I feel like throwing up: Willie Mays is screaming at me. He’s slammed the brakes on, and his sports car is screeching to a halt, and he is throwing me out. I feel nauseated, even though I’m perfectly aware of the fact that the “Say Hey Kid” of yore has famously turned into the Say Hey Asshole of bitter ex-athletes, and even though I’ve been warned to expect an unsettling, possibly random dressing-down. One just doesn’t expect Mays to go to Defcon Five at the mere mention of Ray “Hooks” Dandridge, his Mr. Chips roommate with the minor league Minneapolis Millers in 1951.
A legend in the Jim Crow Negro Leagues, Dandridge had mentored Mays and several other young black men half a century ago as they tried to make the transition up one notch to the majors and the New York Giants, the last stop after their Minneapolis farm team. Tragically, Dandridge, still worthy then of several good years in the major leagues, would be cheated out of even one at-bat in the big time. Still, he had such an effect on the naïve and yet-unspoiled Mays that Willie showed up at Cooperstown in 1987 when Hooks, by then an ancient pensioner, was finally elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Sadly, few had actually seen Dandridge’s magical work in the field and at the plate with segregated teams—long-forgotten clubs with names like the Nashville Elite Giants and Newark Eagles that had operated in the shadows of American sport since the early 1900s. “Ray Dandridge helped me tremendously when I came through Minneapolis,” Mays said the day Ray was inducted, uncharacteristically charitable for a superstar never known to speak kindly about other players. “You just can’t overlook those things. Ray was a part of me.”
Years later, Mays drives his Porsche with “SAY HEY” vanity license plates through Scottsdale, Arizona, from the San Francisco Giants training camp, where he shows up each spring as a promotional gimmick. This reporter innocently opines, “Too bad the Giants never brought Ray up to the majors, huh? After four years starring in Minneapolis you’d think…”
Mays slams on the brakes. “You saying it’s the Giants fault?” he begins yelling. “You see what it says here on my chest?” He points to the team’s name on the uniform he’s still wearing. “What kind of trouble are you trying to make for me?”
“None, I mean, you saw how great Ray was…”
“You saying it’s my fault Mr. Stoneham never called him up?” Mays harangues, his tires screeching to a stop. “Get out! I’ve changed my mind, I don’t want you around here!”
Though he was only berating a shlumpy reporter, it was a sentiment the late Horace Stoneham, owner of the late New York Giants, might as well have communicated to the great Ray Dandridge, languishing 50 years ago in Minneapolis.