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Negro Leagues Debate Centers On Brewers’ Honoree
MILWAUKEE — Dennis Biddle, who says he played in the Negro Leagues in the 1950s, was honored Friday night at Miller Park by the Milwaukee Brewers. But questions have been raised about his baseball career and a foundation he runs to support aging ballplayers.
Biddle is well known to the Brewers and speaks often to community groups, schools and other organizations interested in learning about the history of the Negro Leagues. But Biddle also is involved in a dispute with surviving Negro Leaguers who have their doubts about Biddle’s life story and his fund-raising efforts.
Friday’s ceremony took place before the Brewers vs. the Washington Nationals game. Besides Biddle, the honorees included Buck O’Neil, perhaps the best-known of the living Negro Leaguers, and James Sanders, who played in New Orleans, Detroit and Kansas City.
The Brewers wore reproductions of uniforms worn by the Milwaukee Bears, the city’s 1923 representative in the Negro National League. The Nationals wore uniforms of the Negro National League’s Homestead Grays, who played in Washington from 1937-’48.
Despite the questions, the Brewers honored Biddle for his efforts.
“Dennis has been someone in the community who has worked to cement the legacy of the teams and the players of the Negro Leagues,” said Tyler Barnes, Brewers vice president of communications. “He is widely known as a person who has worked to do that. That was a key factor in our decision to honor him tomorrow.”
At the center of the dispute is the Negro Leagues itself, a term that dates from the establishment of the Negro Leagues in 1920. For four decades, many teams playing under the banner Negro Leagues played around the country. Yet many of the stories of the teams and the players have been lost because of poor or no record-keeping and faded memories of those who are alive.
Biddle claims that he played for the Chicago American Giants in 1953 and 1954 and, at 17, was one of the youngest players to play in the Negro Leagues. As proof, he points to his book, “Secrets of the Negro Baseball League,” in which a reproduction of his contract with the American Giants is included. The contract is dated May 21, 1953. His salary was $500 a year.
But in interviews with three former Negro League ballplayers and the historian at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, the American Giants were not in existence at the time Biddle said he played for the team.
“I can tell you that he is one of many that I know nothing about as a player,” said Al Spearman, 79, a former Negro Leaguer who lives in Chicago. “I played in the Negro Leagues, and I played with the Chicago American Giants. The American Giants dissolved in 1952, and I was with them in 1951.”
Ray Doswell, the museum’s curator and education director, said no one at the museum had been able to confirm Biddle’s connection with the American Giants.
“When people call me about Mr. Biddle, I have expressed some concern about him,” Doswell said. “We are concerned about anyone who claims to be a Negro League ballplayer and especially someone who raises money.”
“We can’t find the evidence that he played,” added Eddie Bedford, who teaches Negro League baseball history at Eastern Michigan University and works with the Negro Leagues Committee, which conducts research on the league.
Bedford said that “The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues” reports the American Giants last played in 1950.
Despite the muddled history, Biddle, who is 70, is sticking to his story. He has support from Carl Long of Kinston, N.C. Long, who played for the Birmingham Black Barons, said Thursday night that he hit a home run off Biddle while Biddle was playing for the American Giants. The year was 1953, Long insisted.
“I know what I’m doing and I know what I did,” Biddle said Thursday. “I’m trying to help these players. But I’m having a difficult time. The museum bad-mouths me, but all I did was tell the truth.”
Biddle says that, in 1955, the Chicago Cubs purchased his contract. In that year, Biddle went to spring training but injured his ankle during a base-running drill and never played for the Cubs. A Cubs official said it would be hard to confirm Biddle’s story because the team might not have kept rosters of players in spring training.
The Negro Leaguers interviewed by the Journal Sentinel also were critical of Biddle and his legal entities: Yesterday’s Negro League Baseball Players Foundation Inc. and Yesterday’s Negro League Baseball Players LLC. Both organizations have been declared delinquent by the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions, meaning that Biddle has not filed reports with the state.
The Negro Leaguers said Biddle’s desire to raise money for sick or destitute Negro Leaguers had hurt their cause. They also charge that he had provided no proof he had helped anyone.
But Biddle said he had, though he said the foundation had little or no money, and he provided no proof of his charitable giving.
James Cobbin, vice president and treasurer of Biddle’s foundation, said Thursday night that the foundation didn’t have a dime to its name.
“And the foundation has not been able to generate any funds of its own,” Cobbin said, adding that he and Biddle had in the past put their own money into the foundation.
Milwaukee sports lawyer Marty Greenberg said Thursday that he helped Biddle with the legal papers for his foundation.
“I don’t think the foundation has collected a lot of money,” Greenberg said. “Dennis is really just a voice of history about the Negro Leagues.”
As part of the tribute, the Brewers plan to auction off the game-worn Milwaukee Bears uniforms and donate the proceeds to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and Biddle’s foundation. However, after being told that the foundation was considered to be delinquent by the state, Barnes said the team would look into the situation.
“Before we make a financial contribution, we will do our due diligence,” Barnes said. “We will make sure it’s solvent. We’ll make sure they are eligible to receive the contribution, as we will do with the Negro Leagues Museum.”
Biddle said he would not waver from his work. “Some of the greatest ballplayers to ever play the game played in the Negro Leagues,” he said. “It’s very important to me that history is passed down.”