Samuel Howard Bankhead
Position: ss, cf, 2b, lf, rf, 3b, p
Teams: Birmingham Black Barons (1929, 1931-1932, 1938), Nashville Elite Giants (1930, 1932-1934), Louisville Black Caps (1932), Kansas City Monarchs (1934), Pittsburgh Crawfords (1935-1936, 1938), Santo Domingo (1937), Memphis Red Sox (1938), Toledo Crawfords (1939), Homestead Grays (1939, 1942-1950), Mexican League (1940-1941), Canadian League (1951)
Height: 5' 8'' Weight: 175
Born: September 18, 1905, Empire, Alabama
Died: July 24, 1976, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
A hustling, all-around ballplayer, he was an outstanding fielder with a wide range and good hands but was best known for his exceptional throwing arm. On the bases he had good speed and could take and extra base, and was also a proficient base stealer. A good clutch hitter with moderate power, he could pull the ball and was always a threat at the plate. He was a player's player who was at home as a middle infielder or as an outfielder and excelled at whatever position he was placed. He was selected to the East-West All Star team seven times, representing three different teams (Elites, Crawfords, and Grays), and starting at five different positions (2b, ss, lf, cf, rf) while batting .346 in the classics. In a 1952 Pittsburgh Courier poll, he was selected as the first-team utility player on the all-time Negro Leagues All Star team.
Sam was an integral part of the great Pittsburgh Crawfords of the mid-1930s and 1940s. He possessed one of the strongest arms in the Negro Leagues and was a solid hitter, with a .318 lifetime batting average. In 1937 he jumped to Santo Domingo along with Satchel Paige to play with the Ciudad Trujillo team, hitting .309 to help them win the championship. During the ensuing winter he led the Cuban League with a .366 average, and in his four seasons on the island, 1937-1941, produced a lifetime .297 average. He also is credited with a .342 average in exhibition games against major leaguers. Even late in his career, Bankhead was still regarded as one of the top players in the Negro National League, and had averages of .287, .282, and .277 in 1944-1946, and also hit .350 in the 1944 World Series against the Birmingham Black Barons.
As a youngster in Empire, Alabama, a mining town near Birmingham, Bankhead worked in the coal mines and played pickup baseball games in his free time. After several years he began his professional career with the Birmingham Black Barons in 1929, and played with the Nashville Elite Giants in 1930 before returning to the Black Barons, where he established himself early in his career as a superb utility man, playing infield and outfield. The Alabaman even did a little catching, and in 1932 took a few turns on the pitching slab with the Black Barons, Elite Giants, and Louisville Black Caps. However, pitching did not prove to be his best position, as available records show a 2-6 ledger for the year.
After the season he traveled to the West Coast to play in the California winter league, where he hit .371 and .344 with good power for the next two winters, 1932-1933, while also ranking high in stolen bases each year. Back with the Elites as a shortstop, he hit .338 in 1934 to earn his first All Star assignment.
The next season he signed with Gus Greenlee's Pittsburgh Crawfords, a team that fielded five Hall of Famers and is generally conceded to be the greatest black team of all time. Bankhead fit right in with the other superstars, batting .354 and .324 in 1935 and 1936. In 1938, Memphis Red Sox manager "Double Duty" Radcliffe picked up Bankhead and David Whatley from the Birmingham Black Barons for the Negro American League playoffs against the Atlanta Black Crackers. The next season both of these players were signed by the Homestead Grays, defending champions of the Negro National League. Joining the Grays as a second baseman, he hit .377 as the Grays won their third consecutive pennant.
Bankhead interrupted his tenure with the Grays to accompany his friend Josh Gibson to Monterrey, Mexico, in 1940 and 1941, where Bankhead hit .318 and .351 while again showing good power and stolen-base totals, leading the league with 32 stolen bases in 1940. He and Gibson returned to the Grays for the 1942 season and, at age 38, moved into the lineup at shortstop as the Grays won the next four straight pennants and Bankhead made four more All Star appearances out of his first five seasons back in the field.
While with the Grays, he played winters with Ponce in the Puerto Rican League, batting .351 in 1941-1942 and .271 and .290 in 1944-1946. Back in the United States, Bankhead hit .284 as the Grays won another pennant in 1948, the last one before the Negro National League folded. During the latter years of the league, Bankhead played a winter each in Venezuela (1946) and in Panama (1948). The next year, as the Grays became a traveling independent team, he managed them for two seasons before they disbanded.
Sam had four younger brothers (Dan, Fred, Joe, and Garnett) who played in the Negro Leagues, but he also developed a close friendship with Josh Gibson and, after Gibson's death, Bankhead became a surrogate father for Josh Gibson, Jr. He signed the youngster to play with the Grays during this time and took him under his wing, teaching him about both baseball and life. In 1951 he took the younger Gibson to Canada with him when he managed Farnham in the Provincial League, becoming the first black man to manage a white ballclub. While at the helm, his team finished in seventh place with a .423 winning percentage, with the skipper batting .274 at age forty-seven.
In the off-season of 1949-1950 he had worked for the refuse department for the city of Pittsburgh, and after retiring from baseball, he and Josh, Jr. took full-time jobs there. Some observers contend that Bankhead served as the model for the character Troy Maxson in the Broadway play "Fences." Later Bankhead worked as a hotel porter at the William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh. He was a hard drinker and, while working there, his death resulted from a gunshot wound inflicted by a friend after Bankhead had provoked an argument that escalated into a drunken fight.
Source: James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994.