Dan Bankhead was the first African American pitcher in the Major Leagues. However, Bankhead’s big-league career was brief and unsatisfying, and so even the black newspapers never covered him in depth. He also passed away before historians could record his personal memories. As with many black ballplayers of his day, Bankhead’s career was multinational. He started in Puerto Rico, made detours to the Dominican Republic and Canada, and then knocked around Mexico well into his forties. A respectable hitter, Dan often played the field, while coaching and managing as well. Bankhead’s talent drew comparisons to Bob Feller, but control problems and an old injury hindered him. Coping with racial obstacles was another big issue—even fellow Negro Leaguers such as Buck O’Neil thought so.1 2 3
This “quiet, pleasant man” had other sides to his personality.4 Sometimes he simply did not act in his own best interest—he lost two jobs under a cloud. His brothers Sam (age seventy) and Garnett (age sixty-three) both died by gunshot following quarrels. Dan also had a temper, which a weakness for women allegedly provoked. His family life was at times tumultuous. Yet as he battled illness and lived hand to mouth in his final years, he finally attained peace.
Daniel Robert Bankhead was born on May 3, 1920, in Empire, Alabama. His parents, Garnett Bankhead Sr. and Arie (née Armstrong), had five boys and two girls who lived to adulthood. Four of Dan’s brothers played in the Negro Leagues. (Another brother, James, born roughly two years before Dan, apparently died young.) Bankhead’s given name appears as simply Dan in his military records, in the Social Security system, and on his gravestone. Dan’s son William F. Bankhead believes that his father shortened it at some point.
Empire is about thirty miles northwest of Alabama’s largest city, Birmingham. It is in the coal country that fueled Birmingham’s steel industry. Garnett (who played baseball himself) worked for a lumber company, on a loading facility, and as a coal miner. These were hard and dangerous jobs—but in the Jim Crow South, they were a step up from sharecropping. Dan attended public schools in Birmingham. In 1940 he joined the local Negro League team, the Black Barons. He tried out as a shortstop, but he threw so hard that the Barons made him a pitcher.5 Negro League statistics are patchy, but Dan pitched two scoreless innings in the East-West All-Star Game in 1941.
In the winter of 1941-42, Bankhead played ball overseas for the first time. The Puerto Rican Winter League was in its fourth season; many great Negro Leaguers were there: Josh Gibson, Willard Brown, Willie Wells, and Dan’s eldest brother Sam. Dan pitched again for Birmingham in 1942, but in April 1943, he enlisted in the Marine Corps. The Montford Point Marines of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, were not trained as combat units.6 Even so, the all-black troops became historically significant as an important step toward the integration of American military forces. Dan was part of the Montford Point baseball team, which remained in the States for the duration of the war and toured as a “morale raiser.” In addition to pitching, he played shortstop and the outfield.7
At least once Bankhead got leave to pitch for the Black Barons. On June 5, 1944, Dan struck out seventeen New York Black Yankees as he fired a three-hit shutout in the nightcap of a doubleheader. The game was played at Yankee Stadium before an estimated crowd of 12,000.8Sometime in the mid-1940s, Bankhead married Linda Marquette, who was not African American. The slender, graceful woman had gone to school in Kansas City and also attended the Chicago Conservatory of Music. According to Dan’s son William, they met while she was performing as a jazz singer. The couple had a daughter named Waillulliah, whose name was patterned after famous actress Tallulah Bankhead, a member of a prominent Alabama family.
William Bankhead believed (with reason) that “Lulu” was actually a foster child. A 1947 article noted that she was nine years old and that her parents had been married for ten years.9 If that were the case, Dan and Linda would have been about 17 and 15, respectively, upon their wedding. With Linda and Lulu in tow, Bankhead returned to Puerto Rico in the winter of 1946-47.10 Pitching for the Caguas Criollos, he went 12-8 and led the league in strikeouts. He also stole twelve bases.
Back with Memphis in 1947, Dan played with his brother Fred. That year was the first time that any of the Bankhead men were teammates; Garnett Jr. also appeared briefly with the Red Sox in ’47, possibly after Dan left. In July, Dan again got the win in the East-West All-Star Game. Scouts George Sisler and Wid Matthews alerted Brooklyn’s Branch Rickey. The Dodgers were short on pitching, so Rickey purchased Bankhead’s rights from Memphis for a reported $15,000.11 Rickey biographer Lee Lowenfish said: “Rickey was happy that Dan Bankhead’s color did not attract overwhelming press attention when the pitcher arrived in Brooklyn.”12 However, author Jules Tygiel differed, writing that “[Bankhead] received a terrific workout from photographers and newshounds.”13
Rickey wanted to test his new pitcher in the minors first, but the Dodgers needed him more. The twenty-seven-year-old rookie’s debut came in relief against Pittsburgh on August 26. Black fans made up roughly a third of that day’s Ebbets Field crowd of 24,069. A very nervous Bankhead drilled Wally Westlake with his first pitch and was hit hard. However, he also homered in his first major-league at-bat.
Bankhead pitched just ten more innings in three more games over the rest of the season. He remained on the Dodgers roster for the World Series, appearing as a pinch-runner in Game Six.
In spring 1948 the Dodgers trained in the Dominican Republic. News stories from what was then Ciudad Trujillo stated that Dan “was converted into a gardener [outfielder] because of his batting power and speed afoot.”14 The experiment was abandoned, though. Returning to the mound, Bankhead went 20-6 with a 2.35 ERA for the Nashua Dodgers of the Class B New England League. In August he was promoted to the Class AAA St. Paul Saints of the American Association where he won all four of his decisions.
After another winter in Caguas, Bankhead was assigned to Brooklyn’s other Triple-A team, the International League’s Montreal Royals, in 1949. He again went 20-6, but he also issued 170 walks. In the winter of 1949-50, after barnstorming in the Southwest with a group of black players led by Luke Easter, Bankhead was back in Puerto Rico. He led the league in strikeouts again and also hit seven home runs. Before the 1950 season Bankhead was mentioned in several trade rumors, but he stayed with Brooklyn and got all nine of his major-league wins. His first came in relief of Don Newcombe at the Polo Grounds on April 28.
Dan took his first four decisions, and just when he looked to be settling in as an important member of the rotation, his recurring shoulder problems returned. The root cause was apparently a dislocation suffered at the age of seventeen.15 Dan’s last start that year came on July 31, but he continued to work frequently out of the bullpen. He finished the year with a record of 9-4, starting twelve times in forty-one appearances. Control was a problem, as he walked eighty-eight in 129 1/3 innings.
The Bankheads were in the Dominican Republic in the winter of 1950-51, where in March they welcomed son William. Dan’s shoulder problems worsened in 1951. He pitched just fourteen innings in seven games for the Dodgers and was mostly ineffective. In late July Brooklyn sold Bankhead’s contract to Montreal; he never made it back to the majors.
Perhaps his most lasting big-league moment came during a clubhouse debate, when he told Jackie Robinson: “Not only are you wrong, Robinson—you are loud wrong.”16 It took Dan over a month to pick up his first win in the International League, and he finished with a 2-6 record with a 3.91 earned run average. “Plagued with arm trouble, he worked only thirteen innings in five games” for Montreal in 1952 and was released in July.17 Bankhead went back to the Dominican Republic as a player-manager, but he did not last long. After a wild on-field brawl, Dan was fined and jailed. In late August he was fired after quarrels with the club president, Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo’s brother-in-law.18 19
In 1953 Bankhead played for Drummondville in the Canadian Provincial League, mainly in the field. Quite a few black ballplayers were in this league, plus some big leaguers. Late that July, Bankhead went to Mexico, where he would spend nearly all of his remaining fourteen years in the game. Dan batted and pitched year-round, though there was a gap in the summer of 1958. William Bankhead remembers seeing his father arrested in Brooklyn after a stormy domestic dispute. To the best of his knowledge, though, Dan and Linda (who died in 2007) never got divorced. Throughout the years in Mexico, “he used to come home and make pit stops.”
Dan played and managed in some obscure Mexican circuits in 1961-62. He must have inspired a following—100 fans traveled 500 miles in August 1962 to cheer for him on Dan Bankhead Day in Puebla. The veteran pitched a complete game and won, 13–1.20 Bankhead was the manager of Martínez de la Torre in the Veracruz League at the start the 1962 winter season, but he was fired in November with only a cryptic report that it was done “for the good of the club.”21 After ten seasons away, he resurfaced in Puerto Rico as a player-coach with Caguas, also briefly serving as interim manager. William Bankhead recalled that Dan left the club after another domestic dispute with Linda, but he soon joined Ponce.
Bankhead managed extensively in Mexico in the mid-1960s. In 1966, at age forty-six, he enjoyed his last hurrah as a player with Reynosa. But after managing Aguascalientes in 1967, his time in baseball ended. Like many men in this position, he did not have another good career option—the game was his life. Cornelius “Doc” Settles, whose mother and two aunts grew up with Dan in Alabama, described what happened.
“From what I understand,” said Settles in 2008, “everything started to implode for Dan in Mexico.” William Bankhead said, “He was pitching more than balls, you know what I mean? Too many kids, too many intimacies. There are several kids down in Mexico that I know of. And you can't live in a foreign country without money.”
“The nearest oasis was Houston,” Settles continued. “Dan was facing inner turmoil when he first came to Houston. He was trying to get back on his feet. But he stepped in right when I needed somebody in my life. He was so humble, and he had a down-home sensibility that grounded him. I was just a teenager, and he was always willing to share a few moments with me and my brothers tossing baseballs and playing games. I will never forget Dan Bankhead burning up my hand while trying to catch one of his pitches. Even in his final days Dan could still toss a mean fastball.”
Bankhead spent his final years working for a small service company delivering food goods and supplies to small businesses and restaurants across Houston. At some point in the 1970s, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and was in and out of the Veterans Administration hospital in Houston. “You could see him erode,” Settles said. “He’d have his ups and downs, but he knew. He just got more and more humble. He was resolved to make peace. Dan’s final days living in Houston were filled with reflection, days of happiness.” Eventually, he succumbed on May 2, 1976, a day short of his fifty-sixth birthday.22
Thanks to the VA, the old Marine was buried under a modest bronze marker in Houston National Cemetery. “I don’t remember if any of his old teammates came to the funeral,” Settles said. “It was a small and quiet event. I don't think he was in touch with them. It was in the past and he didn't dwell on it.”
Settles has fond memories of Bankhead. “He had a personality you wanted to be around. He left you with positive things. I was able to enjoy his laughter and his jokes and his smiles. I just wish we knew more about what he went through as an African American baseball trailblazer.”
Crescioni Benítez, José A. El Béisbol Profesional Boricua. San Juan, Puerto Rico: Aurora Comunicación Integral, Inc., 1997.
Holway, John. The Complete Book of Baseball's Negro Leagues. Fern Park, Florida: Hastings House Publishers, 2001.
Johnson, Lloyd, and Miles Wolff. The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball. Durham, North Carolina: Baseball America, Inc., 1997.
Lester, Larry. Black Baseball's National Showcase: The East-West All-Star Game, 1933-1953. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2001.
Riley, James A. The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1994.
Treto Cisneros, Pedro, editor, Enciclopedia del Béisbol Mexicano. Mexico City, Mexico: Revistas Deportivas, S.A. de C.V., 1998.
"Dan Bankhead, 54, Ex-Dodger, Is Dead," New York Times, May 7, 1976. Sporting News sometimes presented Bankhead's year of birth as 1921.
Social Security Death Index
Thanks to Doc Settles and William F. Bankhead for their memories.
1. Moffi, Larry, and Jonathan Kronstadt. Crossing the Line: Black Major Leaguers 1947-1959. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1994. p.13.
2. Rampersad, Arnold. Jackie Robinson: A Biography. New York: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1997. p.184.
3. Posnanski, Joe. The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007. p. 144.
4. Barber, Red. 1947: When All Hell Broke Loose in Baseball. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1982. p. 280.
5. Ibid. p. 118.
6. As coastal artillery and ammunition supply units, they often had to fight off Japanese attacks on supply lines, though.
7. From the online history of the Montford Point Marines, webmaster James Stewart Jr.: http://www.mpma28.com/newsletters/newsletter/2854121/44177.htm.
8. "Barons Win by 9-0, 13-0; Triumph Over the Philadelphia Stars and Black Yankees," New York Times, June 5, 1944.
9. "Wife, Daughter, Dog, Chicken Root for Dan," Richmond Afro-American, September 6, 1947.
10. Heaphy, Leslie. The Negro Leagues, 1869-1960. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2002. p. 173.
11. Lowenfish, Lee. Branch Rickey: Baseball's Ferocious Gentleman. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2007: 433. Two notes: the won-lost record cited here and also in The Sporting News conflicts with the 4-4 mark shown in The Complete Book of Baseball's Negro Leagues. Also, Dan's wife is referred to as "Charlotte."
12. Lowenfish, op. cit., loc. cit.
13. Tygiel, Jules, in Sport and the Color Line: Black Athletes and Race Relations in Twentieth Century America. Patrick Miller and David Wiggins, editors. New York: Routledge, 2004. p.184.
14. Petersen, Leo H. "Youth, Speed and Fight To Mark 1948 Dodger Team," Lima (Ohio) News, March 29, 1948.
15. Moffi and Kronstadt, op. cit., p. 12.
16. Anderson, Dave. "Nice Wrong Isn't Really So Terrible," New York Times, February 27, 1998.
17. Charleston (South Carolina) Gazette, July 20, 1952.
18. Martínez, Alejandro. "Dan Bankhead Fined, Jailed in Dominican Republic Riot," Sporting News, August 13, 1952.
19. Martínez, Alejandro. "Bankhead Fired as Manager in Dominican Loop," Sporting News, September 3, 1952.
20. "Bankhead Stars on Big Day," Sporting News, August 18, 1962.
21. Hernández, Roberto. "Bankhead Fired as Manager; Pinkston Fractures Arm," Sporting News, December 1, 1962.
22. "Bankhead Dies," Charleston (South Carolina) Daily Mail, May 7, 1976. Of interest in this story is a reference to a wife coming up from Mexico.