As a member of the Newark Eagles in 1937, Ray Dandridge was part of what was known as the "Million Dollar Infield." Had he come into baseball in a different era, the million-dollar label could have easily been used to describe his salary, not just his skill set.
Instead, the man inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987 is known as one of the greatest players to come out of the Negro Leagues and into Minor League Baseball, yet never to don a Major League uniform.
"As the saying goes -- There's a time to live and a time to die, but it is also very important to be in the right place at the right time. It's called good timing," wrote Hall of Famer Monte Irvin in the introduction to the book Dandy, Day and the Devil, a publication about Dandridge, Leon Day and Willie Wells. "If that had happened to Ray Dandridge, Leon Day and Willie Wells, how different their lives would have been."
Irvin, who played with Dandridge in Newark in 1938, said watching Dandridge play third base was worth the price of admission. Roy Campanella thought he was the best defensive player he'd ever seen. The running joke was that a train could fit through Dandridge's bowlegs, but a baseball never did.
That's not to say the man couldn't hit. While playing in the Negro National League, he unofficially posted a career .355 average as a line-drive hitter who rarely struck out. The Newark Eagles built the team around Dandridge, who joined the team in 1934 at age 20. In 1937, that "Million Dollar Infield" included shortstop Wells -- inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997 -- second baseman Dick Seay and slugging first baseman Mule Suttles. They finished in second place behind the Homestead Grays that year.
The man known as "Dandy," "Hooks" or "Squatty" left the Negro Leagues for the greener (read: greater salary) of the Mexican League in 1940. He lived like a king in Mexico and continued to do what he did best -- hit line drives on offense and catch everything hit in his vicinity at the hot corner -- for most of the decade. In 1948, he set a league record with 32-game hitting streak. He's been enshrined in the Mexican Hall of Fame for his efforts.
In between, he came back to the Eagles. He hit .369 in 1944 and was named to his third East-West All-Star Game. Homestead owner Cum Posey named Dandridge to his all-time all-star team that season, claiming "there was never a smoother functioning master at third base than Dandridge, and he can hit that apple, too."
Rollo Wilson shared in Posey's admiration of Dandridge's skills. The sportswriter who eventually served as commissioner of the Negro National League stated, "As far as I can recall there has been but one real third baseman developed in colored baseball since Judy [Johnson] passed from the game. His name is Ray Dandridge."
At the time Jackie Robinson signed with the Dodgers (1946), Dandridge was already 33 years old. But that didn't keep some Major League clubs from inquiring about Dandridge's services. Bill Veeck talked to the third baseman about signing with the Cleveland Indians, but Dandridge didn't want to leave Mexico without a bonus.
Finally, though, Dandridge joined "Organized Baseball." The New York Giants signed Dandridge in 1949, at age 35. Dandridge became the first black player for the Minnesota Millers in the Triple-A American Association. He and Jim Pendleton of the St. Paul Saints became the first African-Americans to play against the Louisville Colonels in that season. Dandridge hit .363, finishing just five points away from winning the batting title. The following year he was named the American Association MVP. Still, Dandridge got no callup to the Giants. Irvin, who a decade earlier had played in Newark with Dandridge, had integrated the big league Giants with Hank Thompson in July 1949.
So in 1951, Dandridge returned to Minneapolis, where he had developed quite a following. While he had another terrific year at the plate -- he hit .324 while turning 38 -- it's how he helped another player that may have been his biggest contribution to Major League Baseball. A young phenom from Alabama just leaving his teens joined the Millers that season. Dandridge took him under his wing and helped get him ready for a level he would never reach. That prospect? Hall of Famer Willie Mays.
"Ray Dandridge helped me tremendously when I came through Minneapolis," Mays once recalled. "Sometimes you just can't overlook those things. Ray was a part of me when I was coming along."
Dandridge thought he would eventually follow Mays up to New York, that his years of hitting over .300 for the Millers would pay off.
"If Mays went there that quick and the way I been out here a long time, maybe I'll be next," Dandridge recounted in his 1987 Hall of Fame speech. "So, therefore they had a chance to bring me up and some of the ballplayers wanted to come and still they wouldn't sign my contract. The only thing I wanted to do in downtown was just to put one foot into the Major Leagues. If I didn't stay but just one week. After that, I figured that the Giants would bring me up, but they never did."
There may have been several contributing factors to Dandridge not getting that call. Obviously, race may have been an issue, though the Giants had Irvin, Thompson and Mays in the big leagues in 1951. There was Dandridge's advanced age, not having been in the right place at the right time. And, finally, there was his popularity in Minneapolis. Some feel the Giants left him there to help maintain attendance and give Millers fans their favorite player.
Dandridge stayed one more year in the Twin City and hit .291 while turning 39. But he wasn't done. He went west to the Pacific Coast League and the Oakland Oaks before retiring as a player following the 1954 season. He went on to work for a time as a scout, but then, like so many players of his generation, faded into anonymity until his enshrinement in Cooperstown.
"If I had to do it all over again," Dandridge said in his speech. "I think I would do it the same way. I love the game of baseball and I hope that today looked like baseball loved me."