June 2, 2006

Brewers' first Negro Leagues Tribute

A tribute for the pioneers
Negro League players honored in ceremony
Posted: June 2, 2006

Rickie Weeks, Prince Fielder and Bill Hall represent the future of the Milwaukee Brewers.

Buck O'Neil, James Jake Sanders and Dennis Biddle represent baseball's past.

So it was both symbolic and poignant that, in pregame ceremonies before Milwaukee's game Friday night, the young Brewers expressed their appreciation of the three Negro League veterans with hugs and handshakes behind home plate.

Friday night was the Brewers' first Negro Leagues Tribute, an event they plan to stage each season. This year, the Brewers brought in Buck O'Neil, still active at 94; James Jake Sanders, 73; and Dennis Biddle, 70, of Milwaukee as the first honorees.

The names of all three were placed on the Miller Park Wall of Honor.

On the field, the Brewers sported reproductions of uniforms worn by the Milwaukee Bears, a team that played in the Negro National League in 1923, while the Washington Nationals wore uniforms of the Negro National League's Homestead Grays. That team played in Washington from 1937-'48.

The three Negro Leaguers all have résumés from the Negro Leagues era, especially O'Neil, who had a long and prosperous career with the old Kansas City Monarchs. In 1962, he became the first African-American coach in the major leagues when he was with the Chicago Cubs.

Sanders played in 1956 for the Detroit / New Orleans Stars, played briefly in the Dodgers farm system in 1957 and later returned to the Kansas City Monarchs through the 1958 season.

Biddle, whose playing career is a source of some debate among former Negro Leaguers, historians and baseball fans, said he played for the Chicago American Giants in 1953 and 1954. Since leaving baseball, Biddle was a social worker in the Milwaukee area for 24 years and is the president of Yesterday's Negro League Baseball Player Foundation. That group, Biddle said, is dedicated to providing benefits to players who played in the Negro Leagues and to keep the history of the league alive.

During a brief news conference before the game, the three veterans said they were in favor of more pension benefits to the estimated 120 to 150 Negro Leaguers still alive. Until 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier for the Brooklyn Dodgers, black ballplayers couldn't play in the major leagues.

During the 1990s, baseball made some effort to provide money and medical coverage to players who had played before 1948. But others, like Sanders, did not receive money or benefits.

"I'm still trying today," Sanders said. "I say they could do more."

O'Neil, who chairs the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum board of directors and serves on the Veterans Committee of Baseball's Hall of Fame, promised to help Sanders.

O'Neil also recalled his playing days, and the ballplayers with whom he played. The Negro Leagues, organized in 1920, was the third largest black business in the country in its heyday, he said.

"Many of them were college men," O'Neil said.

And for O'Neil, the money was good even if the times were tough.

"We made so much money my wife thought I was stealing," he said.

Biddle said there was plenty of good talent in the Negro Leagues.

"The Negro League was a black major league," he said. "There were two leagues. One black and one white."

O'Neil said the Negro Leaguers wanted to prove they could play with the best in the major leagues.

"We wanted to prove to the world that they weren't superior because they were major leaguers, and we weren't inferior because we were Negro Leaguers," O'Neil said.

In future years, the Brewers' honorees will be inducted into the Yesterday's Negro League Hall of Fame at Milwaukee's Holy Redeemer Church. The Brewers also are planning a permanent Negro Leagues display at Miller Park.