When the Philadelphia Phillies came to Stoneham in the early 50s to bargain for Dandridge and immediately bring him to the majors, the Giants’ owner rebuffed them. “By the end of his time in Minneapolis, Ray didn’t even want the years he deserved in the major leagues, all he wanted was one at-bat,” says his widow Heneritta, living now in Palm Bay, Florida.
“After he wouldn’t trade him,” Mrs. Dandridge continues, “Ray told Stoneham, ‘I just want to put my foot in the batter’s box. Just bring me up for one day, even for a cup of coffee.’ Stoneham told him no, that he was the best drawing card they had in Minneapolis. Every time Ray would run into Stoneham after he retired, at an All Star game or at some baseball function, he’d ask him the same question: ‘Couldn’t you have given me one at-bat when I was so close?’ He always gave Ray the same answer: ‘We needed you in Minneapolis.’”
Indeed, for his four-year imprisonment here, Dandridge was the fans’ and his teammates’ favorite player, the Millers’ soul and spirit. “He really was the heart of that team,” remembers Tom Briere, the retired longtime sportswriter for the Minneapolis Tribune.
Right up to his death in 1992, Dandridge remained the proud, dignified, and uncomplaining Miller. “Ray didn’t like to talk about it much, but I knew it broke his heart in a way that never really healed,” says his widow. “You really had to know him to understand how bad he got hurt by the way he was treated. I remember one night, it must have been the 1970s, Satchel Paige came to visit, and they stayed up all night talking in the basement. Every time I came down to check on them, I heard the words, ‘Minneapolis, Minneapolis.’”
After leaving baseball, the father of three worked for the rest of his career as a recreation director in Newark, New Jersey, then retired peacefully to be at home with his wife. As fascination with the Negro Leagues grew in the 1980s, he earned extra income by signing autographs at baseball card shows.
In 1988, I went to one of those shows at an Armenian Temple in Brooklyn. I brought along a baseball card of Dandridge from a newly printed set of Negro League stars that showed him with team Veracruz of the integrated Mexican League, where he played in 1947 and 1948 (when Bill Veeck was already on his tail to come north and immediately play for the Cleveland Indians). Though fans weren’t supposed to talk to the players, Dandridge was exchanging kind pleasantries with everybody in line, and as he looked at my card, I asked him if he regretted going to Mexico those years—when he could have signed with Veeck and avoided the nightmare of Horace Stoneham. “No,” he said, through ancient eyes that bore no hint of bitterness. “There was still Jim Crow up there, while in Mexico I could go to any beach or restaurant or hotel with my family that I wanted.”
He signed the card, smiled, and handed it back to me, instead of giving it to the show handlers who were supposed to keep the fans from personal contact. He didn’t mention that he’d also been a national hero in Mexico, that there were political candidates south of the border who actually sought Ray’s endorsement and put his picture on their campaign brochures. Meanwhile back in the states, Bill Veeck was receiving 20,000 obscene letters for signing Larry Doby in his stead.
Close friends knew Ray’s one real goal was always to reach the major leagues. One he confided in was Buck O’Neil, long-time Negro Leaguer and the wonderful presence who finally got the attention he deserved in Ken Burns’ documentary. When it came to not being called up, “Ray was very upset ” he says. “I just wish Ray had been in another team’s farm chain. You had to be in the right place at the right time. Yeah, you had to be on time.”
Unlike August Wilson’s Troy Maxson, who heaped scorn on any player who made it to the majors from the Negro Leagues, especially Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron, Ray seemed to have contempt for only one player the Giants passed over him. “It was that fellow from Jersey City,” Mrs. Dandridge says, referring to Hank Thompson, who was elevated to the majors from a lower New York minor league team.