Dandridge, Ray(mond) Emmitt

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DANDRIDGE, Ray(mond) Emmitt

(b. 31 August 1913 in Richmond, Virginia; d. 12 February 1994 in Melbourne, Florida), National Baseball Hall of Fame third baseman known for his slick fielding and line-drive batting in the Negro Leagues.

Dandridge was the only son of Archie Dandridge, a textile worker and former semiprofessional catcher, and Alberta Thompson Dandridge. He learned to play baseball with makeshift equipment on a weedy field as a young boy. He was ten years old when he and his sisters moved to Buffalo, New York, to live with their mother.

Dandridge attended Buffalo's integrated schools and participated in all sports before dropping out of Public School Twenty-eight after completing the ninth grade. For a while he attended a vocational school part time. At age eighteen he moved back to Richmond and began playing semiprofessional baseball there. A year later the squat five-foot, seven-inch, 170 pounder became a member of the Paramounts, who booked a game with the barnstorming Detroit Stars of the Negro National League (NNL). Dandridge had a good game against the Stars, hitting a home run and impressing the Stars manager Candy Jim Taylor, who offered him a spot on the team. Dandridge was reluctant to join Detroit, but Taylor persisted and Dandridge's father persuaded him to try to make a career in baseball.

Dandridge, known as "Hooks" or "Dandy," joined the Stars for $15 per week in 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, and Taylor was unable to meet the payroll. The manager disbanded the team and sold its bus to raise cash to pay for the players' transportation back home. Dandridge finished the season with the Nashville (Tennessee) Elite Giants. The next year he joined the Newark (New Jersey) Dodgers and remained with them and their successors, the Newark Eagles, for much of his career. His batting average hovered around .350 in NNL play.

Dandridge was regarded as the finest third baseman of the 1930s Negro Leagues, if not of all time. Monte Irvin, his teammate on the Newark Eagles, said of Dandridge, "Once you saw him you'd never forget him because he was short and bowlegged. But he was quick as a cat and if the ball got to him real quick, he would always time it so his throw would just beat you. When he had to hurry it was the same way, the throw would just beat you. He was the best I've ever seen on a swinging bunt. Because he was already short and would come in full speed, take that ball, and toss it underhand and just get you. It was a thing of beauty just to see him come in and flip that ball underhand without even slowing down on it."

Dandridge used an oversized fielder's glove and swallowed ground balls like a vacuum cleaner. He was a clutch hitter who sprayed line drives in every direction. During the 1939 season Dandridge was lured to Latin America by the pleasant rustle of cash. He went first to Venezuela to play for the Caracas Vargas club. After the team won the Venezuelan League championship, Dandridge went to Mexico. He hit .347 to help the Veracruz Diablos take the Mexican title. Dandridge earned about $10,000 per season in baseball-mad Mexico. He received extra money for living expenses, and his first wife, Florence, was provided a maid. Dandridge and his wife had a daughter and two sons.

Mexico had another attraction besides good salaries for Negro Leaguers. African-American players were not segregated and were treated like first-class citizens. However in 1942 Dandridge returned to the United States and the Newark Eagles, joining two other future Hall of Famers—Willie Wells and Larry Doby—in the infield. He batted .370 and led the NNL in hits, runs, and total bases. He was chosen for the annual Negro League All-Star game for the third time that year. He went back to Mexico in 1945 as the playing manager of the Mexico City Reds.

In 1948 Dandridge again came back to the United States to manage the New York Cubans. The next year he was signed by the New York Giants (later the San Francisco Giants), along with the Cubans pitcher Dave Barnhill. Both were assigned to the top Giants farm club, the Minneapolis Millers of the AAA American Association, and were the first African Americans on the team. Dandridge was thirty-six years old and past his baseball prime years, but he hit .362 in the 1949 season.

In 1950 Dandridge was joined on the Millers by the nineteen-year-old Willie Mays, a rising Giants star who had played for the Birmingham Black Barons for two years. Mays was called up to New York late in the 1951 season, leaving Dandridge forlorn in Minneapolis. Despite his disappointment at not joining Mays on the Giants, Dandridge had a fine year, batting .311 in 1950 and leading the league in hits. He was awarded the Silver Ball Award as the American Association's Most Valuable Player. Some sources speculate that Dandridge was not called to New York or sold to another major league club because Giants owner Horace Stoneham thought he was a big drawing card in Minneapolis.

Dandridge hit .324 in 1951, his third season with the Millers. The following year he batted .291, then left Minneapolis for a season in the Pacific Coast League with the Sacramento Solons and Oakland Oaks, both in California. That was his last year in the minors. He spent 1953 as a player-manager of the semiprofessional Bismarck (North Dakota) Bisons before hanging up his spikes for good.

Dandridge went home to Newark and worked for several years as a bartender and manager of a liquor store. He then joined the city's recreation department as a youth worker. Upon his retirement, the city council honored Dandridge with a resolution saluting him for "the immeasurable contribution he made as a pioneer in breaking down racial barriers for the many black athletes who followed in his footsteps." In 1985 a baseball field in Newark's West Side Park was named for him. Dandridge also scouted briefly for the San Francisco Giants.

The culminating honor of Dandridge's lifetime came in 1987, when he was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Dandridge concluded his touching speech after his induction by smiling and asking, "What took you so long?" In his day he had set the standard for third basemen until Brooks Robinson came along in 1955.

Dandridge and his second wife, Henrietta, had no children, and spent their retirement years in Palm Bay, Florida, which named an avenue for him. He died after a seven-year battle with prostate cancer and is buried at Fountain-head Memorial Park in Palm Bay.

The most complete summary of Dandridge's life is in James A. Riley, Dandy, Day, and the Devil (1987), which also has brief biographies of Leon Day and Willie Wells, two other African-American baseball stars. See also James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (1994), and Dick Clark and Larry Lester, The Negro Leagues Book (1994).

Robert W. Peterson