Only one Richmond native has been enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
And many, if not most, Richmonders probably have never heard of him.
That’s because Raymond Emmett Dandridge, born in the historic Church Hill neighborhood, never competed in the major leagues. He never got the chance.
As a black player whose career prime came before Jackie Robinson integrated the majors in 1947, Dandridge toiled in the Negro leagues, the intricate, proud network of African-American baseball teams that existed during the era of hardball segregation that ran for roughly 60 years. His story carries deeper resonance this month, which marks both black history and the start of spring training.
Ray Dandridge — nicknamed Hooks and Squat for his stumpy, bowed legs — wasn’t just good. He was great. One of the best third-basemen in baseball history. During his career, particularly with the legendary Newark Eagles of the late 1930s and early ’40s, Dandridge forever etched his name, however hidden, in baseball’s annals.
Dandridge’s trademarks were an unquenchable competitive fire, a slashing style with a bat and an almost unparalleled mastery with a glove at the hot corner.
“Dandridge was one of the best-fielding third baseman ever,” says Kent State University professor, researcher and author Leslie Heaphy. “Smooth and quick, he could get to anything and make it look easy. Most people also don’t realize or remember he was also a steady .300-plus hitter. He did not hit for power but consistency.
“He played hard and always wanted to win.”
Multiethnic, historic, culture-rich Church Hill carries the most pride for a Richmond native son whose name is scarcely known elsewhere in the city.
“It speaks to the area’s long, diverse history that the only player from this city [in the Baseball Hall of Fame] is a black man from Church Hill who made his name playing outside the mainstream,” says John Murden, editor of the Church Hill People’s News, a neighborhood online news site. “The area has been home to a strong African-American community for generations. Dandridge’s story is a connection to an earlier time, but one still reflected in the tight community in the East End.”
Church Hill’s most famous black native was profoundly influenced by Dandridge.
Trailblazing former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder said in a 1982 oral history recorded by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Cabell Library that when Dandridge and his baseball peers returned home during the off-season, he and other neighborhood youth looked up to them like heroes. “To hear them speak of the Josh Gibsons, the Satchel Paiges on a firsthand basis was too much for my young heart to handle,” Wilder said.
Dandridge likely was a descendant of slaves in Goochland County, but by the time he was born in 1913 to Archie Dandridge and the former Alberta Thompson, his family had lived in Richmond for decades. Many of his relatives labored in the local tobacco factories.
By the 1920 U.S. Census, Alberta and Archie — a day laborer — and their four children were living on 31st Street. At age 6, Ray was the youngest of the household and attended George Mason Elementary School. He also was an avid athlete.
“I used to fool around with baseball, boxing, football,” Dandridge told author John Holway. “I even went to the Golden Gloves. But I hurt my leg playing football and my father made me stop it, and I’ve always been thankful to him for that, because I played pro baseball for 25 years after that.”
After a short move to Buffalo, N.Y., Dandridge and his family returned to Richmond, and the youngster’s hardball aptitude blossomed. He eventually played for a slew of segregated sandlot and semipro teams.
“Back then, I played for all the Church Hill teams — the Paramounts, All-Stars, such names as that,” Dandridge told Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Claudia Perry in 1987.
In 1933, Dandridge’s talent no longer could be ignored by the national Negro League powers-that-be, and he hitched on with the Detroit Stars. So began a lengthy and storied career.
But by the time Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Dandridge was long past his prime. While he starred for several minor-league teams from 1949 to ’55, he was too old for a true shot at the show — major league baseball.
Dandridge, along with hundreds of his Negro leagues peers, faded into obscurity until the early 1970s, when research into pre-integration black baseball bloomed and Negro leaguers began to be inducted in the Hall of Fame. Dandridge’s time finally came in 1987, when he was enshrined in Cooperstown’s hallowed New York halls.
That was nearly 27 years ago. Despite his presence in the Hall of Fame, Dandridge’s baseball legacy remains understated, even by his descendants.
In a brief conversation with Dandridge’s daughter, Delores, she seemed surprised that a journalist wanted to talk about her father’s legacy. But she did say that decades after he left Richmond, he continued to speak of his old stomping grounds with great fondness.
Ray Dandridge loved where he came from to the day he died in 1994. Is that devotion reciprocated?
“I’m afraid that the city doesn’t give Mr. Dandridge the recognition that he deserves,” Church Hill People’s News’ Murden says. “He falls into a historical hole and hasn’t been trumpeted enough since to make his name properly known.” S
Ryan Whirty is a freelance journalist and researcher who specializes in the Negro leagues and other African-American sports history.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.