- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
To Henrietta Dandridge, March 3, 1987, seemed like any other quiet Tuesday in Palm Bay, Fla. Then the telephone rang. Henrietta's husband answered it and began behaving strangely. He was usually a mild-mannered sort, but now Ray Dandridge's voice grew harsh as he insisted to his caller that he would not be made victim of a prank. Finally he quieted, said thank you more than once and hung up. Then he began to cry.
Henrietta, who had never before seen her 73-year-old husband weep, thought he had suffered a stroke. "When he came to me he was shaking," she recalls. "There were tears in his eyes. I was scared to death." She needn't have been. Her husband, possibly the greatest third baseman ever, finally composed himself enough to say, "I've just been elected to the Hall of Fame."
Ray Dandridge had assumed that Cooperstown had forgotten him. He was wrong. To forget someone, you first have to know him, and it was Ray Dandridge's fate to play in a time—and in places—unfamiliar to many Hall of Fame electors. He belonged to the generation of black professional players that had its prime before Jackie Robinson integrated baseball. Dandridge starred in the Negro leagues and played for 16 years on teams in Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo and Cuba before he and pitcher Dave Barnhill broke the American Association color line in 1949 when, at age 36, he hit .362 for the Minneapolis Millers, the New York Giants AAA farm team. That was the closest Dandridge ever got to the major leagues. "Too old," said some. "Too many," whispered others, observing that the Giants already had three black players (Monte Irvin, Hank Thompson and Artie Wilson) on their roster.
But those who played with Dandridge agree with former Negro leaguer and Brooklyn Dodger Roy Campanella, who says Dandridge was "better than any third baseman I've ever seen." Says Hall of Famer Cool Papa Bell, "He could do everything." Baseball historian James A. Riley writes in his forthcoming biography, Dandy, Day and the Devil, "Ray could field like Brooks Robinson and hit like George Kell." In a poll Riley conducted of 66 players, historians and sportswriters to determine the alltime Negro league All-Star team, Dandridge was voted the third baseman by a 3-to-1 margin over Judy Johnson.
Everywhere Dandridge played, the 5'7", 175-pounder with the bandy legs and blocky torso became a favorite. Jorge Pasquel, owner of the Veracruz team and president of the Mexican League, once sent a Mexican army patrol to stop a train that Dandridge was taking out of the country; Pasquel wanted to offer him a big raise to keep him in the league. Dandridge had a .362 rookie season with the Millers, and during his four-year tenure with the team, Giant owner Horace Stoneham refused to bring him to New York or sell him to another major league team, supposedly because he was so popular in Minnesota. "He was their drawing card the way Babe Ruth was for the Yankees," says Judy Johnson, who, as a scout for the Philadelphia Athletics, tried unsuccessfully to buy Dandridge from the Giants organization.
Although Dandridge's lifetime batting average is .340 and although it was said that a train would stand a better chance of going through his legs than a baseball, he never realized his dream of playing in the majors. But on July 26 his dream of being inducted into the Hall of Fame will finally be realized. His election was long overdue. In 1971, when a special committee was appointed to begin selecting former Negro leaguers for the Hall of Fame, Dandridge was among the top five vote recipients. Satchel Paige received the most votes and was inducted that year. Yet for the next 17 elections, as nine other Negro leaguers, including Judy Johnson, were chosen by the special committee and, after 1979, by the veterans committee, Dandridge's telephone remained silent.
Meanwhile, in 1984, Dandridge, having sold the house in Newark he had bought with the bonus money Pasquel had given him when he signed with Veracruz in 1940, moved to Palm Bay. There he spent his days tending his rosebushes, eating Henrietta's pecan cakes, fretting that each month would outlast his Social Security check, taking in local college baseball games and trying not to feel bitter about the sport he loved.
Dandridge's odyssey began in the late '20s in the cornfields that lay within the city limits of Richmond, Va. "We used to play in the cornfields," he remembers. "First you would rake up a field. We couldn't afford a bat, so we'd break a limb off a tree, take a golf ball, wrap it in string and cover it with black tape." When he was still in grade school Dandridge spent several years living in Buffalo with his mother. But he went back to his father's house in Richmond when he was 18. By the next year Dandridge was the captain of the Richmond All-Stars when they played a game against the Negro leagues' Detroit Stars, who were managed by Candy Jim Taylor. After the game—a particularly good one for Dandridge—Taylor asked him to play for Detroit. Dandridge wanted none of it, but when he got back to his father's house, the Stars' team bus was parked in front. Dandridge turned on his heels and hid out in a local poolroom. Late that night he crept home again. The bus was gone. Dandridge's father, Archie, a former semipro catcher, encouraged his son to give the Detroit team a try. "Before we got out of bed the next morning, the bus was back," says Ray. "I threw a few things in a straw bag and took off with them." Years later he would learn that Taylor had given Archie Dandridge $25 to urge his son to join the Stars.
That first season was a blissful one in many ways for Dandridge. Fifteen dollars a week didn't buy much more than bologna sandwiches and soda pop, but baseball did offer a young man a chance to see the country. Moreover, Ray was able to pick up the fine points of the game. "One day on a field in Laurel, Miss., Candy Jim Taylor taught me to hit," Dandridge recalls. "I used to like to hit home runs. He got in the box with a 37-ounce bat and showed me how to hit line drives." That summer of 1933, however, was not a very lucrative one for the Stars. "After the season was over they didn't make enough money to give me transportation home. Candy Jim Taylor had to sell the bus to send his players back home."
The next spring Dandridge joined the Newark Dodgers, and by the end of the decade he was a member of the Negro leagues' Million Dollar Infield. This was the amount it was said that Dandridge, shortstop Willie Wells, second baseman Dick Seay and first baseman Mule Suttles would be worth if they were white. Says Monte Irvin, who also played for Newark, "With Wells and Dandridge, you couldn't shoot a ball through that side of the infield."