Dan Bankhead: The Forgotten First

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Anyone who is remotely familiar with baseball, U.S., or Civil Rights history knows who Jackie Robinson was. And for those who don’t, he was the first African American player in the major leagues. Robinson broke the long-standing gentleman’s (hardly gentlemanly) agreement that kept black baseball players from being signed to major league baseball teams. That all changed on April 15, 1947. Robinson started at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers and opened the long-closed door.

But what few people know is that there were four other African American players who played in the big leagues that year. The other four players were Larry Doby, Willard Brown, Hank Thompson, and Dan Bankhead. And while Doby, Brown, and Thompson were all position players and contributed firsts of their own, Bankhead was the first African-American pitcher in the majors.

Who Was Dan Bankhead

Dan Bankhead was born on May 3, 1920, in Empire, Alabama, and grew up in nearby Birmingham. From his earliest days, he played baseball along with his four brothers Sam, Fred, Joe, and Garnett. All five Bankhead boys would go on to play in the Negro leagues. Dan’s Negro league career began in 1940 with the Birmingham Black Barons. Originally he tried out as an infielder, mostly at shortstop. But he threw so hard that the Black Barons decided to turn him into a pitcher. He pitched for Birmingham for the 1940 and 1941 seasons with great success, even pitching two scoreless innings in the East-West All-Star game in 1941. In the winter of 1941-42, he played in Puerto Rico for the first time for the Mayaguez Indios, before returning to the Black Barons for the 1942 season.

World War Two

Following a successful 1942 season, Bankhead enlisted in the Marines on April 22, 1943. He became a part of the Montford Point Marines, an all-black unit. While the Montford Point Marines were not a combat unit, they were a significant step toward the integration of the U.S. military. Bankhead and his unit remained in the United States for the duration of the war. As can be expected, Dan was a part of the unit’s baseball team. The team toured from base to base, helping to boost morale. After gaining the rank of sergeant he was released from duty in 1946.

Back to the Pros

Following his discharge from the Marines, Bankhead began playing ball for the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro American League. During the 1946 and ’47 seasons, he picked up where he left off before the war and caught the attention of Dodgers’ scouts. The scouts informed the Dodgers’ GM, president, and part-owner, Branch Rickey, of the promising prospect. At the time the Dodgers were short on pitching and desperately needed a good arm. Rickey rushed to see Bankhead and was pleased with what he saw, signing him later that evening.

The Dodgers’ need for pitching outweighed the customary trip to the minors and Bankhead was in Ebbets Field four days after he was signed, pitching against the Pittsburgh Pirates.  He threw 3 1/3 innings in relief, giving up ten hits, eight runs (six earned), and also beaned the first batter he faced. And while his debut on the mound didn’t go all that well, Bankhead did manage to homer in his first major league at-bat.

The Strain of Racism

It would be easy to say that first-time jitters were the cause of Bankhead’s rocky opener with the Dodgers. And while this is surely true there was something deeper. Bankhead had grown up experiencing the worst of racism in Alabama and lived in fear of beaning white batters and inciting a riot. This constant fear continued past his initial Major league game and plagued the remainder of his time in the Dodgers’ organization. He finished the ’47 season with only four appearances and a 7.20 ERA.

Bankhead remained with the Dodgers organization through the 1951 season. In ’48 and ’49, he played for various Dodgers minor league teams. Dan was eventually called back up to Brooklyn in 1950. He pitched in 41 games, amassing a 9-4 record with a 5.50 ERA. But control issues continued to plague his career and eventually, after a disappointing seven games in 1951, he was released. Bankhead’s professional career continued in the Mexican League for another fourteen years, but one can’t help wondering what his promising career in the Major Leagues could have been without the strain of racism on his back.

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Players Mentioned:

Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Willard Brown, Hank Thompson, Dan Bankhead