He was once considered “The Kid”, the youngest player in the Negro Leagues when he signed a contract with the Chicago American Giants as a pitcher at age 17 in 1953.
Now Dennis (Bose) Biddle is 82 and the guardian of a legacy of a dwindling number of Negro League Baseball players.
Biddle was on hand at the Milwaukee Public Library (corner of 8th and Wisconsin) on Sept. 16 giving a talk at the opening of a remarkable exhibit of memorabilia from his organization “Yesterday’s Negro League Baseball”, that will be on display through Oct. 1.
It includes ticket stubs, a dizzying array of newspaper clippings, old baseball cards, photos, busts of former players, early contracts and many other things. Just an amazing look back at a time when baseball was fully segregated and African-Americans found a successful way to make their imprint on what remains “America’s Pastime.”
And though in recent decades, Major League Baseball (MLB) has gone out of its way to acknowledge the contributions of the Negro Leagues including Hall of Fame recognition and other accolades, Biddle and others are of the opinion that financial help to the former players has been slow in coming.
He started “Yesterday’s Negro League Baseball” in 1996 as a way to shed light on the difficult financial circumstances that former Negro League players have found themselves in recent decades. There were roughly 314 former players he represented when he founded the organization.
Now there are roughly 57 remaining he said, most of them in their 90s. Two recently passed, he noted, and they didn’t have enough money for a proper burial.
Biddle, a retired social worker whose baseball career was shortened due to an ankle injury, said that the MLB could do a better job of educating its young players, with their astronomical multi-million dollar contracts, on what the former Negro League players went through to help make their current wealth and fame possible.
There were seven Negro Leagues that operated at varying times between 1920 and 1960.
The real issue is, Biddle noted, is that many in the current administration of MLB weren’t even born when the Negro Leagues were around, so they don’t even have a full awareness of how difficult the financial situation is of the former Negro League players.
Everybody knows players like Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby, who helped break the color line for MLB and other famous Negro League players like Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson, but Biddle said there were many, many others who toiled hard and played well but didn’t get the recognition or the money.
“There are millions of dollars being made off the sale of (Negro League) memorabilia and not a penny is going towards the players,” Biddle said sadly. “Something should have been done (financially) 20-30 years ago.”
MLB and the Players Union donated $1 million to the large, well-regarded Negro Leagues Baseball Museum located in Kansas City, Missouri, earlier this year. Biddle said the facility does a great job of preserving the history of the various leagues, but it’s not enough, he said.
It doesn’t help make the final years of the last few Negro League ballplayers much easier.
So Biddle, whose organization is based out of Brown Deer, travels as much as he can, setting up his exhibits in as many places as possible, trying to bring awareness of the plight of these ever fewer old men who helped make baseball what it is today. Earlier this year, the exhibit was at Milwaukee City Hall.
He said likes to speak at schools, and he jokes with the kids “When you get that ‘A’ on your paper afterward, make sure to e-mail me about it.”
But to him, this is still a serious issue.
“I’ve gone all over the country and fought for these men,” he said. “I’m trying to provide for them before they’re gone. Not only help them now, but preserve their memory and pass it on (to other generations).”
For more information, contact Biddle at firstname.lastname@example.org.