One of the greatest fielding third basemen in baseball history, Ray Dandridge rivaled fellow Hall of Famer Judy Johnson as the finest all-around player at the position in Negro League history. Blessed with an outstanding throwing arm, soft hands, and superb reflexes, Dandridge performed brilliantly at the hot corner for almost two decades in black baseball, before finally receiving an opportunity to showcase his skills in the minor league system of the New York Giants. Also an outstanding hitter, Dandridge compiled a .355 lifetime batting average in the Negro Leagues, using the best data available, while posting a mark of .347 in exhibition games played against white major-leaguers over the course of his career.
Beginning of professional career
Born in Richmond, Virginia on August 31, 1913, Raymond Emmitt Dandridge began his athletic career in his teenage years, displaying his wares as a Golden Gloves amateur boxer. Eventually turning his attention to the less violent sport of baseball, Dandridge played the outfield for his hometown sandlot team when it went up against the barnstorming Detroit Stars in 1933. Stars’ manager “Candy” Jim Taylor observed Dandridge’s quickness in the outfield and subsequently made him an offer to join Detroit as an infielder.
Peak years in Negro Leagues
Playing mostly shortstop, Dandridge batted .333 for the Stars in his first professional season, before refusing to return to Detroit the following year due to the financial difficulties that plagued the team. Signing with the Negro National League’s Newark Eagles prior to the start of the 1934 campaign, Dandridge spent the next five years starring at third base alongside outstanding shortstops Dick Lundy and, later, Willie Wells, on the left side of the Eagles’ infield.
Standing only 5’7” and weighing 175 pounds, Dandridge hardly took on the appearance of someone who gradually gained a reputation for playing third base better than anyone else in the game. Someone said that a train could go through his bowlegs, but that a baseball never did. Relaxed, smooth as silk, and possessing a great pair of hands with a velvet touch, Dandridge was a stylist who had the ability to make all the plays, and the versatility to excel at any infield position.
Former Negro League star Monte Irvin claimed, “People would pay their way in to the game just to see him (Dandridge) field.”
Irvin added, “He had the quickest reflexes and the surest hands of any infielder I’ve ever seen. In a season, he had a bad year if he made four errors.”
Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella, who spent several years in the Negro Leagues before joining the Brooklyn Dodgers, said, “I never saw anyone better as a fielder.”
Pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm, who played against Dandridge in Cuba, before later serving with him in the Giants’ minor league system, stated, “No matter how the ball was hit, he always made the throw so that he just did get the man at first.”
Not to be overlooked was Dandridge’s ability as a hitter. Originally a free-swinger who used a very light bat, the third baseman learned to become a contact hitter under the tutelage of Jim Taylor in his first professional season in Detroit. Taylor gave his protégé a heavy bat and instructed him to make contact by attempting to hit the ball to all fields. Dandridge learned his lessons well, hitting for an extremely high batting average throughout his career and rarely striking out.
Speaking of the right-handed hitting Dandridge, Monte Irvin said, “Most of his career, he batted in the number two position because he made real good contact and could hit the ball like a shot to right field on a hit-and-run situation.”
Years in Mexican League
Dandridge posted the highest batting average of his Negro League career in 1935 with a mark of .368. He spent three more years with the Eagles, before opting to play in Mexico for more money beginning in 1939. Dandridge remained in Mexico for nine of the next 10 seasons, returning to Newark for one year in 1944, when he batted .370 for the Eagles, led the NNL in hits, runs scored, and total bases, and finished third in the league in stolen bases. Back in Mexico in 1945, Dandridge set a Mexican League record for hitting safely in the most consecutive games, while also managing his team to a pennant. In nine Mexican League seasons, he compiled a .343 average.
Return to America
Soon after Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Bill Veeck contacted Dandridge about playing with the Cleveland Indians. However, Dandridge refused to leave Mexico without a bonus. After batting a league-leading .369 in 1948, though, the 35-year-old third baseman returned to the States when Alex Pompez, the owner of the New York Cubans and a scout for the Giants, signed him for the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association. Dandridge spent the entire 1949 campaign with the Giants’ Triple-A affiliate, finishing a close second in the batting race with a mark of .363. He captured league MVP honors the following year, when he batted .311 and led Minneapolis to the league championship. Yet, due at least in part to his advanced age, the Giants chose not to promote him to the parent club.
Dandridge spent another five years in the minor leagues, ending his career in 1955 with a batting average of .360 in his final season. Never having received an opportunity to play in the major leagues due to the color of his skin, Dandridge has often been referred to since as “the best third baseman never to make the major leagues.”
After retiring from playing in 1955, Dandridge worked as a scout for the San Francisco Giants and later ran a recreation center in Newark, New Jersey. He lived his final years in Palm Bay, Florida, passing away at the age of 80 on February 12, 1994. He gained admittance to Cooperstown via the Veterans Committee seven years earlier, in 1987. Willie Mays, who received advice and guidance from Dandridge while playing with the veteran third baseman at Minneapolis, expressed his gratitude during the latter’s Hall of Fame induction ceremonies when he said, “Ray Dandridge helped me tremendously when I came through Minneapolis. Sometimes you just can’t overlook those things. Ray was a part of me when I was coming along.”