A few years ago when I was waiting to catch a plane in Kansas City, my brother-in-law took me to the site of old Municipal Stadium, after which we had lunch at Arthur Bryant’s barbecue just down the street. Then it was on to the Negro Leagues Hall of Fame on East 18th Street.
I bought a Kansas City Monarchs cap. Watched a few grainy film clips. Read about colorful ballplayers with colorful nicknames, such as Double Duty Radcliffe.
Double Duty’s real name was Theodore Roosevelt Radcliffe. While playing for the Pittsburgh Crawfords against the Monroe Monarchs at Yankee Stadium in 1932, Radcliffe caught the great Satchel Paige, who pitched a shutout, in the first game. Then Radcliffe pitched a shutout in the second game.
Damon Runyon gave him a nickname. He wrote Ted Radcliffe was worth the price of two admissions.
On Thursday night, a man named Dennis Biddle — Bose Biddle — threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the 51s game against Omaha at Cashman Field.
Biddle pitched two years for the Chicago American Giants toward the end of Negro League baseball, in the 1950s. He was just 17 when he made his debut, the youngest player to pitch in the Negro Leagues.
The first thing I asked was if he had known Double Duty Radcliffe. Know him? Bose Biddle chuckled deeply. Double Duty was his catcher with the American Giants. “He must have been 50 years old when he caught my game,” he said.
The second and third things I asked: Was it true that Josh Gibson once hit a ball through the pitcher’s legs that sailed over the center field fence for a home run, and did Cool Papa Bell hit a line drive past Satchel Paige’s ear, and did the ball really hit Cool Papa in the (posterior) as he was sliding into second base?
Mr. Biddle laughed again. He tapped me on the knee. You’ve got to remember the colorful Negro League ballplayers told a lot of colorful stories, he said.
Dennis Biddle is 80 years old, sharper than Clayton Kershaw on four days’ rest. His son, also named Dennis, had set up a table on the concourse onto which were placed some of his father’s baseball cards, a book he had written, a bunch of Chicago American Giants ballcaps like the one his dad was wearing down on the field and a beautiful black lambskin jacket featuring the logos of the Negro League teams.
All of these items were for sale. In 2001, Dennis L. Biddle formed Yesterday’s Negro League Baseball Player Co., hoping to supplement the meager incomes of former Negro League ballplayers not covered by Major League Baseball’s pension stipend.
He said his dad would be glad to chat about the charity after he threw out the first pitch.
I figured it would take an 80-year-old man until at least the bottom of the first before he made it back up to the concourse. But they had yet to sing the national anthem when Bose Biddle tapped me on the shoulder.
I started to think that story about Cool Papa Bell sliding into second base might be true.
“I have been fighting the major leagues for 24 years,” the former pitcher said of his efforts on behalf of the surviving players — now fewer than 65, he added — who did not play four years in the Negro Leagues to qualify for a monthly $375 pension.
“I got the pension for 27 players. But the way the criteria was set up, most of the men did not qualify under those guidelines. You had to play four years in the Negro Leagues to qualify. We cut it down to three years, and now I’m asking them for one year.”
“If they give us the one year, that would include all the (surviving) players.”
It’s only 18 guys, Bose Biddle said. At least as of Thursday.
He has yet to hear back from new baseball commissioner Rob Manfred.
That’s why he and his son are selling his baseball stuff and other memorabilia, to support those 18 guys. The younger Dennis Biddle said you can go on eBay or Amazon to get it, and that perhaps pretty soon you’ll be able to purchase these Negro League artifacts at Walmart, at least if you live in North Carolina.
But then for the next couple of innings, I just chatted baseball with his father.
I learned that Bose Biddle’s contract had been purchased by the Cubs, and he went to spring training with Ernie Banks in 1955, and he broke his ankle during sliding practice. And that pretty much ended his career.
“I struck out Buck O’Neil once, in the 11th inning of a game in Des Moines, Iowa,” he said, pronouncing the “S” in Des Moines. “He don’t remember that. But he remember everything else.”
It was almost like listening to Leonard “The Rooster” Willoughby and “King” Carl Johnson talk about Smelt Night in that satirical tribute to the Negro Leagues on “Saturday Night Live.”
Dennis Biddle tapped me on the knee again. “I knew Cool Papa Bell. Although I couldn’t call him Cool Papa. He said it was Mr. Bell to me.”
He said he played against Hank Aaron, and a guy named Carl Long, “from Birmin’ham.” Unlike the “S” in Des Moines, the “G” in Birmingham was silent to Negro League ballplayers.
He said Carl Long of the Birmin’ham Black Barons hit a ball off him at old Comiskey Park in Chicago that probably is still going. But Long never played in the big leagues, Bose Biddle said.
“This was during the day when they would only take one (black player). He was leading the league in home runs, but they took Willie McCovey instead of him.
“He became my best friend 40 years later.”
You could almost see Rooster Willoughby pushing King Carl Johnson around the front porch in a wheelchair, reminiscing about Smelt Night, and about playing baseball with troublesome legs.
“He died last year,” Bose Biddle said of his pal Carl Long. “He was my best friend.
“I gave the eulogy at his funeral. It was in Kinston, N.C.”
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at email@example.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski