Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Thinking About Former Dodger Dan Bankhead - a 1952 Frostade Baseball Card on Auction

I came across the above card of former Dodger Dan Bankhead and immediately felt compelled to write about him because his career has pertinence today. 

He originally came up to the Dodgers in 1947, just a few months after Jackie, as a pitcher out of the bullpen.  Thus, he became the first African-American pitcher in the Major Leagues.  The above card is a 1952 Parkhurst Frostade card (an Canadian issue) of Bankhead and it is currently available at Greg Bussineau Auctions.  As you can see, he is wearing a Montreal Royals uniform.

Dan Bankhead is a Dodger often forgotten by fans.  He was born into a Baseball family that saw all five sons play in the Negro Leagues.  The oldest brother, Sam, was probably the best of the bunch.  He was named to nine East-West All-Star Teams, played on twenty-five championship teams and became the first African-American coach in the Minor Leagues.  Noted teammates of his included Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson.

Middle brother Dan had a strong career in the Negro Leagues, as well.  He played for elite clubs like the Birmingham Black Barons, Chicago American Giants and the Memphis Red Sox, and pitched in three East-West All-Star games.  It is said that he threw a 95-mph fastball, a big curve and a screwball, and was one the best hitting pitchers in the game.  He was also known to be a bit wild on the mound, so control was his kryptonite.

Late in the 1947 season the Dodgers came calling.  They were short on pitching, as a result of trading a pitcher who refused to play with Jackie Robinson - Kirbe Higbe, and scouted the Negro Leagues for a replacement.  So, in late August they came to Memphis and witnessed Dan strike out 11 batters for a victory.  At that point, they decided they had their man and immediately purchased his rights.

The Dodgers sent him straight to Brooklyn, bypassing the minor leagues, and had him pitch his first Major League game on August 26, 1947.  The "can't miss" prospect got shellacked.  He came into the game in relief of Hal Gregg, who himself had been hit hard, and proceeded to give up 8 runs on 10 hits in 3.1 innings of play.  The only good thing about his appearance was that he hit a 2-run home run against Pirates pitcher Fritz Ostermueller in his very first Major League at-bat.

Bankhead pitched better in his remaining three appearances that season, and even appeared in the subsequent World Series that Fall as a pinch runner.  The following two years, though, he was sent to pitch in the Minors; in both Nashua and St. Paul.  In 1950, he found himself back in Brooklyn after a hugely successful year in St. Paul (going 20-6, a 2.35 ERA and league-leading 243 strikeouts).  Unfortunately, he struggled with the team.  He continued to bounce around the Dodgers system a few more years until shoulder problems finally did him in.  Then, he retooled and became an outfielder in the Mexican League.  He would retire from the game in 1966 at the age of 46.

As with any hot prospect who doesn't make good, it's hard to know what exactly made him so ineffective in the Major Leagues.  Maybe the breaks didn't go his way, the pressure was too great or an injury (a shoulder in Bankhead's case) was the real culprit.  Or maybe, it's as simple as it wasn't meant to be.  Whatever the case, Dan Bankhead is a reminder that not every top prospect (make no mistake that Dan was considered a "can't miss".) is destined for stardom.  Sometimes, no oftentimes, it is just the case of our eyes being larger than our stomach.  The case of Dan Bankhead reminds me that we shouldn't be so headstrong about our current prospects.

For a great biography on Dan Bankhead check out Rory Costello's piece at the SABR biography project.  Also, Dr. Layton Revel and Luis Munoz wrote an exhaustive 40+ page paper for the Center for Negro League Baseball Research on the career of his brother, Sam Bankhead, that is worth a read, as well.  Check that out here.

Below are his career statistics, via Baseball Reference:

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