MILWAUKEE, Wisc. — They say baseball is America's pastime, but for Milwaukee resident Dennis Biddle, baseball was known by a different name.
"We didn't have a baseball, so we called it stickball. We didn't have a baseball. We took a sock and stuffed it and that's what we would call a baseball. We cut out a neighbor's tree and make a bat out of it. That was baseball to us," said Biddle, a former Negro League pitcher.
Growing up in Magnolia, Arkansas, Biddle excelled at all sports. At 17-years old, he was ready to accept a scholarship to play football at Grambling. That is until fate and a scout from Chicago intervened.
"Chicago American Giants, asked if I would like to try out for the teams," Biddle said. "And I said, yeah. And I thought it was somebody that was gonna be in my hometown. I'm 17 years old. They said to be in Chicago Tuesday morning, Washington Park diamond number three. That still rings in my ear."
Shortly after, Biddle became the youngest pitcher to take the mound in the Negro Leagues.
"They gave me a start in life," Biddle said. "I learn a lot riding a bus every day with those old living players, those players from the Negro League. Not only did I learn about the life, I learned about what happened in the league that I was now a part of the way before I was born."
Those stories and history included those who swung for the fences while Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. People like James Beckum, a well-known resident of Milwaukee's baseball community and a former Negro League player.
"We weren't playing for the money. We only played on the weekends because everyone had to work. You had to stand and watch the game on foot because they didn't have stands as they do at the ball stadiums now," said Beckum. "You couldn't do that. But the crowd used to be there, and they used to come in and look forward to seeing a good game and that's what it was."
In 2020, Major League Baseball designated the Negro Leagues and Major League. Finally, acknowledging nearly 3,400 athletes from a time that separated baseball's talent.
"We had a young guy on our team who looked like Satchel Paige and we called him Lil' Satch," Beckum said. "When he had two outs and two strikes on a batter, he used to release the pitch and call strike three and walk into the dugout and people loved that."
It's a gesture, Beckum wished some of his fellow teammates were still around to see.
"It would have meant a lot if they could have been in the history books a long time ago," Beckum said. "A lot of guys thought they should have been in there but knew they couldn't because of what was going on. If things had been different back then like they are now you would have seen a lot of great ballplayers in the league. I played with a lot of them."
Back in 1966, Biddle founded Yesterday's Negro League Baseball Foundation to honor and fight for the rights players deserved.
"We had no representation, people will use our name, our like they were making millions and millions of dollars," Biddle said. "None of that money was gone to those old men who played and had nothing. And this disturbing. This is why we organized."
With their eyes always on the future, the YNLBP is working to put baseball back in the Black community.
"We are going to train four-year-olds. Just a few years ago established T-Ball for Cause," Biddle said. "We are going to start training four-year-olds, so by the time they get to the little league they would have known about the game and interests will be there. So, it'll take 10 to 15 years, but it's going to come back. eventually, I hope."
By growing love for the game at a young age, the hope is to help James accomplish a goal he's had since 1966 - for Milwaukee kids to win the Little League World Series.
"I still enjoy it; I enjoy being around good ballplayers," Beckum said. "The thing we've been trying to do is win the Little League World Series. That's one of the goals that we are still fighting one and I'm hoping one day we can do it."
Biddle, Beckum, and the remaining living members of the Negro Leagues may not be as well as Jackie, Ernie Banks, or the late Hank Aaron.
But perhaps they are more important to the game's future because they are still swinging for the fences.
This story was first published by Delaney Brey at TMJ4 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.