In the world of Black baseball, there have been several royal families of the game. The Griffeys, Bonds, Aarons, and Hairstons are just a few of the many MLBbro siblings that have been a part of the game.
One baseball family whose story hasn’t been told until now are the Bankheads of Eugene, Alabama. While brother Dan made his major league debut with the Dodgers, along with Jackie Robinson in 1947, his other four siblings were making a name for themselves in the Negro Leagues.
Dan Bankhead signed his first baseball contract with the Birmingham Black Barons in 1940. By 1947, he was a dominating pitcher for the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro American League often compared to fireballer Bob Feller.
He also was an outstanding hitter boasting a .385 average that season.
Sportswriter Frank ‘Fay’ Young of the Chicago Defender said he was “among the top three hurlers in the Negro American League,” and noted that he was one of ten players being seriously considered by Major League scouts.
Dan Bankhead Signs With Brooklyn Dodgers
Just after the Negro Leagues’ East-West All-Star Game of that season, Bankhead was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers. GM Branch Rickey, in sore need of solid pitching, purchased Bankhead’s contract from the Memphis Red Sox in late August.
On August 26, 1947, the right-hander took the mound in the second inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates and in the process became the first black pitcher in Major League Baseball history. Unfortunately, Bankhead was hit hard yielding 10 hits in three innings.
He salvaged some of his pride at the plate, though. Bankead smacked a home run in his first major league at bat off Fritz Ostermuelier, becoming the only NL pitcher ever to do so at the time.
He finished the season having pitched in four games for the Dodgers with an ERA of 7.20. Bankhead was shipped to the minor leagues for the 1948 and 1949 seasons. His best season came in 1948, he recorded 24 wins and six losses.
Dan Bankhead Returns To Majors In 1950
He returned to the Dodgers for the 1950 season, appearing in 41 games, and finished with nine wins, four losses, and a 5.50 ERA. In 1951, his final year in the majors, he appeared in seven games, losing his only decision, with an ERA of 15.43.
After he played his final major league game, Bankhead spent time in the Mexican League, playing with various teams through 1966. However, Dan wasn’t the only talented baseball player in the family.
The oldest Bankhead, Sammy, played with four teams (Pittsburgh Crawfords, Homestead Grays, Birmingham Black Barons, and Nashville Elite Giants) from 1931 to 1947.
A seven-time All Star who batted .346 during his playing career, Sammy scored the game-winning run for the Crawfords against the New York Cubans in the 7th game of the 1935 Negro League World Series.
Known as a hustling, all-around player with great speed, Sammy was versatile, starting at five different positions (2B, SS, LF, CF, RF) during his trips to the East-West All-Star Classic.
In 1952, the Pittsburgh Gazette selected him as a utility player on their all-time Negro League All Star team.
Joe, Garnett and Fred Bankhead Played Baseball Too
Two other brothers, Joe and Garnett, had brief careers with several Negro League squads as well. Garnett, a 6-foot-1, 175-pound righthander, began his career in 1947 with the Memphis Red Sox and was part of the Grays’ Negro League championship squad a year later.
Playing just one season, Joe was a part of the 1948 Black Barons squad that was defeated four games to one by the Grays in the Negro League World Series.
One other brother, Fred, was regarded by many as the most talented of the Bankheads. He began his career in 1938 for the Memphis Red Sox, first-half winners of the Negro American League.
Much like Sam, Fred was versatile as he played both second and third for Memphis during his career. From 1944-46, Fred was named to the East-West All-Star Classic while maintaining a .304 batting average.
Tragically, Fred was killed in a car accident in 1947. He was scheduled to attend Daniel Payne College in Selma, Alabama when his car skidded on an icy road enroute to picking up his parents during a Christmas visit. The Bankhead family and their contributions are just another part of the long legacy of great players that made up the history of Major League Baseball and the Negro Leagues.
NOTE: The Encyclopedia of Negro League Baseball, The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues, and the Negro League Baseball Players Association contributed to this story.