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.
July 5, 1987
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."
Dandridge is believed to have averaged .355 during his 11 seasons in the Negro leagues—and enjoyed himself doing it. "We didn't make any money, but we had fun," he says. "We'd stay in rooming houses, though sometimes we didn't see a bed for days. Riding the buses, hanging our sweatshirts out the window to dry for the next day's three games, singing—we used to have quartets. We'd challenge each other as we went down the road. And when we'd meet another team we'd have wrestling matches. We'd go over to their clubhouse and say, 'We've got the strongest man.' "
Sometimes Dandridge's cockiness caught up with him. In 1936 Newark played a doubleheader against Satchel Paige's Pittsburgh Crawfords, and of that day Dandridge recalls, "We beat the Crawfords in the first game. Satchel was scheduled to pitch the second game. In the clubhouse, me and Wells climbed up on some stools so we could see over the partition that separated the two teams. We stood on those stools ribbing Satchel. We said, 'C'mon, you next. We're going to get you.' We didn't know if Satchel was mad or not. The game began, and he was throwing the ball like it could go through a wall. When I got to the plate, the first pitch was under my chin. I got a hit on the next one."
But by 1940 the hardscrabble life and meager salary had gotten him down, and when Pasquel offered him $350 a month to play in Mexico, Dandridge—along with Wells and Hall of Fame catcher Josh Gibson—headed south of the border. Though Dandridge had been spending his winters playing in the tropics since the mid-'30s, at first he was homesick in Mexico. Still, anywhere there were fastballs to hit couldn't be too bad. "I played to hit good pitchers," says Dandridge, who faced the likes of Whitey Ford, Max Lanier and Dizzy Dean over the course of his career. "I never had trouble with any of them. That's what I played baseball for."
Dandridge still has the trophy inscribed HE CAME, HE CONQUERED, which was awarded him in 1948 for setting a league record by hitting in 32 consecutive games. Dandridge became a hero in Mexico. "I was well known," the modest Dandridge concedes. "They treated you like an angel."
Over the course of eight seasons in Mexico, Dandridge hit .331, but he was better known—and still is—for his play in the field. He used five different throwing styles, depending upon the situation, and perfected the skill of throwing a man out from his knees after a diving stop. He also had a lightning-quick release, because, as he says, "Once I got that ball it was too hot to handle."
In 1947 Cleveland Indian owner Bill Veeck offered Dandridge a chance to play in the organization and perhaps become the first black to play in the majors. It was a tempting offer, but Dandridge didn't want to uproot his wife, Florence, and three children from Mexico City. Besides, Pasquel had always been good to him. Dandridge was making $10,000 a season in Mexico City plus all living expenses, including a maid.
In 1948 Pasquel was killed in an airplane crash, and the next season Dandridge left Mexico City to become manager of the Negro leagues' New York Cubans. Later that summer he was told the Giants needed a second baseman for the Millers, their top farm team, and that they would like to look at him. So much for managing. "The only thing I was playing for was the majors," he says. "I just wanted to stay there for a week. Just to put my foot in."
So Dandridge and fellow New York Cuban Barnhill promptly departed for Minneapolis. Says Dandridge, "We got off the plane and they took us to the ballpark. We went and sat on the bench. Mickey McDermott had struck out about 19 guys, and [manager] Tommy Heath looked back at me and said, 'Ray, when was the last time you played?' I said, 'Yesterday in Petersburg, Virginia.' He said, 'Think you can hit him?' I said, 'That's why you brought me up here.' I knew what to expect. McDermott wanted to see if I was scared. I hit the dirt on the first pitch. I hit the next one on a line drive straight back at him. He threw at my head, I hit at his."
That rookie season the 36-year-old Dandridge missed winning the American Association batting title by two points. During the 1950 season the Giants again failed to call him up, and Dandridge had to console himself with the silver ball awarded to the American Association MVP. That winter he played in Cuba with a 20-year-old outfielder from Alabama named Willie Mays.
Mays joined Dandridge in Minneapolis in 1951, and the two became roommates. "I used to help Mays. We'd go out to the outfield and I'd show him how to throw low. But no way we changed his style of hitting," says Dandridge with the giggle that peppers his conversation.
Mays was hitting .477 when the Millers traveled to Sioux City for a night exhibition game against another Giant farm team. As was their custom, Mays and Dandridge settled into a couple of seats at the local movie house, preparing to while away the afternoon. Says Dandridge, "On the screen they printed WILLIE MAYS WANTED AT THE BOX OFFICE. Mays goes out to the lobby, comes back and tells me he has to go to the hotel. I said, 'You go. I'll watch the rest of the picture.' When I got to the clubhouse, I said, 'Hey Skip, where's Mays?' He said, 'On a plane going to New York.' I had to go pack up his stuff and send it to him. I felt glad for him. I said, "Maybe I'll be next.' "
But Dandridge would never get the call. He closed out his third season with the Millers by hitting .324 at age 38. He was old enough to be the father of many ballplayers, and indeed his frank, kindly demeanor had a paternal effect. He didn't make it to the majors, but the advice he gave younger blacks like Mays, Irvin and Cleveland Indian outfielder Larry Doby—who broke the American League color line—played an important, if subtle, role in the integration of the sport.
Dandridge played for one more year in Minneapolis, a season with both Sacramento and Oakland, and then one season more in Bismarck, N.Dak., where, at 41, he hit .360 before hanging up his glove. He moved back to Newark, tended bar and worked with youngsters in a recreation center before his retirement to Florida.
Today he says, "Being elected to the Hall of Fame doesn't make me less bitter. I wanted so much to make the majors. It still presses my mind. The Hall of Fame is the greatest honor a player can receive, and I'm thankful they honored me. But I never made no money and I'm just surviving. Some of the worst players today make more money in a year than I did in my whole career."
Dandridge gets up and walks over to a wall cluttered with photographs and clips. He looks at himself standing beside a towering Josh Gibson in Mexico, smiling with Willie Mays in Cuba and accepting the batting-streak trophy.
The deft hands unconsciously lapse into a throwing motion as he gazes at headlines announcing his election to the Hall of Fame. "I think about it a whole lot," he says finally. "Sometimes I dream that I was a star. Oh, funny dreams. I dream what it would be like if I made the majors."
He pauses and stares at the photographs. He says, "I used to say I came out of the cornfields into organized baseball. Now I can say I came from the cornfields to the Hall of Fame."