Sam Bankhead

This article was written by Dave Wilkie

Hall of Famer and Negro League legend Judy Johnson called Sam Bankhead “one of the greatest outfielders we had.”1 Wilmer “Red” Fields, ace pitcher and 1948 World Series-winning Homestead Grays teammate, said, “He was the greatest team player I ever saw.”2 Blessed with a cannon for an arm, a penchant for clutch hitting, and the ability to play every position on the field, Sam enjoyed a 20-year-plus career playing with some of the most storied teams in baseball history. Left-handed slugger and All-Star Bob Harvey had this to say about Sam’s throwing prowess: “He had a beautiful arm. Nobody tagged up at third and scored on a fly. He’d throw you out from the warning track.”3

Samuel Howard Bankhead was most likely born on September 18, 1910, in Sulligent, Alabama.4 His father, Garnett Bankhead Sr., labored in the coal mines and played first base in the Cotton Belt League, while his mother, Arie Armstrong, gave birth to five boys and two girls. Sam worked alongside his father loading coal until baseball led him to a better life.

All four of Bankhead’s younger brothers played in the Negro Leagues. Fred was a slick-fielding second baseman from 1936 to 1948, making an All-Star appearance in 1942. Garnett played for three seasons from 1947 to 1949, including a short stint on the 1948 champion Homestead Grays with his brother Sam as manager. Joe had the shortest career, taking the mound a few times with the 1948 Birmingham Black Barons, and Dan became the first black pitcher in major-league history when he took the mound on August 26, 1947. for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Dan also hit a home run in his first major-league at-bat, but his success was short-lived; he was out of the majors by 1951.

Sam Bankhead punched his ticket out of the coal mines and into his Negro League career in 1929 with the Birmingham Black Barons, but he did not get much playing time as an 18-year-old rookie. From 1930 to 1932 he bounced around with Birmingham and the Louisville Black Caps until he finally found a home and a starting position with the Nashville Elite Giants.

In 1933 Negro League baseball introduced its inaugural East-West All-Star Game, which has been called “the pinnacle of any Negro League season,” and described as “an All-Star game and a World Series all wrapped in one spectacle.”5 The annual games were so popular and star-studded that many observers, including Negro League historian Larry Lester, have credited them with helping to integrate Organized Baseball. Bankhead, as he often did in high-pressure situations, shined in these contests. A nine-time all-star at five different positions, Sam had 12 hits in 31 at-bats with 7 runs, 4 RBIs, and 2 stolen bases. He is also credited with scoring the first run in an East-West All-Star Game. Coincidentally, the National and American Leagues also debuted the major-league All-Star Game in 1933, but by the early 1940s it was often being outdrawn by its Negro League counterpart.6

After a solid season in 1934, his last with the Nashville Elite Giants, Bankhead moved on to one of the greatest teams in Negro League history, the Pittsburgh Crawfords. The 1935 Crawfords squad included future Hall of Famers Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Judy Johnson, and Cool Papa Bell. Mark Koenig, shortstop for the 1927 New York Yankees, compared the ’35 Crawfords favorably to his legendary World Series-winning team.7 Bankhead made a seamless transition into this team of superstars, hitting .298 and playing a starring role as one of the Raindrop Rangers, a trio of speedy outfielders with Sam playing alongside Bell and Jimmie Crutchfield. Fanciful legend had it that the three players were so fast that they could keep a field dry by catching the raindrops before they hit the ground.8 The Crawfords capped off their magical season with a hard-fought seven-game victory over the New York Cubans in the Negro League World Series. Bankhead had a solid Series with seven hits, including a clutch single, stolen base, and run scored that gave Pittsburgh the lead in the seventh inning of the seventh game.9

The Crawfords began a steady decline in 1936. Bankhead had an off-year, hitting just .204. Though the Crawfords still ended up winning the Negro National League championship, no agreement could be reached with the Negro American League to play a World Series that year. After the season Gus Greenlee, owner of the Crawfords and creator of the East-West All-Star Game, was forced to cut payroll and players due to his involvement in racketeering. The Crawfords hung on through the 1938 season, but they were a mere shell of the team that dominated Negro League baseball from 1932 to 1936.

In 1937 Greenlee’s misfortunes turned into a boon for Crawfords players Bankhead, Bell, Gibson, and Satchel Paige, as they were all recruited to play in the Dominican Republic for dictator Rafael Trujillo’s Dragones team. Trujillo, a corrupt and violent leader, paid exorbitant salaries to these players in order to field a winning team to gain favor in the coming election. His two political opponents also fielded highly competitive teams made up largely of players raided from Negro League squads. The pressure on the Trujillo players was such that they felt that winning the championship was a life-or-death endeavor. The team would often be locked up at night to ensure that they would be in tip-top shape for the next day’s game.10

Bankhead posted a .309 batting average with 21 hits in 68 at-bats, but it was Gibson’s .453 average and Paige’s 8-2 record that led the Dragones to the championship game against San Pedro de Macoris. In that game Bankhead had the most dramatic at-bat of his career. The Dragones were trailing 5-4 in the seventh inning against Negro League All-Star pitcher Chet Brewer when Bankhead strode to the plate with Bell on first base. Bell recalled:

“Brewer knew Bankhead was a great clutch hitter and tried to be careful with him. Too careful. The count went to three and one. Brewer came in with some smoke, but he got it high. I thought Bankhead would drive the pitch, but he had a big cut and fouled it back. Then he connected on the three-two pitch. He was a line-drive hitter, and this one went way over the left field fence. We were pretty happy.”11

Paige retired the final six batters, five on strikeouts, to ensure the victory. “I guess we helped Trujillo stay in office,” claimed Bell,12 but the players could not get out of the Dominican Republic fast enough.

Bankhead, like many other Negro League players, treated baseball like a year-round job, and the winter of 1937 found him playing for the Santa Clara Leopards in Cuba. This turned out to be one of his finest seasons as he led the league in several categories, including a .366 batting average, 89 hits, 5 triples, and 47 runs scored.13 The Leopards finished with a 44-18 record and stood in first place in the final league standings.14

The year 1937 proved to be a busy one for Bankhead as he also married Helen M. Hall on February 25. The two had a daughter, Brenda, in 1939, and a son, Anthony, in 1941. Anthony was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1970 and died at the age of 29. Brenda’s fate is unknown, and Helen died on October 10, 1985 in Pittsburgh.

Bankhead was known as Hall of Famer Josh Gibson’s best friend and confidant.15 Josh Gibson Jr. had this to say about their friendship: “I know that as far back as I can remember, Sammy was a constant. I don’t think they were inseparable, ’cause my father didn’t get that close to nobody. But they clicked out of mutual respect.”16 Unfortunately the two were also known for their legendary drinking prowess. Stories of drinking contests that lasted long into the night, drinking on buses, between doubleheaders, and sometimes even during games, can be found in every Gibson biography and article where Bankhead is mentioned. In 1947 Bankhead was managing in Caracas, Venezuela, when he received a telegram announcing Gibson’s death. All-Star catcher, Bill “Ready” Cash was there and had this to say: “Bankhead went out that night, got drunk, came in and tore up everything in his room. They had to send him home.”17

Bankhead mended fences with Gus Greenlee in time to join the Pittsburgh Crawfords for the 1938 season. Greenlee had been upset that many of his star players had been lured to the Dominican Republic and had chosen money over loyalty. The Crawfords lacked star power that year as Gibson headed to the Homestead Grays while Bell and Paige played in the Mexican League. The Crawfords finished in fourth place with a 24-16 league record that placed them 4½ games behind Gibson’s first-place Grays.

The year 1939 marked the end of the great Pittsburgh Crawfords franchise, as Greenlee Field was demolished and replaced with housing projects.18 Bankhead started the season with the relocated but short-lived Toledo Crawfords; however, he quickly jumped to the Homestead Grays to play second base with his old friend Josh Gibson. Bankhead hit a solid .292, as the Grays won the Negro National League pennant, but lost the Negro League World Series to future Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella and his Baltimore Elite Giants. Bankhead went 7-for-23 in the series for a .304 batting average.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the integration of black players into Organized Baseball was a hot topic for both black and white sportswriters. Bankhead’s name often came up in such discussions. In 1936 William G. Nunn, city editor for the Pittsburgh Courier, wrote, “We don’t believe the majors can produce three outfielders with the all-around ability of ‘Cool Papa,’ Bill Wright or Bankhead.”19 Two years later white sportswriter Jimmy Powers of the New York Daily News wrote about seven Negro League players who would guarantee the New York Giants a pennant and included Bankhead as his starting center fielder.20 Even white superstar players like Honus Wagner, Dizzy Dean, and Paul Waner went to bat for integration, but their cries fell on the deaf ears of antiquated thinkers like Washington Senators owner Calvin Griffith, Philadelphia Athletics owner Connie Mack, and Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis.21 Sadly, the window of time closed on Negro baseball legends like Gibson, Leonard, Bell, Bankhead, and many others.

In the decade preceding Jackie Robinson’s arrival in the major leagues, more than 100 players from the Negro Leagues played in Mexico.22 Mexican business mogul and multimillionaire Jorge Pasquel was a big reason why. Pasquel, a strong and fearless leader,23 wanted to turn the Mexican League into baseball’s third major league. He lured dozens of black players south of the border by offering them salaries that were two to four times greater than what they were making in the States.

In 1940 Bankhead signed with the Monterrey Carta Blanco, playing shortstop and leading the league in stolen bases with 32. He had 122 hits in 384 at-bats for a .315 average, but his team finished the year nine games behind Pasquel’s championship club, the Vera Cruz Azules.24 The Azules fielded one of the most impressive lineups in baseball history with Bell, Gibson, Ray Dandridge, Leon Day, Martin Dihigo, and Willie Wells, each of whom eventually received enshrinement in Cooperstown.

Bankhead signed with Monterrey again in 1941, which turned out to be career year for him as he tore up the league with 142 hits in 405 at-bats for a stellar .351 average. He hit 8 home runs, scored 74 times, stole 19 bases, and drove home 85 runs.25 In spite of Bankhead’s batting prowess, the Monterrey team finished in last place with a 43-59 record, 24 games behind the repeating champion Azules.26

At the conclusion of the 1941 Mexican League season, All-Star catcher Quincy Trouppe formed a barnstorming team that played throughout the United States. The team was called the Mexican League All Stars and included the familiar names of Bell, Dandridge, Wells, Gibson, and Bankhead. The team won all 10 of its games before disbanding for lack of financial support.27 The well-traveled Bankhead then finished off the year by playing for the Ponce Leones in Puerto Rico.

Bankhead returned to the Negro Leagues with the Homestead Grays in 1942. Garnett Blair, pitcher for the Grays, said:

“Sam Bankhead to me was an outstanding player. He played shortstop and he would go behind third to get it and throw you out waist high across the diamond. He could not only play short, he could play second, third, he could play outfield, he could pitch, and he could catch. He was all around, so anytime I was pitching I said if that ball goes to Sam Bankhead, fine. There’s nothing wrong with that, let it go there because if he got his glove on it, he was going to throw you out.”28

Bankhead batted .283 while playing shortstop for the first-place Grays. On July 21, 1942, the Mansfield (Ohio) News Journal credited the Grays with a 79-4 record that included exhibition games.29 The team reached the Negro League World Series but was quickly dismantled by Paige and the Kansas City Monarchs in five games.30

All the stars aligned for the Homestead Grays and Sam Bankhead in 1943, as the Grays finished the year with a 44-15 league record. Bankhead was second in the batting title race with an otherworldly .483 average.31 The Grays won a hard-fought eight-game Negro League World Series against the Birmingham Black Barons.32 With the Grays trailing 4-2 and two outs in the eighth inning, Bankhead delivered a clutch single to drive in what turned out to be the Series-winning runs.33

In what must have seemed like a foregone conclusion to the rest of the league, the Homestead Grays easily finished in first place in 1944 and 1945. Bankhead hit .345 in 1944 but slumped to .262 in 1945. The 1944 team once again met the Black Barons in the World Series and easily dispatched them in five games this time. Bankhead went 7-for-18 (.388) in the Series. The 1945 Series was a different story for the Grays as they were swept by future major leaguer Sam Jethroe and the Cleveland Buckeyes. In keeping with his subpar 1945 season, Bankhead had an uncharacteristically bad Series: 1-for-16 (.063).

The 1946 and 1947 seasons were both disappointments for the proud Homestead Grays. The 1946 team fell to third place with a losing record of 27-28, with Bankhead hitting .265. The 1947 squad finished in second place with a more respectable 38-27 record but Bankhead’s average dipped to an anemic .246. A Grays team composed of aging veterans, Jackie Robinson’s integration of major-league baseball, and the tragic death of Josh Gibson on January 20, 1947, seemed to spell the beginning of the end for the Homestead Grays.

The 1948 season turned out to be a last hurrah for both the Homestead Grays and the NNL. The press was paying far less attention to the Negro Leagues by this point, but it is known that the Grays defeated the Baltimore Elite Giants in the NNL playoffs and met the Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro League World Series for the third time in six years. The Black Barons had knocked off a strong Kansas City Monarchs team in the NAL playoffs and featured a 17-year-old legend in the making, Willie Mays.

Bankhead  helped lead the Grays to a five-game championship victory. After the series ended, the NNL disbanded, which meant that the 1948 Negro League World Series had been the last of its kind.

The Homestead Grays still fielded teams for the 1949 and 1950 seasons, with Bankhead staying on as player-manager. By all accounts these teams were highly competitive, with newspapers reporting records of 97-15 and 64-8 for the 1949 and 1950 seasons respectively.34 In 11 box scores found from the 1950 season, an aging Bankhead banged out 18 hits in 45 at-bats.35 The decline of the Negro Leagues continued apace, however, and the Grays folded after the 1950 season.

After Josh Gibson’s death in 1947, Sam became a surrogate father for 16-year-old Josh Gibson Jr., who played second base and third base for Bankhead’s 1949 and 1950 Grays teams; however, Josh Jr. could not escape his father’s enormous shadow. In 1951 Sam took Josh Jr. with him north of the border to play in the Class-C Canadian Provincial League for the Pittsburgh Pirates-affiliated Farnham Pirates. Canada was where Bankhead attained one of baseball’s most underappreciated milestones by becoming the first black manager for a mostly white professional baseball team. Josh Jr. did not fare as well: While playing for Farnham, he broke his ankle sliding into second base, effectively ending his baseball career.

After spending the 1951 season in Canada, Sam and Josh Jr. returned home to the Hill District in Pittsburgh and took jobs working side by side for the Pittsburgh Sanitation Department. Josh Jr. had this to say about their experience together: “I worked with him. I listened to him still, like playin’ baseball. He was one of the smartest guys ’cause he read all the time.”36

Bankhead’s post-baseball life has led to speculation, most notably by Negro League historian John Holway,37 that the character Troy Maxson, from August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fences was based on Sam. Like Bankhead, Maxson was a bitter ex-Negro League star who worked on a garbage truck in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Bankhead was bitter that he never got the chance to play in baseball’s major leagues,38 and he refused to go to baseball games in his later years, even missing the chance to see his younger brother, Dan, pitch for the Brooklyn Dodgers. In a 1971 interview, Bankhead had this to say about major-league baseball: “After I quit, I never went to see a game again. I am not jealous, but I cannot be a fan.”39 Sam preferred to stay close to home, playing cards with his buddies, endlessly talking about the old days, and – most of all – drinking. Bankhead’s brother Fred died in 1972, and his youngest brother, Dan, died in 1976, events that made Sam lean on the bottle even more heavily than before. While the exact circumstances of Sam Bankhead’s death are not known, it is known that he was shot in the head and killed on the night of July 24, 1976.40 Whether he was shot by a friend after an argument in a downtown hotel, or shot in self-defense by a co-worker at the William Penn Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh, one thing is certain: Negro League legend Sam Bankhead’s life came to an unceremonious end at the age of 65.

In 2005 the Washington Post honored Negro League legend Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe upon the occasion of his 102nd birthday and asked him, “What player do you think of when you think of the Negro Leagues?” Radcliffe responded, “Bankhead. He was a great player.”41 Indeed, Bankhead had been picked as the first-team utility player as early as 1952 in a Pittsburgh Courier poll that named the all-time Negro League All-Stars.42 He was universally respected as a player and manager and continually rose to the occasion when playing with and against the greatest players in Negro League history.

Bankhead would have made a tremendous major-leaguer. By all accounts he was an exceptional fielder, a speed demon on the basepaths, and a skilled batsman, as his lifetime .289 batting average attests.43 If nonleague statistics are included, then his average shoots up to well above .300. Bankhead is also credited with a .301 average against white major leaguers in barnstorming games.44

As of January 2017, there have been 220 major-league players elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame. Negro League players have been grossly underrepresented, with only 35 players honored with plaques thus far. When examining the scope of his entire career, it is not hard to envision a place for Sam Bankhead in the hallowed halls of Cooperstown.

 

This biography appears in "Bittersweet Goodbye: The Black Barons, the Grays, and the 1948 Negro League World Series" (SABR, 2017), edited by Frederick C. Bush and Bill Nowlin.

 

Sources

All statistics, unless otherwise noted, are from:

Holway, John B. The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues: The Other Half of Baseball History (Fern Park, Florida: Hastings House Publishers, 2001).

 

Notes

1 John B. Holway, Black Giants (Springfield, Virginia: Lord Fairfax Press, 2010), 92.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Conflicting sources have Bankhead being born on September 18, 1905, in Empire, Alabama, but the 1910 birthdate shows up on both the US Social Security Death Index and on his gravestone in Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania.

5 Larry Lester, Black Baseball’s National Showcase (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001), 1.

6 Ibid.

7 Jim Bankes, The Pittsburgh Crawfords (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2001), 148.

8 Lester, 88.

9 John B. Holway, The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues: The Other Half of Baseball History (Fern Park, Florida: Hastings House Publishers, 2001), 321.

10  Holway, John B., Josh and Satch: The Life and Times of Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige (New York: Meckler Publishing, 1991), 90.

11  Bankes, 110.

12  Ibid.

13  Dr. Layton Revel and Luis Munoz, Forgotten Heroes: Samuel “Sam” Bankhead (Carrollton, Texas: Center for Negro League Research, 2011), 23.

14 I bid.

15  Brad Snyder, Beyond the Shadow of the Senators (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003), 171, 274.

16  Mark Ribowsky, The Power and the Darkness: The Life of Josh Gibson in the Shadows of the Game (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 164.

17  Brent Kelley, Voices From the Negro Leagues: Conversations With 52 Baseball Standouts (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1998), 145.

18  Holway, The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues, 356.

19  Lester, 89.

20  Lester, 109-110.

21  Holway, Josh and Satch, 151-155.

22  John Virtue, South of the Color Barrier (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2008), 11.

23  Virtue, 12.

24  Virtue, 85.

25  Revel and Munoz, 11.

26  Ibid.

27  Revel and Munoz, 12.

28  Larry Lester and Sammy J. Miller, Black Baseball in Pittsburgh (Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2001), 75.

29  Revel and Munoz, 12.

30  Holway, The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues,

398-399.

31  Tetelo Vargas of the New York Cubans hit .484.

32  Game Two ended in a tie.

33 Holway, Josh and Satch, 171.

34  Revel and Munoz,19.

35  Ibid. 19.

36  Brent Kelley, The Negro Leagues Revisited: Conversations With 66 More Baseball Heroes (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2000), 258.

37  Holway, Black Giants, 92.

38  August Wilson, Fences (New York: Plume, 1986).

39  Holway, Black Giants, 97.

40  Ibid.

41  “Ex-Washington Player Goes Back a Few Years,” Washington Post, April 12, 2005. washingtonpost.com/archive/sports/2005/04/12/ex-washington-player-goes-back-a-few-years/4a2faf00-9223-4718-b46c-e1b8e0213a6b/?utm_term=.66be349249e0. Accessed December 31, 2016.

42  James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (New York: Carroll & Graff Publishers, Inc., 1994), 52.

43  Holway, Black Giants, 99.

44  Holway, Black Giants, 101.