A pioneer delivers his most important pitch

Former Negro Baseball League player has a new book and a desire to help those who paved the way with him

Posted 2/25/11

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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A pioneer delivers his most important pitch

Former Negro Baseball League player has a new book and a desire to help those who paved the way with him


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 Baseball League.”

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.”

History lesson

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 players.

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 baseball.

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 Baseball League.”

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 baseball.

“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 and support.”


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 players.

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 professional sports.”

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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