Stranded On Third

Troy Maxson: We had better pitching in the Negro League. I hit seven home runs off of Satchel Paige! You can’t get no better than that!

Rose (his wife): Times have changed since you played baseball, Troy. That was before the war. They got a lot of colored baseball players now. Jackie Robinson was the first. Folks had to wait.

Bono (Troy’s friend): Troy just come along too early.

Troy: I done seen a hundred niggers play baseball better than Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson wasn’t nobody. I’m talking about if you play ball, they ought to have let you play. Don’t care what color you were. Come telling me I come along too early. (Troy takes a long drink from the bottle.)

—“Fences,” Act 1, by August Wilson

Ray “Hooks” Dandridge, the greatest third baseman in baseball history, didn’t come along too early. He came along right on time, via Troy Maxson’s Negro League, to show all of white America what becomes a legend most: a starring role in The Show. Ballplayers were already calling the major leagues The Show when the New York Giants signed him in 1949, and sent him to their best team in the minors, the Minneapolis Millers, for what everyone thought would be a brief tune-up.

Shortly, Hooks would no doubt be in the majors for keeps, his specialty hoovering up impossible-to-reach grounders in front of the teeming masses at Manhattan’s Polo Grounds.

Scouts predicted that Dandridge, who convinced the Giants he was 29 though he was 35 and simply in great shape, would dazzle for at least several years with an array of tricks worthy of a baseball Houdini. His most famous antic was to psyche batters by holding onto their groundballs just long enough to let them try to frenetically hustle out a hit—only to arrive at first base a maddening split-second after Dandridge’s throw. A team leader wherever he played, he could also hit for power and batting average.

Dandridge didn’t mind when he was asked to make a whistle-stop in Minneapolis on his way to the Polo Grounds; after all, even the Brooklyn Dodgers had sent Jackie Robinson to the bush leagues for a year before bringing him up to Ebbets Field in 1947 to integrate America’s so-called National Pastime.

But in 1949, when the “color line” had supposedly been broken and Dandridge arrived in Minneapolis, something horrific began happening to the 5’7” slugger. It was a tragedy that author Daniel Okrent (famous as the recurring “man in the red sweater” in Ken Burns’ interminable history of baseball) calls “the saddest of the Negro League stories.”

Somehow, Dandridge’s putative layover here became a sentence of life without parole; the Millers’ bandbox stadium on 32nd and Nicollet his inescapable Devil’s Island. For the last four useful years of his career, as forgettable players black and white, passed through Minneapolis on their way to the Giants, Dandridge—one rung away—was never promoted to the big time.

It didn’t matter that during those years in Minneapolis he posted the prodigious statistics everyone had expected, that he thrilled fans with his vaunted fielding and batting talents, that he was named the American Association’s Rookie of the Year, and its Most Valuable Player, and that he led Minneapolis to the league championship. It didn’t matter what authorities like Monte Irvin thought. “I’ve seen every third baseman, including Brooks Robinson and Graig Nettles,” says Irvin, a Hall of Famer who was Dandridge’s teammate for one season on the Millers, and a longtime executive in the baseball commissioner’s office. “And Ray was the best ever.”

None of it ever mattered, even when Irvin begged the Giants to bring his mentor up, believing to this day that they would have won the pennant in 1950 had they listened to his pleas. Dandridge would still have to ask a friend to be put on the guest list to see a game at the Polo Grounds.

Ray Dandridge didn’t get his shot for a combination of pathetic reasons including institutionalized racism in baseball that made the symbol of Jackie Robinson’s integration a joke; parochialism in Minneapolis over a popular gate attraction; and Horace Stoneham, the degenerate alcoholic and seemingly insane owner of the New York Giants who refused to either bring Dandridge up, or trade him to a team that would, where Ray could show him up.

Cleveland Indians czar Bill Veeck, father of St. Paul Saints co-owner Mike Veeck, twice tried to sign Dandridge after he’d fled the Negro Leagues. He never succeeded. “Horace Stoneham has only two occupations in life,” the late Veeck wrote in his autobiography. “He owns the Giants and he drinks….he has nothing else going for him.”

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