Desperate for pitching help, the Dodgers signed Dan Bankhead in 1947 and made him the first African American pitcher in the majors – and Jackie Robinson’s roommate. He struggled and returned to the minors, but came back to have a fairly good 1950 season (9 – 4, but with a 5.50 ERA) before his control problems got the best of him in 1951.
When signed by the Dodgers, Bankhead told Burt Shotten that he was given three starts each week with relief appearances on the other days, as well as an occasional appearance in the outfield. In addition to a live fastball thrown at three-quarters
height, a fair curve, and a change up, he was a great hitter. The same day Bankhead put pen to contract, though, he was on the mound for the Dodgers. Despite getting roughed up by the Pirates in his first game, he also homered in his first at bat off of Fritz Ostermueller.
Rickey regretted not giving Bankhead more time to assimilate to high minors or major league play. “He wouldn’t be here if we didn’t think that he had extraordinary ability,” said Rickey, “but at the same time, I regret the necessity of rushing him right into the National League. I’d rather do it the other way. I’d rather have Bankhead in a good minor league where he could gradually come to feel at home as Robinson did at Montreal last season.
“But in this case, our need rather than the fitness of things dictated our course. This is a real emergency. I’ve never seen a finer team than ours with less experienced pitching.”
After struggling, he was sent to the minors so his spot could be given to another African American ballplayer – Roy Campanella. At Nashua in the New England League, Bankhead once fired a no-hitter to beat Springfield in the first game of a double header, then won the nightcap in relief. He even had a game where he fanned eight batters in a row. A twenty win season got him moved up to St. Paul in the American Association. In 1949, he was an ace for Montreal, winning twenty games again.
At this point, Bankhead became trade bait. Branch Rickey tried to peddle Bankhead, a prospect who struggled to find home plate from time to time, to the Braves, Giants, and other teams. He stayed in Brooklyn though, and won more often than not while fighting through his control and both shoulder and arm ailments. The arm problems continued until he was released from the Dodgers’ minor league system in 1952. (His spot was given to Joe Black.)
Bankhead played in the Caribbean and Mexico, pitching and playing other positions during the winter and summer leagues. He appeared in Sporting News articles as a regular player until 1963 and a manager until at least 1966 – even letting himself pitch a couple of times in 1966.
The 6′ 1″, 180 lb pitcher once compared to Dizzy Dean without control hailed from Empire, AL, born on 03 May 1920. After initially signing to play professional baseball, he served in the Marines during World War II but formed a baseball team while in service that would play exhibitions in North Carolina. He originally signed with the Birmingham Black Barons where he was a pitcher, shortstop and outfielder, but when the war ended he was signed by the Memphis Red Sox where he became an all-star pitcher.
Bankhead’s brothers also played professionally. Fred was a second baseman in Memphis, Garnett tried out with Memphis in 1947, Sam was an outfielder with the Homestead Grays and the first black manager in professional baseball, Mann played in the west coast, and Joe pitched with the Grand Rapids Jets in 1948. Dan’s wife, Linda, was of Mexican descent, studied music at Northwestern, and was a big band singer of note.
Lung cancer caught up with Bankhead, and he passed away in Houston on 2 May 1976.
Holmes, Tommy. “A Colored Pitcher Joins the Dodgers”, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 26 August 1947, Page 11.
Burr, Harold C. “Slam-Bang Dodger Bow for Robinson’s Roomie, New Pitcher Bankhead”, The Sporting News, 3 September 1947, Page 7.
Bloom, Dave. “Beale Street’s Dancing Over Its Boy, Dan”, The Sporting News, 3 September 1947, Page 7.
Burr, Harold C. “Branca, Edwards, Reese Sure Shots, Mystery Deepens on Others”, The Sporting News, 31 March 1948, Page 11.
“Bankhead Hurls No-Hitter, Then Wins Again in Relief”, The Sporting News, 4 August 1948, Page 33.
“Dan Bankhead, Negro Ace, Strikes Out Eight in a Row”, The Sporting News, 28 August 1948, Page 33
Burr, Harold C. “Rickey’s Sales Since Series Hit $600,000”, The Sporting News, 21 December 1949, Page 10.
Spink, J. G. Taylor. “The Mahatma Analyzes Failure of Brooklyn Hurling”, The Sporting News, 19 July 1950, Page 5.
“Dan Bankhead, Arm Ailing, Given His Release by Royals”, The Sporting News, 16 July 1952, Page 27.
Alarcon, Jorge. “Sultans Sign Bankhead as First Sacker”, The Sporting News, 29 July 1953, Page 36.
Obituary, The Sporting News, 22 May 1976, Page 49.