Stranded On Third

For reasons unknown outside Stoneham’s pickled brain, while proud and amiable Ray excelled as a Miller, ex-Negro Leaguer Thompson, the baddest ass in baseball (and not a very good player, either) could do no wrong as a Giant. In the late forties, Thompson shot a man dead in a bar, then left for Giants spring training. “I killed a man, and the next day I was playing ball like nothing had happened,” he later said.

“With the help of the Giants, the murder charge against Thompson was dismissed, the killing ruled a justifiable homicide,” writes Dan Gutman in Baseball Babylon. His troubles continued and his batting average continued to drop; Thompson became a playing alcoholic. In time, he was arrested for armed robbery, assault, and carrying a concealed weapon. Even after all that, “Horace Stoneham and baseball commissioner Ford Frick pulled some strings, and Thompson was released on probation,” Gutman relates.

Making matters worse, it was conclusively proven that major league teams colluded after Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers to promote only one African American a year, at most. Still, Willie Mays or Monte Irvin sitting in the Giants’ dugout is one thing; Hank Thompson sitting in Ray Dandridge’s seat is perverse. “Some said ‘[Ray] was too old,” according to pre-eminent Negro League historian Larry Lester, “while others whispered, ‘There are too many.’”

Despite being buried alive, Ray only let his anguish out publicly once. “Ray was too proud to let them know they’d hurt him so,” says his widow. “Except for the day they inducted him into the Hall of Fame, in 1987.”

In 1971, the men who run “organized baseball” and the National Baseball Hall of Fame, under pressure from civil rights groups, began inducting a trickle of Negro League greats. Most, like Dandridge, had never donned a major league uniform. Still, the Hall put the Negro Leaguers’ plaques in a separate gallery from the “real” major leaguers, a not-so-subtle symbol of the back of the bus that you didn’t have to be Rosa Parks to understand.

Finally, after more public outcry that seemed to leave the dithering Commissioner of Baseball at the time, Bowie Kuhn, still clueless as to what all the fuss was about, the Negro Leaguers were able to take their place next to the likes of Babe Ruth (who, incidentally, was routinely heckled by bench jockeys on opposing teams as “Nig,” because of his supposed black physiognomy).

Until 1971, the Negro Leagues had existed virtually unknown to white America, despite the wonderous talents of the likes of James “Cool Papa” Bell, who stole so many bases he was called “the black Ty Cobb”; Josh Gibson, whose power led to his knighting as “the black Babe Ruth”; and Hooks Dandridge, whose comically bowed legs, it was said, made it possible for any train to pass beneath him, but no ground balls.

To whites, the only well-known Negro Leaguer was the peerless, ageless Satchel Paige. Paige was the first African American elected to the Hall of Fame for his work in the Negro Leagues. Seventeen years later, Dandridge finally got the same call. “Ray was in failing health,” says Mrs. Dandridge, “and I remember him holding his plaque and reading it in the seconds before he gave his speech.”

His plaque begins, “Raymond Emmett Dandridge, Negro and Mexican Leagues, 1933-1948. Flashy but smooth third baseman defensively, a brilliant fielder with powerful arm, offensively a spray hitter with outstanding bat control…”

The only hint of what should have been comes in the last phrase of the nine-line write-up: “American Association MVP in 1950 playing for Minneapolis Millers.”

“Ray politely thanked the Hall of Fame for letting him in while he was still alive,” Mrs. Dandridge remembers. “I recall him saying, ‘Thank you for letting me smell the roses.’ And then he paused and said, ‘But did you have to wait so long?’”

Was he talking about the Hall letting him in after so many years? “Yes,” says Mrs. Dandridge. And then she pauses. “But he was talking more about Minneapolis.”

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