“The man, who beat the man, who beat the man”

In honor of Black History Month, Observer editor Dominic Di Palermo tells the story of Milwaukee’s Dennis Biddle, the youngest player to play in the Negro Baseball League

Dominic Di Palermo, Editor-in-Chief

On a warm Sunday night, 17-year-old Dennis Biddle sat on the front porch of his small family home in Magnolia, Arkansas, pondering his future. Biddle perseverated on the realization that his family was most likely not going to scrape together the $14 ($156.87 in today’s money) he needed for a bus ticket to Chicago. The $14 that would bring him to his dream of playing professional baseball.

Biddle figured he’d have no choice but to stick with is original plan, playing football at Grambling State University in Louisiana on a full ride scholarship. The plan he was committed to that morning before receiving a call from the Chicago American Giants, a Negro League team, asking him to try out on Tuesday.

As Biddle pondered the uncertain thoughts that raced through his mind, his mom quietly came up to him and handed him a $20 ($224.10 today) bill. (According to the inflation calculator, $20 is the equivalent to $224.10 now.)

Biddle was astonished, he had to be on the bus by 9:00 a.m. the next morning. That night he quickly packed all his things. The following morning, he woke up and said goodbye to his family and girlfriend.

“My mama, I’ll never forget the hug she gave me and said, ‘baby good luck’ and I felt that hug all the way to Chicago,” Biddle said. “Every time I’d get nervous, I’d think about my mama.”

After going to Chicago Biddle was signed by the Giants and became known as the “the Man, Who Beat the Man, Who Beat the Man.” A name given to him after he out-pitched Gread “Lefty” McKinnis, a pitcher on the Philadelphia Stars known as “the Man Who Beat the Man” for out-pitching MLB Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige.

Biddle’s love for baseball began at six-years-old when he learned to hit and pitch playing stickball with a broom stick and a tennis ball. As he grew older, he organized games with other children in his neighborhood.

“I loved baseball from a little boy on,” Biddle said. “We couldn’t afford a baseball; it was a tennis ball. If you can hit a tennis ball going 150 miles an hour you can tap a baseball up.”

Biddle’s love for baseball and other sports like basketball, football and track played a large roll during his childhood.

In high school, Biddle and his friends often utilized their school’s open gym. One day after Biddle and his friend, Bo Dunn, had finished playing basketball they discovered three boxes of hand me downs from a white school.

Two of the boxes were filled with books and one was filled with sporting equipment. It was there Dunn and he found their first baseballs, five-fingered gloves and bats.

Every day after school, Biddle and Dunn would play catch and Biddle began adding new pitches to his arsenal.

In high school, Biddle played on his school’s baseball team and gained recognition for his pitching. A local black men’s team manager approached him and offered him 75 cents for every game he pitched.

“I had developed a pitch, we called it a drop,” Biddle said. “Now, in the major leagues they call them sinkers, and split fingers and sliders, but they all did the same thing. It was a fooler pitch 90 percent of them were balls, but they were going to hit the ground the guy going to swing over it every time. That was my bread-and-butter pitch in school, that’s how I got all my fame. I perfected that pitch.”

Biddle said that these games were on Sundays, and he was typically obligated to attend church service, so for the first two games, he snuck out of church. During his first game, his dad noticed he was gone and came looking for him.

“I’m on the mound and he had two police officers with him, and he said, ‘come on boy,’” Biddle said. “So, I had to leave the game and go with my daddy, and we finally turned up in church.”

The next week the team was out of town, so Biddle snuck out of church again and had the chance to pitch uninterrupted.

Despite sneaking out of church at such a young age to, Biddle’s Christian faith never diminished. He often attributes his life’s triumphs to the Lord’s plan.

Throughout high school, Biddle continued playing baseball along with basketball, football and track.

While he was offered a full-ride scholarship to play football, Biddle’s first passion was baseball and after talking with his high school baseball coach he decided to focus on baseball. His goal was to get drafted by an MLB team right out of high school because Jackie Robinson had already broken the color barrier.

At the end of his senior year of high school, Biddle sat by the phone waiting for a call from an MLB team. The phone never rang. Biddle explains in his book “Secrets of the Negro Baseball League” that he felt “lost and empty” despite deciding to accept the full-ride football scholarship to Grambling College (now known as Grambling State University).

Baseball after all 

Not long after Biddle resigned himself to play college football, his phone finally rang from the Chicago American Giants.

When Biddle arrived in Chicago Biddle made his way to Washington Park where, he would be trying out for the team. After taking two busses Biddle walked down 51st searching for Washington Park. He stopped and asked a man where it was, and the man pointed to a park with baseball diamonds across the street.

Biddle recalls taking his spikes and glove from his duffle bag and trusting his bag with the stranger he had just met.

Biddle impressed the team enough to be offered a offered a four-year contract for $500 ($5,602.43 in today’s money) a month. Biddle started a savings account and regularly sent money back home.

Biddle went to retrieve his bag from the man he had left it with, but the man was gone. To his surprise, a woman from the apartment came to the door with his bag and explained that the man, named Mr. Washington, had to go, and left it with her. Biddle asked for the man’s phone number, so he could thank him.

Biddle recalls in his book that he made sure he didn’t lose sight piece of paper inscribed with Washington’s phone number. The following morning Biddle called Washington who picked him up, offered him a room in his house and cooked him a meal.

“He was like a father to me, and I always say that the Lord put him in my life for a reason,” Biddle says in his book. “Maybe just to watch over me because I was so young, maybe as a helper for me as I was starting out, or maybe to become part of his life, which I found out was very empty.”

Biddle stayed in contact with Washington for 28 years after they met.

“I buried him 28 years later,” Biddle said. “He became a father figure for me, a grandfather figure for my children. He was just like family.”

Like Major League Baseball teams, the Giants went on the road to play other teams. Biddle’s first game pitching was on Saturday, May 23, 1953, against the Memphis Red Sox.

“When I got to the Negro League, I pitched it [the drop pitch] that night in Memphis, Tennessee against the Memphis Red Sox and these men had been playing ten years in the Negro League couldn’t hit it,” Biddle said. “And that was really something I would get two strikes on a batter; he’s going to get three of them in a row. He’s going to swing at one of them.

Biddle’s first game was going well until the seventh inning when the catcher, Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, signaled for Biddle to throw his drop pitch. Biddle noticed the batter, Red “Big Red” Longley, step up in front of the plate, a tactic used to hit a drop pitch before the ball could hit the ground. Because Biddle noticed this, he disobeyed Radcliffe’s signal.

“I threw a fastball instead of a drop and Big Red hit it and I tell everybody it’s still going today that ball disappeared into the lights,” Biddle said. “And Double Duty, he was 50 years old he came out there jumping up and down in front of 8,000 people jumbling ‘God dammit boy I been in the league for 15 years if I tell you to throw something you’ll throw it.’ But you know I didn’t do it. He yelled me and that was embarrassing everybody was looking at me, but I won the game.”

Like many Negro League teams, the Giants didn’t strictly play against other Negro League teams. While they were on the road, a booking agent would often set up games against white teams

“It was fun because most of them, they didn’t think about no color they wanted to play against us, they wanted to see if they were better,” Biddle said. “They were nice, a lot of places we couldn’t eat in a restaurant, couldn’t sleep in a hotel. A lot of those teams after the game would have a big barbecue for the players. They knew the situation they couldn’t change it themselves it was just that way. They tried to be as nice as they could to be the ball players.”

Biddle explained that while he’s sure racist incidents occurred, he couldn’t remember any that happened in the games he played.

“If a guy slid into second base and the guy was hurt all of them would be there to help and vice versa,” Biddle said. “I don’t remember, I’m sure it was and did [happen]. The only [instance] that I really really remember, the name calling. They were calling us, ‘look at that n**** run’ and we had to learn to ignore it.”

The insults were hard for Biddle to ignore as a 17-year-old. His older teammates regularly helped him ignore it.

“I’ll never forget in Louisville, Kentucky, we were just coming in from Texas and getting off the bus, I heard all kinds of racial slurs,” Biddle said. “But those old men were trying to instill in us you have to look at it and not hear it and not pay in any attention, and that’s hard to do especially when they’re right there in front of you. I’ll never forget Double Duty [Radcliffe] he called me in the car [and said], look boy if you let that negativity affect your play out on that field you ain’t going to never make it…just go on and play ball.”

The one time Biddle met Jackie Robinson in 1955, he remembers asking him about the racism he experienced.

“I was talking to Jackie Robinson because I knew I was ready to go back home to Momma, I said I can’t handle this,” Biddle said. “That’s what I asked him, ‘did you ever think about quitting?’ Because I know he went through way more than I did. And he said, ‘every day, I thought about it, every day, but I had made a promise that I would open the doors so other blacks would be able to play in the major leagues.’”

Robinson’s words stayed in Biddle’s mind throughout his life and still thinks and often teaches about them today.

Biddle recalls the fishy and salty stench of canned sardines combined with the rank smell of game worn sweaty baseball jerseys. The odor swirled with the humid southern heat that poured in through the open bus windows.

On the road, the Giants wouldn’t always have the chance to eat in restaurants or sleep in hotels because of Jim Crow laws. The team would sleep on the bus and for meals they would go to stores and buy bologna and loaves of bread. Without a slicer for the bread or meat, they would take chunks of bologna and bread and make a sandwich. Biddle’s teammates and their bus driver, Wee Willie, also ate sardines and crackers.

“I hated sardines,” Biddle said. “My auntie used to send me to the store when I was a little boy and she would try to give me some and I’d say to her, ‘I don’t want no sardines.”

One day the bus driver, Willie, offered Biddle sardines.

“I was so hungry I took one [with a] cracker and I said to myself all these years my auntie was sending me to the store I could’ve been eating sardines,” Biddle chuckled. “From then on I loved sardines to this day.”

While on the road, Biddle became close with Willie. One day, they were cracking jokes with each other when Willie asked Biddle to read him two letters that he had received from home. He learned Willie couldn’t read or write.

“That did something to me, that was social work,” Biddle said. “I took him I bought a pen, and a pencil, a tablet and I sat him down and I took my hand and his hand and wrote his name W E E Willie W I L L I E. I did that I bet you 20,000 times. Then one day he wrote his name that you could understand it. That was the most gratifying experience for me in my lifetime to see him write his name, and he was so proud.”

Life after baseball

In 1954 Biddle’s Negro League contract was bought by the Cubs and in the spring of 1955, he went to Mesa, Arizona, for spring training. On the first day of practice, Biddle was doing a running exercise and jammed his foot into third base and shattered his ankle. The injury was the end of his baseball career, and still bothers him today.

“After some serious soul-searching, I realized that I had my chance, but the Lord didn’t intend for me to play baseball for a living,” Biddle said. “He intended for me to do something else, so I decided once again to go back to school.”

Biddle moved to Milwaukee three years later and balanced owning a television repair shop, and school. He tried drafting blueprints, welding and then started working for job service as a job counselor. As a job counselor he decided to get his degree in social work at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He worked as a social worker for 24 years before retiring.

“It’s just a part of me and I said the Lord put in me,” Biddle said. “I’m not a minister, I’m not a schoolteacher, I’m a social worker I was put here to help people. That’s what I do, that’s what I’ve done, that’s what I do now.”

He explained that the best part of his social work career was at the Ethan Allen School for Boys.

“I set up programs that helped them deal with life,” Biddle said. “Most of them came from broken homes and I was like a father figure to them, and I helped a lot of them that way and that was the gratifying part of it.

Biddle’s action as a father figure for the boys at Ethan Allen came full circle from the time when his father figure, Washington, took him into his home when he had just moved to play for Chicago.

Along with acting as a father figure as a social worker, Biddle fathered nine children of his own, two of whom were adopted. While his kids grew up, he made sure to keep sports in their lives, especially baseball.

Biddle coached little league for 11 years and served as an administrator in a league created by his friend, James Beckham, another former Negro League player.

“I went to college to be a social worker, worked 24 years as a social worker,” Biddle said. “I often said it, the Lord was preparing me to do what I do now.”

Fighting for the legacy and benefits for Negro League players

In 1995 Biddle’s time as a social worker and baseball player intertwined after he was invited to the 75th anniversary of  Negro League Baseball in Kansas City, Missouri with many other former players.

“I can’t remember ever seeing such a happy group of men in my life,” Biddle said in his book. “They hadn’t seen each other in 50 years, and they were just joyful to be together one more time.”

The next day Biddle was required to be at a meeting with a group he hadn’t heard of, the Negro League Baseball Players Association (NLBPA). An association that was formed to represent former Negro League players.

At the meeting, Biddle found out that the NLBPA, in association with the Museum, had set up an opportunity for the former Negro league players to be insured through a medical plan funded by the MLB. Biddle was shocked, he and many other former players had never gotten an application for a medical plan.

During the meeting, a woman from Major League Properties, a marketing group for the MLB, was introduced to explain that all the players were going to receive a royalty check for memorabilia that was created using the name and likeness of the Negro leagues and its former players.

Former players from before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier believed that they should receive checks. They argued that anyone who played in the Negro Leagues after 1947 had the opportunity to play in the major leagues and shouldn’t be considered eligible for a royalty check.

Biddle, who played from 1953-1954, and many of the other players who played after 1947 were outraged because the Negro Leagues continued after Robinson broke the color barrier.

To end the argument, a vote was taken which made all players from before and after 1947 eligible for royalty checks.

Before heading home to Milwaukee, Biddle ran into a former player named Sherwood Brewer at the airport. Brewer and Biddle discussed the medical insurance they were eligible for,  and discovered Brewer, who played before 1947, hadn’t received an application for medical insurance. Neither had Biddle either. Both men decided to help the players who hadn’t received medical insurance.

Shortly after their conversation, Biddle and Brewer received a letter informing them and other former Negro leagues that the Museum would no longer representing them and that any issues could be addressed with the NLBPA.

“A lot of money is being raised using our name, using the Negro League as means of raising funds, but none of the players are getting any of the money raised,” Biddle explained in his book. “A lot of letters go out to major organizations for fund raising efforts saying they represent us, but they don’t.”

Later Biddle was introduced to a sports attorney named Martin Greenburg, who worked pro bono for the foundation. He began an investigation into the NLBPA and found that two men from New York had owned the charter for the NLBPA and made money off the name and likeness of former Negro League players.

“When I got invited to the 75th anniversary of the Negro Baseball League that’s where I began to associate myself with what I believe the Lord put me here for,” Biddle said. “There were 314 players living at that time [and] they had no representation…I organized Yesterdays Negro league Baseball Players Foundation (YNLBPF) because the word[s] Negro League didn’t belong to us anymore. It was taken away.”

Biddle formed YNLBPF, so that former players could have representation if a third-party wanted to work with them. Brewer and Biddle aimed to help former players who had nothing. YNLBP’s goals didn’t end at player representation. A large part of their goal was to educate the public about the history of the Negro Leagues. Biddle explained that he traveled to colleges, universities, high schools, middle schools and grade schools to teach about the Negro Leagues.

Despite setting their goals in motion, the YNLBPF still lacked funding. Biddle and Brewer took to the road to signing autographs for funding, and often found themselves sleeping in a car because they couldn’t afford a motel.

They laughed and compared it to their time sleeping on the bus while traveling with their Negro League teams.

“This was way too important to our future. It was not just about me and how tired I felt or what may have happened that day or week to diminish my ambitions,” Biddle said in his book. “It was about what was right and what was wrong. It was right that we all deserve medical insurance that was offered by the major leagues, and it was wrong to leave so many of us out of the deal.”

Eventually Major League Baseball began to have discussions to help former Negro League players by giving them pensions. YNLBPA was not invited to the discussion, and it was decided that former players would need to have played in the league for four years prior to 1947 to be eligible for a pension.

Biddle and Brewer were outraged with the lack of invitation and filed a grievance with then Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig. In his book, Biddle says that the grievance stirred quite a disturbance and another meeting was held.

The new meeting involved the NLBPA, YNLBPF and participation from former players which were required to vote on which Association would represent them. The players chose the YNLBPF.

After the new meeting, it was determined that anyone who played in the for four years, with two being in the Negro Leagues, were able to receive a pension. In present day, Biddle explained that anyone who played in the Negro Leagues for three years is eligible to receive a pension.

Soon after the pension dispute the YNLBPF achieved another one of its goals, creating the Negro League Wall of Fame in the former Milwaukee Brewers’ stadium, Milwaukee County Stadium.

Through donations, and a loan Biddle and the foundation eventually raised $18,000 needed to build the Negro League Wall of Fame. The wall was then constructed and endorsed by Selig.

Four years before the Brewers moved out of Milwaukee County Stadium, the Brewers and the YNLBPF inducted two players into the Wall of Fame every year.

The Brewers would sponsor travel, hotel accommodations and a stipend to the wall inductees. The inductees would then have a ceremony before a Brewers game and sign autographs for fans during the game.

Greenburg, who helped with the wall, recalled that helping Biddle with the wall was one of his fondest memories.

“It was a beautiful wall celebrating the negro league players,” Greenburg said. “And I just think it was entrenched in history and brought to light what these players brought to the game.”

Greenburg reflected on working with Biddle.

“He’s a wonderful guy, up until recently we had contact,” Greenburg said. “He was an easy guy to work with and I admire him for what he was doing. Basically, I contributed my services because I believe in what he was doing, what the Brewers were doing and what he was telling everybody.”

Still going strong

Biddle and his wife, Patrice Biddle, currently work at a small store in the Mayfair Mall located in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. The store sells Negro League memorabilia including team sweatshirts, replica jerseys and autographed items signed by Biddle and others.

“Always busy, always, always busy,” Patrice Biddle said, describing her work with Biddle. “We [YNLBPF] have a non-profit organization that portion of it is the preservation of the history and that’s where he advocates for the surviving players.”

Patrice Biddle explained that her and Biddle have started a subsidiary to YNLBPF called “Bridging Gaps to Greatness.” The subsidiary works with organizations to teach history of the Negro Leagues through presentations, their traveling exhibits and community events.

Biddle is currently writing his second book which is going to talk about more of his experiences in the Negro League and the anecdotes that were shared with him by his former friends, players and teammates.

“I’m not different then the [Negro League] museum, I just got things they don’t have,” Biddle said. “I don’t down them they did the best they could. The thought of the museum was to preserve the history of us… It’s an information center but you got to pay for it and it shouldn’t be that way, it’s a part of history, history is free.”

Biddle plans to continue his work spreading the history of the Negro Leagues and trying to help the remaining players as best as he can.

“I’m 87 years old and I don’t intend to stop until I’m stopped,” Biddle said.