Jackie Robinson’s barrier-breaking moment in Major League Baseball on April 15, 1947 still stands as one of the most stirring moment in sports. That same year, Dan Bankhead made history this week by becoming the first Black pitcher in the majors, but his promising career swiftly turned sour.
Bankhead was born on May 3, 1920 in Empire, Ala. He began his playing career in the Negro Leagues for the Birmingham Black Barons and the Memphis Red Sox in 1940, and was one of the best hitting pitchers in the league. The marine and World War II veteran was recruited in 1947 by Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey, who gave Robinson his first shot.
Unlike Robinson, who had the mental toughness to withstand death threats and racist taunts, Bankhead wilted under the pressure. In a New York Times profile, accounts from Bankhead and others note that the hostile white crowds robbed Bankhead from taking the mound with confidence. On August 26, 1947, Bankhead hit a homer but also pitched one of the worst games of his career.
He was then sent to the minor leagues finishing out the rest of his professional career in the low-profile Mexican leagues as both a player and manager, but dalliances with multiple women and fathering children across the country led to Bankhead living hand to mouth in his final years. He eventually worked a job delivering groceries in Houston before cancer overtook him in May 1976 at the age of 55.
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