Friday, October 23, 2015

Dan Bankhead Puerto Rican League Baseball Card

I came across the above 1949-50 Toleteros Puerto Rican Winter League Baseball card above at a auction and decided to share it.  It is currently available on auction.  Check that out here.

It features former Dodger pitcher Dan Bankhead as a member of Caguas Criollos.  As you may know, he was the very first African-American pitcher in the Major Leagues; having joined Brooklyn just a few months after Jackie's debut.  At the time, the Dodgers were hurting for pitching, so the team scouted the Negro Leagues for an immediate filler.

Sometimes compared to Bob Feller, he was a well-known commodity with a blazing fastball, but a penchant for being wild.  Still, he had the "can't miss" label stamped all over him, so the team was thankful to have signed him.

Since Brooklyn needed his arm right away, Bankhead was immediately tasked with joining the big club.  Unfortunately, his first Major League game was not a good one.  He came in out of the bullpen against Pittsburgh in late August 1947, and got pummeled.  I don't mean that in a physically violent way, although by some accounts this was a worry for Bankhead.  What I mean is that the Pirates knocked out ten hits in his 3.1 innings of work; driving in eight earned runs.  Certainly not a great beginning for Dan.

What's interesting about this game, though, is not how poorly he pitched.  What's interesting is the outcome of an single at-bat that happened in the fourth inning against Pirate outfielder Wally Westlake.  On the very first pitch to Westlake, with two men on, Bankhead threw a fastball that got away from him.  Dan's pitch had launched itself hard and fast, and struck Wally square into his left elbow.

Based on certain accounts, Dan Bankhead was scared to death of this possibility.  Per Buck O'Neil, as told by Rory Costello at the SABR Biography Project:
“See, here’s what I always heard. Dan was scared to death that he was going to hit a white boy with a pitch. He thought there might be some sort of riot if he did it. Dan was from Alabama just like your father. But Satchel became a man of the world. Dan was always from Alabama, you know what I mean? He heard all those people calling him names, making those threats, and he was scared. He’d seen black men get lynched.”
Can you imagine what was going through his mind after that?

I can only guess that glimpses of past horrors rushed to him like a hurricane in the Pacific.  As O'Neil intimated above, having witnessed the worse society can offer, I'd be willing to bet that Dan Bankhead was in the midst of fearing for his life.  Instead, a better outcome ensued.

Wally Westlake brushed it off like it was any other hit-by-pitch.  He took his base to load them up without any fanfare.

And with that the game of Baseball, in the span of a single season, had witnessed not only its first integrated game but also a hit batsman that didn't invoke a race riot.  I know that in today's eye's this notion seems silly, but in 1947 this was a real concern... And a major societal advancement for the country.

If you're interested in knowing more about Dan Bankhead I suggest checking out Rory Costello's fantastic biography at the SABR Biography Project here.  It's well worth your time to read.

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* Dodgers Blue Heaven home page *

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