Dan Bankhead was the first African American pitcher in the Major Leagues. However, Bankhead’s big league career was brief and unsatisfying, and so even the black newspapers never covered him in depth. He also passed away before historians could record his personal memories. As with many black ballplayers of his day, Bankhead’s career was multinational. He started in Puerto Rico, made detours to the Dominican Republic and Canada, and then knocked around Mexico well into his forties. A respectable hitter, Dan often played the field, while coaching and managing as well.
Bankhead’s talent drew comparisons to Bob Feller, but control problems and an old injury hindered him. Coping with racial obstacles was another big issue—even fellow Negro Leaguers such as Buck O’Neil thought so.1
This “quiet, pleasant man” had other sides to his personality.2 Sometimes he simply did not act in his own best interest—he lost two jobs under a cloud. His brothers Sam (age seventy) and Garnett (age sixty-three) both died by gunshot following quarrels. Dan also had a temper, which a weakness for women allegedly provoked. His family life was at times tumultuous. Yet as he battled illness and lived hand to mouth in his final years, he finally attained peace.
Daniel Robert Bankhead was born on May 3, 1920, in Empire, Alabama. His parents, Garnett Bankhead Sr. and Arie (Armstrong) Bankhead, had five boys and two girls who lived to adulthood. Four of Dan’s brothers played in the Negro Leagues. (Another brother, James, born roughly two years before Dan, apparently died young.) Bankhead’s given name appears simply as “Dan” in his military records, in the Social Security system, and on his gravestone. Dan’s son William F. Bankhead believes that his father shortened it at some point.
Dan Bankhead was the Major Leagues’first African
Empire is about thirty miles northwest of Alabama’s largest city, Birmingham. It is in the coal country that fueled Birmingham’s steel industry. Garnett (who played baseball himself) worked for a lumber company, on a loading facility, and as a coal miner. These were hard and dangerous jobs—