by Matthew Gailani
April 15, 1947 remains one of the most important days in Major League Baseball (MLB) history. It was the day Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers shattered the color barrier and became the first African American athlete to play for an MLB club in the modern era. The triumph of Jackie Robinson is celebrated and well documented in movies, books, blogs, and among MLB teams.
Lesser known is the story of Dan Bankhead. Bankhead, like Robinson, was an elite baseball player who got his start in what was known at the time as the Negro Leagues, separate leagues created as a response to racist MLB practices that excluded Black players. The Negro National League was founded 100 years ago this year in 1920. After serving in the Marines during World War II, Bankhead became an all-star pitcher for the Memphis Red Sox. This team was an important club in the history of Tennessee sports and African American baseball. In 1947, Bankhead became the first African American player to pitch in the Major Leagues.
Born in Empire, Alabama on May 3, 1920. Bankhead had four other brothers in his family, and all of them played baseball. In 1940, he joined the Negro Leagues as a member of the Birmingham Black Barons, which competed in the Negro American League (NAL).
1951 Dan Bankhead Bowman Baseball Card (Author’s Collection)
These teams and leagues provided African American men with an opportunity to play organized baseball and showcase their talents. Teams existed in cities such as: Kansas City, New York, Baltimore, and Cincinnati. Tennessee was also home to Negro League clubs, few more accomplished than the Memphis Red Sox.
The Red Sox played from the 1920s-1950s. For most of their existence, they were owned by the Martin brothers, four African American doctors and pharmacists who not only owned the team, but the stadium (Martin Stadium). Throughout their existence, the Red Sox had many talented African American players don their uniform. Even Charley Pride, the country music legend, played for the Red Sox for a few seasons.
Replica Memphis Red Sox Jersey (Tennessee State Museum Collection, 1998.94.2)
This was the team Bankhead signed with at the end of World War II, after serving as a Sergeant in the United States Marine Corps. The Pittsburgh Courier published a story announcing Bankhead’s signing on July 6, 1946, saying, “Bankhead, recently discharged from the Army, joined the team [Red Sox] a few days ago and has been pitching in the form that made him one of the outstanding hurlers of the league.” Another paper, the Cincinnati Enquirer, also praised the Red Sox’s new pitcher. The article read, “Dan Bankhead, one of Negro baseball’s top hurlers, is back with the Memphis Red Sox… He has won his first five games since being discharged and adds a lot of power to the southerners.”
This high praise proved warranted as Bankhead went on to represent the Memphis Red Sox in three East-West All-Star games between 1946 and 1947. In two of these games, both played at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, Bankhead was the winning pitcher in front of 45,000 plus fans. In the 1947 contest, he gave up only one hit as the West won 5-2.
Bankhead’s success was not only appreciated in Memphis. In 1947, after Jackie Robinson had broken Major League Baseball’s color barrier, Dodgers’ General Manager Branch Rickey needed to find more pitching talent for Brooklyn to make a push for the pennant. Eventually, Rickey and his scouts decided on the red-hot right hander from Memphis. In the end, the Dodgers paid $15,000 to sign Bankhead. The Alabama Tribune reported on the signing with a story titled “Red Sox Ace First Hurler in ‘Majors.’” In the story, the Tribune reported:
“Bankhead while under close scrutiny by the eagle-eyed Rickey and his veteran scout, George Sisler, last Friday night at Martin Stadium gave impressive account of himself as he struck out eleven batters to win over the Birmingham Black Barons 7 to 2. He has struck out 113 batters in 109 innings.”
Photograph of the Memphis Red Sox from 1949 (Tennessee State Museum Collection, 2008.240)
Bankhead soon found himself in New York, as a teammate and roommate of Jackie Robinson, and the first African American pitcher to pitch in the Major Leagues. He made his debut on August 26, 1947 at Ebbets Field against the Pittsburgh Pirates. In his debut, Bankhead struggled. He gave up ten hits and eight runs in three and one third innings. The Dodgers went on to lose 16-3. In fact, Bankhead batted much better than he pitched, hitting a homerun in his first appearance. The Daily News the following day ran the headline, “Pirates Overwhelm Flock, 16-3 Bankhead Routed, Hits HR.” The story also said, “Bankhead entered to the accompaniment of a standing ovation.”
While Bankhead may have received a standing ovation for his debut, he was a victim of the same vile racist taunts and threats that Robinson faced when he began to play for the Dodgers months earlier. The former manager and baseball player Buck O’Neil believed it affected Bankhead’s performance. In Joe Posnanski’s book The Soul of Baseball, O’Neil reveals:
“See, here’s what I always heard. Dan was scared to death that he was going to hit a white boy with a pitch. He thought there might be some sort of riot if he did it…Dan was always from Alabama, you know what I mean? He heard all those people calling him names, making threats and he was scared. He’d seen Black men get lynched.”
This was a fear that the Daily News also addressed, writing, “what if a pitch gets away from him and hits a man? There would be, most observers feared, hell to pay-to put it mildly.” Bankhead did hit a player, Wally Westlake, in his debut. In the end, the Daily News wrote, “the matter passed smoothly. Westlake trotted down to first without saying a word. Wally, and everyone else, knew it was an accident.”
While it is impossible to know everything Bankhead was thinking when he made his debut for Brooklyn, as O’Neil argues, the generations of verbal and physical violence toward African American men that Bankhead had witnessed and experienced growing up in Alabama cannot be ignored. In an interview with Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier in 1948, Bankhead had this to say about his historic start:
“I was scared as hell…they had batted our other pitchers all over the lot and I was given the job of stopping them. When I stepped on the mound, I was perspiring all over and tight as a drum. I wound up to throw to the first batter and I thought I’d never get unwound. That’s how tight I was.”
Ebbets Field, Home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, in 1920 (Library of Congress)
In the face of this, Bankhead continued to play with the Dodgers and even appeared in the 1947 World Series against the New York Yankees. However, despite the Dodgers’ success that season, Bankhead was sent down to the minors. He would return for Brooklyn in 1950 and 1951, yet poor results and injuries ended his MLB career. He finished with a 9-5 record, an ERA of 6.52, and 111 strikeouts. It would not, however, end his love of baseball. Bankhead went on to play in Canada, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. Bankhead died of cancer on May 2, 1976. He should be remembered, not only for his time in Major League Baseball, but for his service during World War II and his contributions to Tennessee sports as a member of the Memphis Red Sox.
Matthew Gailani is a Tennessee State Museum Educator
Online Sources/More Information
Print Sources and Documentaries/More Information
Baseball’s Forgotten Black Heroes by Bill Leibforth
Only the Ball Was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams by Robert Paterson
Black Diamonds, Blues City: Stories of the Memphis Red Sox: University of Memphis