One of the Best Players You Never Knew, By Jerry Izenberg


HENDERSON, NV—When I was a kid in Newark, Memorial Day was always an afternoon of doubleheaders, whether it was the Giants or the Dodgers or the Yankees or, closer to the neighborhood, the Triple-A Newark Bears against the Jersey City Giants. That was the world of baseball as most Americans knew it.

But there was another team in Newark called the Newark Eagles. They played in the Negro National League and their Memorial Day went like this…a rickety bus ride…an afternoon non-league doubleheader in Atlantic City… a twi-nighter in Philly…a long bus ride home.

They played the same games as the professional teams of white America. They could hit, they could throw, they could run, but the weight of a strange American social retardation dictated that men of color had no rightful place between the left and right field foul lines in what was surely misnamed as ``organized baseball’’.

That left major league baseball whiter than the snowfall in a Grandma Moses painting. And so those, thus exiled, were forced into a life of total transience as nomads of the open road. Ironically, once their league season was completed through the soft, warm Caribbean to Cuba and Puerto Rico, then swung through Mexico and Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. Nobody made mention of their skin color. They became local heroes during each stay.

It took decades before the stupidity of that ban was wiped out…decades in which white America was cheated out of seeing Josh Gibson, one of best power hitters who ever lived, drive a fair ball clean out of Yankee Stadium. Nobody else ever did--not Ruth and not Mantle. It never got see ``Double Duty’’ Radcliffe, pitch the first game and catch the second game of a doubleheader. It never knew the grace of Willie Wells at shortstop or the fierce competitiveness of a brilliant pitcher named Leon Day. All of them committed the sin of being born too soon for a socially retarded baseball hierarchy.

So now we have passed Memorial Day, one of baseball’s traditional bookmarks. So let me tell you about a man named Ray Dandridge, of whom I am sure you never heard.

Monte Irvin and Larry Doby, Hall of Famers who placed first in black baseball and later in the major leagues, each told me Ray Dandridge was the greatest third baseman who ever lived. As a kid I saw him play with the Newark Eagles, as part of what Afro-American history was and is still known as `the million dollar infield.’

He played the game here in the US and in Cuba and Venezuela and Mexico—but never in the all-white major leagues. In Cuba, baseball fans called him El Diablo and a Cuban baseball writer summed it up like this:

``He is so bowlegged you could pass a freight train between his knees—but never a ground ball.’’

His baseball odyssey began in the Negro National League and although he later earned a consensus reputation as the player of the year at the Giants triple-A farm in Minneapolis, he was still denied a major league shot because of baseball’s unwritten gentleman’s quota agreement. The Giants already had their three black men.

He played his last game in Bismarck, North Dakota at age 41 and hit .364 as a playing manager. Disgusted and still very much a ball player he said the hell with it and retired after that season.

The first time anyone from all-white baseball noticed him, he was playing third base for Vera Cruz in Mexico City, where he had become a star. At that time, a man named Jorge Pascal was raiding the major leagues, with suitcases filled with money, trying to induce established stars to jump to his Mexican League.

One of them was an all-star pitcher from the Cardinals named Max Lanier. On opening day, the squat, bow legged Dandridge hit a Lanier fast ball halfway to Honduras. The next time at he hit another just as far.

In between innings Lanier walked over to him and said:

``Who the hell are you? I never heard of you. I never even heard of any of you colored guys down here. Where in hell did you come from?’’

``We all been here, man. We been here for a whole year just waitin’ for some of you to come down so we could do a little rasslin’.’’

And then he flashed Lanier an aurora borealis of a smile.

When he was 59, I interviewed him after he took a job as a recreation director in Newark. He had hit .324 in Triple-A, and won a golden glove and an MVP award. His lifetime average after 17 years in baseball was .365.

``I got this job now, ‘’ he said. “I like being with these kids, so sometimes I try to push that other stuff out of my mind, but hell, I was born to hit against anyone white, black or Chinese…yeah. I won’t lie to you. I still wish I had the chance.

And the saddest memory of all is that his story is hardly unique. Baseball’s power structure was responsible for creating an army of unknown soldiers.

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