Daniel Robert Bankhead
Position: p, of
Teams: Chicago American Giants, Birmingham Black Barons (1940-1942), military service (1943-1945), Memphis Red Sox (1946-1947), minor leagues (1947-1949, 1951-1952), major leagues (1947, 1950-1951), Canadian League (1953), Mexican League (1954-1965)
Height: 6' 1'' Weight: 184
Born: May 3, 1920, Empire, Alabama
Died: May 2, 1976, Houston, Texas
One of the five Bankhead brothers who played in the Negro Leagues, the hard-throwing right-hander had a blazing fastball and a tantalizing screwball. He capitalized on these attributes to earn a pitching spot in three All Star games (1941, 1946, and 1947) during the 1940s, and was the winning pitcher in the 1947 contest. That year was a good one for Bankhead, as he defeated the New York Yankees in the spring while pitching with Caguas, Puerto Rico, and joined the Brooklyn Dodgers later in the season to become the first black pitcher in the major leagues. Bankhead was also a good hitter, and in his first major-league at-bat, he hit a home run. But that was a false promise, and he was pounded pretty hard in his handful of pitching appearances during the remainder of the season.
After the inauspicious trial with the Dodgers at the end of 1947, he spent the next two seasons regrouping. In 1948 he chalked up impressive stats at Nashua (20-6, 2.35 ERA, and a no-hitter), and St. Paul (4-0), following in 1949 with a 20-6 mark (while batting .328) at Montreal in the International League to earn another shot with the Dodgers. His second season in Brooklyn, 1950, was his most productive major-league season, as he compiled a 9-4 ledger despite a 5.50 ERA. Off to a poor start the next year, losing his only decision, he was farmed to Montreal, where his run of hard luck continued and he ended the season with a 2-6 record. Bankhead was never to return to the major leagues, and during his short major-league career he registered a lifetime 9-5 record.
After another unproductive year on the mound at Montreal in 1952, where he lost his only decision, he signed with Drummondville in the Canadian Provincial League and attempted a transition to an everyday player. Always fairly handy with the stick, he hit .275 with respectable power. However, as a batter he was good enough to be a good-hitting pitcher but hot good enough to play as a regular in the major leagues. With his batting average he would have had to have generated more power and cut down significantly on his strikeouts to warrant a legitimate shot at the major leagues.
He continued to try to mix both pitching and hitting without concentrating on one position and, in 1954, he began a long career in Mexico. For a dozen seasons he played with an assortment of Mexican teams, playing as pitcher-first baseman-outfielder and building a respectable record, hitting over .300 five times and compiling a lifetime pitching record of 32-19. His best years on the slab were 1961-1962, when he was 8-2 and 9-6 despite high ERAs of 5.14 and 4.06.
Touted early in his career as another Satchel Paige, he could match Paige's speed but not his control, and Bankhead's early promise was never fully realized. He began his career in the Negro Leagues with the Birmingham Black Barons and, in league contests, had records of 6-1 and 3-0 in 1941-1942. However, he was better identified with the Memphis Red Sox, where he had records of 6-2 and 4-4 in 1946-1947 and was the highest-paid player on the ballclub. His salary escalated because he was bold in asking for raises when other ballplayers would not. His attention to money matters carried over to the major leagues, and when he signed with the Dodgers, he had an agent negotiate the contract for him. During this time, pitching with Caguas in the Puerto Rican League, he was compiling impressive strikeout totals, whiffing 179 and 131 in the winter seasons of 1946-1947 and 1949-1950.
Source: James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994.