Posts Tagged ‘Joe Bankhead’

The Black Barons

February 8, 2016
Birmingham Black Barons logo

Birmingham Black Barons logo

Throughout most of the history of the Negro Leagues, those leagues were strongest outside the American South. Of course, with all the legal restrictions of Jim Crow that made sense. It was simply harder to create a successful team without running afoul of some rule, written or otherwise. There were exceptions. Memphis and Baltimore had successful teams, as did some other towns. But easily the most successful was the team from Birmingham, Alabama-the Black Barons.

The Birmingham Barons were a successful minor league franchise and in 1920, a new black team was formed from players in the local black industrial league using a play on the white team’s name. It rolled off the tongue with great alliteration and it was an instant success. They were part of the Negro Southern League through 1923. It was a black league formed by Rube Foster as something of a minor league that would draw the best black Southern players who could then be filtered into Foster’s Negro National League. The team played in Rickwood Park, a stadium that was rented to both black teams and to white teams (obviously not at the same time). By 1924 they were considered good enough to join the Negro National League itself. They lasted two years then slid back to the Southern League because the team was unable to keep its finances in order (a common theme among early Negro League teams, especially in the South).

They got back to the Negro National League in 1927. They brought with them a right-handed pitcher named LeRoy Paige who bore the nickname “Satchel.” In 1927 the NNL ran their season as two halves with the two winners facing each other in a post season series, the winner of  which went on to the Negro World Series against the winner of the Eastern Colored League. Behind Paige and slugger Roy Parnell the Barons won the second half, but lost the playoff to the American Giants. It was the highpoint of the 1920s for Birmingham. They stacked up losing seasons for the rest of the 1920s.

The NNL folded after the 1930 season and Birmingham moved back to the Southern League where they stayed through 1936. They moved back to the newly formed NNL in 1937, stayed through 1938, then, with both financial and management problems they ended up back in the Southern League. In 1940 they joined the new Negro American League.

It led to their greatest period of success. Under manager Wingfield Welch they won NAL pennants in 1943 and 1944. Lorenzo “Piper” Davis, Lester Lockett, and Jake Spearman led the team into the ’43 Negro World Series, which they lost to the Homestead Grays. The addition of Dan Bankhead and “Double Duty” Radcliffe,  helped them to another pennant in 1944. Again they lost to Homestead in the Negro World Series. They had one last great year in 1948 when, with Davis now managing, they took a final NAL pennant. This time they had Joe Bankhead, Lyman Bostock, and a rookie outfielder named Willie Mays (yes, THAT Willie Mays). Again they couldn’t get past Homestead..

By 1948 the Negro Leagues were faltering. It was the last Negro World Series between the NNL and the NAL. The NNL folded, but the Black Barons hung on in the NAL. They’d lost much of their talent to the white minor (or major) leagues but hung on in Birmingham through the 1950s. In 1953 they picked up a pitcher named Charley Pride (later a significant country music singer). Lacking much money, the team gave the Louisville Clippers a team bus for Pride. In 1959, now named the Giants, they won the championship of what remained of the Negro League (five teams). The next year, 1960 was the end for the NAL. The team hung on two more years by barnstorming, but finally folded in 1963.

Usually, when I hear about or read about Negro League teams, the Crawfords, the Grays, the Monarchs, even the Eagles or Elite Giants names are mentioned. The Black Barons are seldom mentioned. That’s unfortunate. The Birmingham Black Barons were a very good team, putting five former players (Satchel Paige, Mule Suttles, Willie Mays, Bill Foster, and Willie Wells) into the Hall of Fame. They won three pennants in the NAL and a second half championship in the first version of the NNL. Their attendance was generally good and the caliber of play was equally good. They deserve a mention now and then.

 

Advertisements

The Roommate

February 24, 2014
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