The Roommate

Dan Bankhead

Dan Bankhead

Back when I was growing up there was a joke going around. The big time sports, baseball, football, college football, and basketball were all just beginning to integrate. Most of the teams had a star, so the joke went that you needed two black guys per team: the star and his roommate. You see, most people thought the idea of a white guy and a black guy sharing a hotel room was down right evil. Dan Bankhead was a roommate.

There were five Bankhead brothers in the Negro Leagues: Sam, Fred, Garnett, Joe, and Dan. Sam was the oldest and is generally considered the best of the five (he made the first cut in the 2006 Hall of Fame balloting for Negro League players, but failed to make the second cut). He was a middle infielder with the Grays. Fred was also a middle infielder. Both Garnett and Joe were pitchers. Dan was the middle child and also a pitcher. Both Sam and Garnett were shot to death (although they were 70 and 63 when they died, not young, rash ball players). The family was from Alabama and grew up in a segregated world where they had their “place” and God forbid they should step out of it or forget it.

Dan became a pitcher for the Birmingham Black Barons in 1940, That year and the next (1941) he went 8-2 (in confirmed games) and pitched in the 1941 East-West All Star game. He also played in 1942, then spent much of 1943 and all of 1944 and 1945 in the Marines, being discharged in 1946. His primary job was to pitch. Signing with the Memphis Red Sox, he managed to pitch well enough to get into both East-West games (they played two in 1946), starting the first and picking up the win in the second. His seasonal record for 1946 (again with spotty data) was 7-3 with a league leading 42 strikeouts.

In 1947, Bankhead was 11-5 with the Red Sox when Branch Rickey signed him to play for Brooklyn. Rickey paid the Red Sox $15,000 for Bankhead, a big amount in 1947. On 26 August 1947, Bankhead, now Jackie Robinson’s on the road roommate, became the first black man to pitch in the Major Leagues. He hit the first batter. He went three and two-thirds innings that day, gave up eight runs (only six were earned), and ten hits. In his first at bat, Bankhead hit a home run off Fritz Ostermuller (the same pitcher that gives up the big home run to Robinson in the final game of the recent movie “42”).

In many ways it was a typical Bankhead game. He was wild and had been so in the Negro Leagues. He gave up a lot of hits and walks. For his Major League career he had 110 walks (and 111 strikeouts) and gave up 161 hits in 153 innings. For the 1947 season he got into four games pitching all of ten innings (with a 7.20 ERA).

That got him a trip to the minors for 1948 and 1949. He was back in Brooklyn in 1950 going 9-4 with a5.50 ERA. He pitched in 41 games, starting 12, and picking up three saves. It got him one more year at Brooklyn. He pitched in only seven games, went 0-1 with an ERA of 15.43. He claimed he had a sore arm, but he was sent to Montreal (being replaced by later “Boys of Summer” stalwart Clem Labine). The Bankhead experiment ended in 1952, when the Dodgers released him from a minor league contract in July.

Bankhead played in the Latin leagues as late as 1966 when he was 46 years old. In retirement he worked delivering food to restaurants in Houston. Dan Bankhead died of lung cancer in 1976.

Dan Bankhead was not a particularly effective pitcher in the Major Leagues. But he was important. He served as Jackie Robinson’s roommate and was the first black pitcher in the Major Leagues. He should be remembered for the last.

Dan Bankhead's grave

Dan Bankhead’s grave

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2 Responses to “The Roommate”

  1. William Miller Says:

    I had no idea he was the first black pitcher in the Majors. I also still find it amazing that so many of these black players served in the U.S. military, yet, when they came home, it was as if their service meant nothing to the country, particularly down South. Talk about compounding evil upon evil.
    Nice post,
    Bill

  2. Glen Russell Slater Says:

    I wonder why Rickey picked Bankhead. Maybe he was the only guy available from the Negro Leagues at the time? Was it MOSTLY so that Robinson could have a roommate??? Surely, they could have found a better pitcher from the Negro Leagues than Bankhead, right? Or was it another situation such as with Robinson???—- that Bankhead might not have been the BEST Negro League pitcher available, but he was the one with the best “temperament”, that wouldn’t “make waves”?

    Glen

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