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Negro Leaguer of the Month

Negro Leaguer of the Month
April, 2000
Sam Bankhead
Positions: ss, 2b, 3b, rf
Career: 1930-1950
Teams: Birmingham Black Barons, Louisville
Black Caps, Homestead Grays, Pittsburgh Crawfords, Memphis Red Sox, Ciudad Trujillo Dragons, Kansas City Monarchs, Nashville Elite Giants, Monterrey Industriales (Mexico), Farnham Pirates

HT: 5'-8"; WT: 175 lbs
batted and threw right
Born: 9/18/05 in Empire, Alabama
Died: 7/24/76 in Pittsburgh, PA

Sam Bankhead was a player every team coveted. Besides his incredible physical talents, he had the craving to win of players like Jackie Robinson and Pete Rose—some would call it a chip on his shoulder.

He could play virtually any position well; he played in seven East-West All-Star games at five different positions, and in a 1952 Pittsburgh Courier poll he was named on the first team as a utility player.

His best positions, though, were right field and shortstop. In right Bankhead had one of the strongest arms to ever play; many compared his arm to Roberto Clemente's and Carl Furillo's. At shortstop he had soft hands and the same rocket arm.

He wasn't just a great defensive player, though. Sam Bankhead, the best of five brothers who played in the Negro Leagues, was a fine hitter with great speed and a knack for coming through in the clutch. He was an above-.300 hitter lifetime, with a .342 average in games uncovered against Major Leaguers.

Bankhead was born in the small town of Sulligent, Alabama, a railroad town known for its cotton crop.  He spent much of his childhood in Empire, Alabama where he worked in the coal mines and played semipro ball for the Empire Giants.  Bankhead’s was a baseball family, and his four brothers all eventually played in the Negro Leagues. 

Sam broke into the Negro Leagues as a second baseman with the Birmingham Black Barons in 1929, and after a few seasons with Birmingham he jumped to the Nashville Elite Giants where he was chosen for the first two East-West All-Star games as the West’s starting right fielder.  In ’33, Bankhead had two hits, two runs and two stolen bases as his West squad won 11-7; in ’34 Bankhead went one for three in a 1-0 loss.

In 1934, Bankhead played with the traveling Kansas City Monarchs club which played in the Denver Post Tournament.  They came in second in the tournament to the all-white House of David team that added one black player—Satchel Paige!  Paige beat the Monarch’s Chet Brewer in the final game.

In ’35, Bankhead joined the Pittsburgh Crawfords where he batted close to .350 with a slugging percentage around .500, and was part of one of the greatest outfields in history; Bankhead played right field, Cool Papa Bell played center and Jimmie Crutchfield played left, and each was so fast that they were known as the “Raindrop Rangers” because it was said that they could catch raindrops to keep the outfield from getting wet!

In 1937, Bankhead jumped to the Dominican Republic to play for President Rafael Trujillo, joining Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson, among other Negro League stars.  The Crawfords nearly folded when their biggest stars left, but Bankhead had one of his greatest thrills playing for Trujillo.  Dictator Trujillo hoped that winning the country's baseball championship could save his political career, and the players were under great pressure to win; they were surrounded by armed guards and were made to believe that their lives depended on winning (which might have been true!)

In the 7th inning of the championship game, down by a run, with the bases loaded and two outs, facing Chet Brewer, one of baseball's greatest pitchers, Bankhead blasted a 3-2 pitch into the stands and Satchel shut out Santiago the rest of the way to win the championship.

After the team returned to the States, they entered the Denver Post Tournament and won it with ease and took home the top prize money, $5,719.15 (more than $90,000 in today’s dollars!).

Bankhead spent most of the rest of his career with the Homestead Grays where he played shortstop for more than a decade, while the Grays won nine pennants and two Negro League World Series.

Bankhead was generally not a home run hitter, but he was a big doubles hitter as well as a fine bunter.  In his prime, Bankhead batted in the .320-.350 range. 

In 1951, Bankhead was signed as player-manager of the Farnham Pirates of the Class C Provincial League in the Minors, making Sam the first black player in Minor League history.  At age 47, Bankhead batted .274, but the team finished 49-74.  Some of the team’s best players were almost as old as Bankhead, with Lester Lockett (39), Bubber Hyde (44) and Ed Napier (38), joining 20-year-old Josh Gibson, Jr., who batted .230 with two homers—not quite up to his old man’s standards!

Bankhead, who was Josh, Sr.’s best friend on the Crawfords and Grays, was somewhat of a surrogate father to Josh, Jr. after Senior died in 1947.

Bankhead was known as a heavy drinker when he played ball, though it didn’t seem to affect his play as he was a star for more than 20 years.

Unfortunately, Sam Bankhead's story ended tragically. His brother Dan, a pitcher with the Brooklyn Dodgers, died of throat cancer in May of 1976. Two months later, brother Fred died in a car accident and several days later, on July 24th, Sam, got into an argument with a friend and was fatally shot in the back. In 1991, brother Garnett's life was also ended by gunshot wounds.