Dan Bankhead

"Satchel Paige opines that Dan Bankhead, youngest member of the Bankhead Baseball Brothers, throws a faster ball than Cleveland's speedy Bobby Feller."
--The Baltimore Afro-American, 1948

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Negro Leaguer of the Month

September, 2010

Dan Bankhead
Positions: Pitcher
Bats: Right, Throws: Right
Height: 6' 1", Weight: 180 lb.
Born: May 3, 1920 in Empire, Alabama
Died: May 2, 1976 in Houston, TX

Teams: Chicago American Giants, Birmingham Black Barons, Memphis Red Sox, Nashua Dodgers, Brooklyn Dodgers, St. Paul Saints, Drummondville Royals, Monterrey Sultanes, Mexico City Tigers, Veracruz Aguilas, Pueblo Pericos, Leon Broncos, Reynosa Broncs

Dan Bankhead wasn't the best player in his own family--that would be his brother, Sam--but he was the first black pitcher in the modern Major Leagues, breaking in with the Brooklyn Dodgers less than five months after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947.

Bankhead was one of five baseball playing brothers (along with Sam, Fred, Garnett and Joe), growing up in Empire, Alabama, and he was signed by the Chicago American Giants when he was just 19 in 1940.

Bankhead had a fine curveball and screwball to go along with a 95-mile-an-hour fastball, and was one of the best-hitting pitchers in the Negro Leagues in the 1940s. Bankhead's only weakness was a lack of control, and he often walked as many as he struck out, and he struck out plenty!

Bankhead was traded to the Birmingham Black Barons in '41 and was named to that year's East-West game, garnering more votes than all pitchers except Satchel Paige, Hilton Smith and "Preacher" Henry. Bankhead did not suffer from low self-esteem, and he was often the highest-paid player on teams he played for, negotiating hard for top dollar.

During World War II, Bankhead served in the Marines in an all-black unit, and he kept sharp by pitching for the unit's baseball team.

After the War, Bankhead was named an All-Star three more times as a member of the Memphis Red Sox, and was the winning pitcher in '46 and '47. His appearance in the '47 game was so impressive that soon thereafter he was signed by Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers. In four East-West games, Bankhead went 2-0 with a 2.45 ERA in 11 innings--only Satchel Paige and Bill Byrd also won two East-West games. Bankhead was considered by many to be a "can't miss prospect," going 7-2 on the mound with the Memphis Red Sox in '47 with a .386 average before signing with Brooklyn.

Unlike Jackie Robinson, who played a year in the Minors before playing with the Dodgers, Bankhead went straight to the big club, and he struggled. In his first appearance, versus the Pittsburgh Pirates, Bankhead allowed 10 hits in 3-1/3 innings of relief, but he did show off his hitting prowess by homering in his first Major League at bat against Fritz Ostermueller. Bankhead appeared in the World Series that fall, pinch-running and scoring a run in a game six win, but the Yankees prevailed in seven games.

After pitching in 10 innings with no decisions and one save in '47, Bankhead was optioned to the Minors in '48 and he was dominant, going 20-6 with the Nashua Dodgers of the Class B New England League and 4-0 with the St. Paul Saints of the American Association. After a 20-6 record in '49 with St. Paul, Bankhead returned to the Dodgers in '50 and went 9-4 with three saves and a .231 batting average.

In 1951, Bankhead, only 31, struggled, going 0-1 with an ERA of 15.43 in 14 innings, and he was sent back down to the Minors for good.

Bankhead suffered from a sore arm, possibly a rotator cuff injury, and since he was such a good hitter he tried to transition to an everyday outfielder with moderate success. Bankhead pitched and played outfield in the Minors and in Mexico until 1966 when he was 46, and had a lifetime winning percentage in the Minors of more than .700, while batting .255 with 11 homers.

Bankhead died from cancer one day shy of 56.