Before there was a beautiful downtown stadium and before the Humphrey Dome and before Met Stadium, there was a great ballpark at 31st and Nicollet called the Nicollet Base Ball Park.
By 1951 when I was going to ballgames the grand old structure stood in faded glory. Former Minneapolis Tribune sportswriter Dave Mona described it as “soggy, foul, rotten and thoroughly wonderful Nicollet Park.” It had a short right field fence, only 279 feet, 10 inches from home plate, and left-handed pitchers could take a beating. Store windows across Nicollet Avenue got hit as well. They added awnings to protect their plate glass.
In 1935 Babe Ruth made a Nicollet Park appearance in a game between the Minneapolis and St. Paul police teams. Ruth played half a game with each team, and contributed a double in five trips to the plate, according to Stew Thornley in “On to Nicollet.”
I remember a streetcar double header when I saw the Minneapolis Millers play the St. Paul Saints at Nicollet and then I got on a streetcar and went to St. Paul and saw a second game at their Lexington field, which I didn’t think was nearly as impressive or grand as our own.
My favorite player, just about everybody’s favorite player, was Ray “Dandy” Dandridge. He was short and built low to the ground. The first black player hired by the Millers. I still remember his effortless grace in fielding a hard-hit grounder and throwing out the batter at first. He seemed to dance across the infield. In 1950 he had a .311 batting average with 106 runs scored and 80 batted in and earned the league’s Most Valuable Player award.
The Millers were a New York Giants’ farm club, and everyone thought he’d be called up to play in the major leagues, but in 1951 the Millers added a new kid in center field who brought a whole new energy to the game, the “Say Hey Kid”-Willie Mays.
Everyone had great hopes for Willie. They thought he would stay with the Millers at least through the first year, but he played like he was on fire.
In just 35 games he had a .477 batting average, eight home runs, 30 RBIs and 38 runs. Mays helped the Millers win their first 21 games and he gave them the head start they needed to win the pennant that year. He went to the Giants and he helped them win the National League Pennant that year as well. You could make the claim he helped two separate teams win a pennant.
Ray Dandridge stayed with the Millers until 1953. He was 40 when he retired. He had played 16 years with the Negro and Mexican Leagues and four years with the Millers. He was regarded as one of the best third basemen in the Negro Leagues, and when he played with the Newark Eagles he played in what was called the “Million Dollar Infield,” because that’s how much the players would have been paid if they had been white. One of the reasons he never was called up to the Giants was that they already had three black players.
The color line had not been completely broken, and an informal quota system seemed in place. It was with mixed emotions that people in Minneapolis saw a young center fielder take Dandy’s place as a Giant. We were happy to see him stay, but sad that he would never have the chance to play in the majors.