Let’s face it, there has never been another Jackie Robinson and there never will be. However, there was another young man who broke the color barrier in major league baseball as a pitcher.
Some time ago I heard a trivia question to which I knew the answer. The question was: “Who was the first black pitcher in major league baseball?” I definitely am not a trivia buff but I knew this one. One guess was Satchel Paige while the second was Don Newcombe. Those were great guesses and I expect both participants thought they had the correct answer. Satchel Paige, at age 42, made his first start for the Cleveland Indians on July 9, 1948. He was the oldest player to ever debut in the majors. Don Newcombe’s initial start with the Brooklyn Dodgers was on May 20, 1949. He became the first black pitcher to start a World Series game. It was easy to see why those would be good guesses to the trivia question. However, both were incorrect.
The first black pitcher to pitch in a major league baseball game was Dan Bankhead who debuted with the Dodgers on August 26, 1947, a little over four months after Jackie Robinson’s major league debut. (April 16, 1947)
Daniel Robert Bankhead, a right handed pitcher, was born on May 3, 1920 in Empire, Alabama. He had four brothers who all played baseball. He grew up in Empire with his brothers Sam, Fred, Garnett and Joe. Sam was said to be the best of the five brothers. Sam Bankhead played multiple positions, had a Carl Furillo arm, hit .342 in exhibition games against major league baseball players and had a Jackie Robinson craving to win. However, Dan was the only one of the five brothers to play major league baseball.
In 1940 Dan Bankhead signed with the Chicago American Giants before he reached his twentieth birthday. He had an above average curveball, a screwball that we seldom see used in present day pitching repertoires and a fastball that garnered much attention. Satchel Paige stated that: “Dan Bankhead, youngest member of the Bankhead baseball brothers, throws a faster ball than Cleveland’s speedy Bobby Feller.” Young Bankhead’s main problem, not uncommon with young pitchers throwing heat, was control. Following the family tradition, he was a versatile player and was one of the best hitting pitchers in the Negro Leagues.
Bankhead was traded to the Birmingham Black Barons in 1941. He went 6-1 in 1941 with a 0.96 RA (runs against) and was named to that year’s East-West game. As a twenty-one year old, he garnered more votes than all pitchers except Satchel Paige, Hilton Smith and “Preacher” Henry. In doing so, Bankhead was keeping lofty company. In that game, he pitched two scoreless innings allowing one hit and one walk for the West. Some thought he was the next Satchel Paige. A confident young man aware of his ability, he did not have a self esteem problem. He negotiated hard and quite often was the highest paid player on the teams for which he played.
Bankhead continued his impressive start in 1942 opening the season with three consecutive wins, running his short career record to 11-2. Like many, his career was put on hold by World War II. He served his country as a Marine in an all black unit from 1942-45.
During that time he was able to keep sharp by playing on his unit’s baseball team. In the fall of 1943 Dan was the starting pitcher for the Montford Point-MCB baseball team, comprised of the first blacks to enlist in the Marine Corps.
Following the war Bankhead returned to his first love – baseball – having given four seasons to his country. In 1946, he returned with the Memphis Red Sox as their highest paid player. He had a successful return going 7-3 with a 3.14 RA, third behind Satchel Paige and Gentry Jessup. During the winter of 1946-1947, Bankhead played for Cagnus in the Puerto Rican Winter League, striking out 179 with a record of 12-8. He appeared in both the 1946 and 1947 East-West games. His appearance in the 1947 game caught the attention of Branch Rickey and led to a contract with the Dodgers. Perhaps he had another Dodger first, as in 1947 he had an agent negotiate his contract for him.
Unlike Jackie Robinson, Dan Bankhead came directly to the Dodgers without any preparation in the Dodger minor league system. In August he made his big league debut to become the answer to the trivia question. That is, he became the first black pitcher in the major leagues. Unfortunately, his inaugural season was not a huge success, certainly not what the Dodgers were expecting. He allowed 8 runs and 23 base runners in 10 innings over four games.
Both 1948 and 1949 were great years for Bankhead, both in the minors. In 1948 he won a total of 24 games going 20-6 with a 2.35 ERA and spinning a no-hitter for the Nashua Dodgers. He led the New England League in wins and was second in ERA. He also was 4-0 with a 3.60 ERA for the St. Paul Saints.
In 1949, Bankhead went 20-6 with a 3.76 ERA for the Montreal Royals. He was second in the International League in wins, two behind Al Widmar, and led in starts (34) and strikeouts (176). He hit .323/.353/.449 and took turns in the outfield, at first base and as a pinch-hitter. However his control continued to be an issue and his 170 walks matched his strikeout total and lead the International League.
Bankhead returned to the Dodgers in 1950 with better results. He won nine games but had a higher than expected ERA. Off to a slow start in 1951, losing his only decision, he was sent down to Montreal. Dan Bankhead was not to return to Major League Baseball. His nine wins in 1950 were to be his only wins at the Major League Baseball level. He continued to play baseball for a living until 1966, playing mostly in the Mexican League as a pitcher and more so as a position player. Bankhead suffered from a sore arm, possibly a rotator cuff injury. He was a good hitter and tried to extend his career as an everyday outfielder. He did have moderate success. Bankhead pitched and played outfield in the Minors and in Mexico until 1966 when he was 46. He had a lifetime winning percentage in the minors of more than .700, while batting .255 with 11 homers.
Dan Bankhead was the first black pitcher in Major League Baseball history. He also is the answer to another trivia question: “Who was the first black player to hit a home run in his first AB in Major League baseball?” The answer – Dan Bankhead – who hit a home run off Fritz Ostermueller of the Pittsburgh Pirates on his first swing in the big leagues.
Daniel Robert Bankhead died from cancer one day shy of 56.