April 15, 1947 will always be remembered as the day baseball's color barrier was broken by Jackie Robinson, however four months later another significant breakthrough was also achieved. On August 26th, a rookie pitcher stepped onto Ebbets Field in middle relief for the Dodgers. Originally from Alabama, Dan Bankhead was a star for the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro League prior to having his contract purchased by Branch Rickey and the Brooklyn Dodgers. He would become the first black pitcher in Major League Baseball.
While teams had their pick of Satchel Paige or Don Newcombe, the Dodgers decided to make Bankhead the first black pitcher. He joined the team with great expectations. The iconic Paige swore that Bankhead threw harder than anyone he'd ever seen, as he brought a pedigree with him that was unlike any of the other Negro Leaguers who'd come before him. As a 27-year-old right-hander, Bankhead was in his baseball prime, so if he could duplicate what he'd done in the Negro Leagues, he'd have a career that surely would have earned him the same respect that would later go to Paige and Newcombe.
Unfortunately Bankhead's debut foretold his future as he gave up ten hits in 3-1/3 innings pitching in relief that day. However, there was something very impressive about his debut that will forever stand out. Although he struggled from the mound, Bankhead hit a home run in his first at-bat marking the first time a black player had done so.
Unlike the success as his pioneering brother Robinson, Bankhead struggled in his few pitching appearances, and was ultimately shipped to the minors for the 1948 and 1949 seasons. He eventually returned to the Dodgers for the 1950 season, appearing in 41 games, with twelve starts, and finished with nine wins, four losses and a 5.50 earned run average. In 1951, his final year in the majors, he appeared in seven games, losing his only decision, with an ERA of 15.43.
It is the tale of two pioneers, one is celebrated by all and has a box office movie hit, while the other is simply considered a footnote. Who knows the amount of pressure Dan Bankhead experienced as he took the mound to direct an all-white club (with the exception of one). Regardless, what he did to get to that point is nothing short of historic. Jackie Robinson deserves to be remembered for everything that he did, and Dan Bankhead deserves not to be forgotten for the same reason.
*Dan Bankhead wore #43 for the majority of his major league baseball career. He wore #23 in his debut.