 1947 and the next year he
helped his team win the National League Championship and was named
rookie of the year.
“The Dodgers then signed other top Negro League players
including Roy Campanella, Joe Black and Don Newcombe,” Biddle told
the crowd. “Soon after, Larry Doby was signed by the Cleveland
Indians as the first black player in the American League.”
Biddle said it was hard on those first black players in Major
League Baseball. For example, Jackie Robinson had to sit alone in
the dugout, endure being called names, had things thrown at him
when he took the field and often had to stay at a different hotel
from his teammates because of segregation.
“But Robinson and the other early players showed what they could
do, and soon Major League Baseball was raiding the ranks and
signing the best players from the Negro Baseball League,” Biddle
said. “But the league kept going. The Negro National League was
disbanded in 1949 but the Negro American League kept going until it
died in 1960.”
Profile of a player
Biddle was born and raised in Arkansas, and when he pitched a
no-hitter in the state championship game, he was offered a contract
to play for the Chicago American Giants.
“I was a four-sport athlete in high school and received college
scholarship offers to play football or to play basketball, but no
school would give me a scholarship to play baseball,” he said. “My
favorite sport was baseball, so I signed to play in the Negro
He played for the Giants in 1953 and 1954. Biddle said he was 17
and riding long distances on a bus. Eating and sleeping on the bus
were an adventure to him but were hard on the older players.
“But the old-timers were training us to be men,” he said. “They
taught us how to act in public and even insisted we act and look
like professionals, so when we left the stadium we wore suits and
ties even though we often weren’t allowed to go inside a restaurant
to eat but had to wait out back while they made sandwiches for us
to eat on the bus.”
The Chicago Cubs bought his contract in 1955. Unfortunately, at
the first day of spring training, he broke his ankle in two places
sliding into third base. Although he remained with the team,
primarily throwing batting practice for the Cubs, he never fully
recovered and was released three years later.
Biddle said players on Negro League teams drew big crowds
because they played an exciting, fast-moving, aggressive brand of
“Players in the Negro League were the first to use what is now
called the hit-and-run play,” Biddle told the crowd. “We called it
the bunt and run because most of our guys were very fast and could
make it work. Scouts from the major leagues used to come to the
Negro League games and take back things they figured would improve
their game. The hit-and-run play was one of those things.”
Another was the use of helmets. Biddle said a Negro League
player was killed when he was hit in the head by a fastball. He
said a friend wanted protection, modified a miner’s helmet and
started wearing it.
“A lot of guys laughed at him for wearing the modified helmet.
They laughed until he only had a headache when he was hit in the
head by a fastball,” Biddle said. “After that, helmets began
popping up all around the league.”
When injuries ended his baseball career, the 22-year-old, Biddle
went to college, earned his degree in social work from the
University of Wisconsin, and for the next 24 years, worked for the
state of Wisconsin as a social worker in the correction system.
However, he never forgot his baseball and all those athletes who
made it possible for him to play.
“Negro League players had no pensions or benefits, and many were
in poor health,” Biddle said. “In 1995 there were 315 Negro League
veterans who decided something had to be done. So I organized
Yesterday’s Negro League Baseball Players to try to support and
help the remaining players and try to defend our economic interests
Biddle explained the title Negro Baseball League was never
registered as a trademark and so was open to anyone who wanted to
use it. The result was individuals made millions of dollars by
organizing autograph sessions and selling Negro League memorabilia
with little or none of the estimated $2.4 million going to the
Biddle said Major League Baseball did set aside money to provide
assistance to Negro League players, but the rules excluded the vast
majority of the athletes.
“It is so bad that recently two of our players died and their
families didn’t have money for the funerals. When we appealed and
got no help, the players pitched in to pay the burial expenses,” he
said. “But we haven’t given up, and we are still trying to get
benefits for the 68 remaining Negro Baseball League players.”
He also said he wrote the book and does speaking engagements so
this page of baseball history won’t be forgotten when the remaining
players pass away.
“These were exceptional athletes, and what they did is an
important chapter of American history and also in black history,”
Biddle said. “Today’s young people should know about the Negro
Baseball League, the challenges facing the players, their struggle
and their accomplishments. These men were pioneers who helped level
the playing field for black baseball players and athletes in other
For more information about the Negro Baseball League, Biddle’s
book or other materials, visit the website at www.dennisbiddle.com.
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