An Interview With Walter Dean Myers About The Journal of Biddy Owens
Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D.: You mention that few people remember the old Negro Leagues and that records that do exist are scant and often inaccurate. Would you tell us about the research you did in preparation for writing The Journal of Biddy Owens? Did you have the opportunity to interview any of the former members of the Negro Leagues?
Walter Dean Myers: The most difficult part of the research for Biddy Owens was putting together a schedule for 1948. To do this, I researched black newspapers of the period for accounts of games and schedules. One of the most interesting aspects of the Negro Leagues was the flexibility of the schedules. Teams, such as Biddy's Birmingham Black Barons, played against other teams in their league, but also maintained a busy schedule of exhibition games. These games helped to support the teams, but also resulted in as many as three games in a single day.
I knew that many great ball players were banned from the major leagues simply because of their race. But listening to taped interviews and reading individual stories, I realized what a great time these guys had traveling throughout the country playing the game they loved.
RFA and EST: This is the third journal you've written for the My Name is America series. How was writing this book different from writing the other two?
WDM: I love the journal format. It's very easy for me to imagine day-to-day activities of my characters because I usually plan my own time on a daily basis. This book was somewhat different than the others because I know there are people who will remember the teams, the players, and the places I mention.
RFA and EST: In the About the Author, it states that as a teenager you were "an outstanding outfielder, but couldn't hit for two cents." Is the character of Biddy Owens patterned in any way after you?
WDM: Growing up in Harlem I had the chance to practice with a Negro League team. At fifteen I was over six feet tall and a fair athlete, but my skills didn't come close to some of the players I saw. Biddy's desire to play baseball was completely natural, but like most young men, he soon realized that he didn't have the skills. At my best I wouldn't have made it into the Negro Leagues with their high talent level.
RFA and EST: At the end of his journal, Biddy plans to go to college and says, "I wasn't going to give baseball up, just the dream of being a professional." By having your main character decide on an education, were you perhaps sending to the reader the message that very few athletes make it to the pros and should therefore have a more realistic life goal?
WDM: I saw Biddy as a good ballplayer, but not quite good enough to become a star in the Negro Leagues. His decision to go to college was simply realistic. He wasn't sure about his ability to maintain a professional career and this, along with the uncertain future of the Negro Leagues, made college an excellent choice. While it is true that few athletes make it to a professional level, even fewer have long professional careers.
RFA and EST: The hurtful incidents of prejudice and segregation that Biddy writes about did not end a few short years after 1948. You once told us about an event in your own life that echoed Biddy's experiences. Would you tell us about going to play basketball at the College of William and Mary?
WDM: Like the Negro League players, I traveled through the segregated south as a young man. Because I was black, I was denied service at many restaurants and could only drink from water fountains marked "Colored." When I went to the movies I would have to sit in the Colored balcony. I remember one time being told I could not play in a basketball game at the College of William and Mary because I was black, even though I was playing with a United States Army team.
I wonder if young people can understand how I would feel more hurt than angry or, when the team traveled through the south, I would often elect not to go with them?
RFA and EST: If you could ask young readers of Biddy's journal one question after they finished reading your book, what would that question be?
WDM: What I found fascinating was just how quickly the best of the young Negro League players were drafted into the major leagues once Branch Rickey broke the color line by hiring Jackie Robinson. It was clear that all of the major league owners already knew the talents of the black ballplayers that they had refused to let into their league. There was no written policy that forbid these owners to hire African American players, only a "gentleman's agreement." Do you think that other "gentleman's agreements" might exist today which bar people from sports or other professions because of race, gender, or other factors?