In this Aug. 2, 1942, file photo, Kansas City Monarchs pitcher Leroy Satchel Paige warms up at New York's Yankee Stadium before a Negro League game between the Monarchs and the New York Cuban Stars.
( AP Photo/Matty Zimmerman, File
Cindy Rodriguez: Hey listeners, Tanzina Vega is a way and I'm Cindy Rodriguez from WNYC pinch hitting for her this week. In December, we brought you the story of Major League baseball recently announcing it would officially give the Negro Leagues, Major League status. That meant it would recognize the stats and records of the roughly 3,400 Black players who played in the Negro Leagues from 1920 to 1948. Since we brought you that news, we've gotten a more personal take on the story.
Dennis Biddle: My name is Dennis Biddle, a former Negro League baseball player. I played in 1953 and '54 with the Chicago American Giants.
Cindy: Dennis is a former Negro leagues player and President of Yesterday's Negro League Players Foundation. He's also the author of the book Secrets of the Negro Baseball League: As told by Dennis Biddle. Our friend Callie Crossley who hosted last week on The Takeaway, got a chance to sit down with Biddle a few days ago to reflect on the moment.
Dennis: I think it's a great thing to happen now, it should have happened years ago. I think about those old players that have passed on, they would have enjoyed back that they are being equal to something they already knew, and couldn't do anything about it. What they're doing is a star, which is great, recognizing those great ball players that did not have the opportunity to display their talents in the Major League because of the color of their skin.
Callie Crossley: They're only recognizing the states and records from 1920 to 1948, how will the numbers add up then because we're not going to know about the, the stats of the players who came after?
Dennis: That's where it should have just said recognizing players that played in the Negro Baseball League as equal to the players in the Major League, because they were, we were. We couldn't do anything about it. We can all play each other on the game that we loved. We had to strive to be better just to prove how great we really were.
I thank the older players that prepared us, the younger players. They went through a lot and had nothing to look forward to. We knew we had a chance with Jackie opening the door, but before then, they had no chance. That's what really bothers me when I say, "It's okay about the stats, but these men that live in now and we have at least 40 players still living around the country, that played in the '50s. The league did not end in '48, it ended in 1960."
Callie: Since you played in the later years, 1953, can you tell me a little bit about your time playing in the league?
Dennis: Yes. I came in during a time when I knew I was being prepared for the Major League, but these older guys. You see what happened after Jackie opened the door, most of the guys that was too old to go in at that time became coaches, trainers, managers and owners, at that time. They were preparing the younger players for the Major League. This is something that was handed down to me. These men that gave so much to the game of baseball, the only recognition that they could get would be to say, "I prepared Hank Aaron for the Major Leagues. Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Willie Mays," and many, many more. This is all the contribution that they felt that they had to the game of baseball because they had no other root cause.
Callie: How did they prepare you? You were quite young when you played in the league.
Dennis: I came here when I was 17 years old, right out of high school. No scout scouted me. I'm from Arkansas, a town in Arkansas. I pitched a no-hitter and I was recognized by a booking agent from the Negro Baseball League who asked me, "How would you like to play in the Negro Baseball?" I knew nothing about the Negro Baseball League, but I had to go from my hometown, a thousand miles to Chicago, to play in the Negro baseball league. I'm grateful for the fact that that happened because I learned a lot about life.
I was only 17 years old and I'll never forget players like 'Double Duty' Radcliffe, and James Bell, they called him 'Cool Papa Bell'. They put their arms around a younger player and prepared us for what might come. In other words, we had a chance to go to the Major Leagues and I'm appreciative of that today. I know that's why years later, I became president of a foundation that was set up to recognize the living players of the Negro Baseball League.
Callie: You met Jackie Robinson. Can you tell us about that?
Dennis: Yes. I became a free agent with the Chicago Cubs in 1955. I met Jackie and we had dinner together, downtown Chicago, along with Ernie Banks and Gene Baker and Roy Campanella. I'll never forget that and I read about it. I knew what he had gone through in the Negro League because I'd gone through it two years myself. When he said he had taken not writing a book or showing a movie what I went through. Being a young man, I got many days that I wanted to go back home to mama. I couldn't understand the treatment we were getting.
I said to him, "Mr. Robinson, did you ever think about quitting because I did." He said, "Son, I thought about it every day." He said, "But I had made a promise that I will open the door, so other young Black men player will be able to play in the Major League." Jackie told that to me, that's something that always'll be a part of me.
Callie: Do you feel the MLB decided to make this announcement to include the Negro Leagues now, because it's been 100 years or because of the racial uprisings or both reasons?
Dennis: I organized, along with Sherwood Brewer, we organized Yesterday's Negro League Baseball Player Foundation in 1996. At that time it was 314 of us still living around the country with no recognition. The players, they didn't know what to do. They just went off little jobs and things, but Mr. Brewer, he had been trying for years to get them together, which was a hard thing to do, even today with the few players that still living, because someone that come up and offer them $100 to go sign autographs and do that, they'll go. They are vulnerable to this treatment. Mr. Brewer always said, "If we stuck together as one, we will be a force to reckon with."
Callie: Do you feel the MLB can compensate the players who are still alive or their families?
Dennis: I really do. I don't know how they can do it, but reparation is a hard thing to talk about these days, but those families should be considered. I don't know how they can do it. I just want something right now for the players that are still living. I want some recognition. I want monetary. I want money that they're given these organization that are preserving our history, give it to the players that are still living, make them a part of it.
In 1998, thanks to [unintelligible 00:07:39], helped me help the organization get benefits for 79 players that were still living. They got the Major League pension fund. The criteria they said were four years in the Negro League and most of those players were dead and gone. Some appealed, then they qualified. I asked the commissioner to lower the criteria to one year. If he would do that, that would include every player that's still living, that played in the Negro Baseball League, but I have not heard back from him after two letters to him.
Callie: Do you think there's a chance that it could still happen, given that there's a lot of attention to this move by the MLB?
Dennis: I'm hoping it will.
Callie: Mr. Biddle, thank you so much for keeping the flame alive.
Dennis: Thank you.
Cindy: Dennis Biddle is a former Negro League player and President of Yesterday's Negro League Players Foundation. He's also author of the book Secrets of the Negro Baseball League: As told by Dennis Biddle. He spoke with GBH's Callie Crossley.
We reached out to major league baseball for comment about Mr. Biddle's letters, asking for pensions for all living Negro League ballplayers. They sent us a pair of press releases from 2004.
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