Showing posts with label Dan Bankhead. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dan Bankhead. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

How Dan Bankhead's MLB debut nearly incited a riot

The pitching mound in Ebbets Field shouldn’t have been a source of angst for Dan Bankhead when Brooklyn Dodgers manager Burt Shotton summoned him from the bullpen on August 26, 1947. The righty hurler had been playing professionally in the Negro Leagues since 1940, had four other brothers who played in the league, and served as a Montford Point Marine during World War II. Yet despite all of the formidable opponents he faced, it was the possibility of a race riot that he feared most if something went wrong on the hill that day.
Bankhead signs autographs before his 8/26/47 debut

“See, here’s what I always heard. Dan was scared to death that he was going to hit a white boy with a pitch,” Buck O’Neil said in Joe Posnanski’s, ‘The Soul of Baseball.’ “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.”

Bankhead's famous windup
Bankhead made history as the first African-American pitcher in major league history on that day in 1947, following his teammate Jackie Robinson in the record books who had broken baseball’s color barrier earlier that season. Pitching in relief of Hal Gregg who gave up six runs and only lasted one inning, Bankhead didn’t fare much better against the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates. He was charged with eight runs in three-and-a-third innings, ending the day with a 21.60 ERA. To his credit Bankhead homered in his only at-bat, but what was almost prophetic was an incident that occurred in the top of the fourth inning.

Bankhead's first MLB home run

With the Pirates leading 8-2 with two outs, outfielder Wally Westlake approached the plate. Like Bankhead, Westlake was a 26-year-old rookie and World War II veteran trying to find his place in the game. Westlake hit a home run earlier in the game and looked to add another to his totals. Bankhead wound up and fired off one of his patented fastballs for the first pitch of the at-bat, but as it left his hand, his worst nightmare unraveled before his eyes.

He hit Westlake squarely in the upper arm.

“It was like the fans held their breath waiting for the reaction,” the now 94-year-old Westlake wrote in a 2008 letter. “He was just another dude trying to get me out and I was trying to whack his butt.”

The first game an African-American man pitched in the majors and he hit a white batter. The crowd waited for Westlake’s next move. Was the pitch retaliation for his home run earlier in the game? A split second decision by Westlake to charge the mound or take his walk down to first base would have a significant impact the fate of African-American pitchers in the majors. Fortunately, Westlake chose the latter, with little regard to what the fans expected him to do.

“I think I disappointed the rednecks,” he said.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Book Review - Black Barons of Birmingham: The South's Greatest Negro League Team and Its Players - Larry Powell

"Black Barons of Birmingham: The South's Greatest Negro League Team and Its Players "
Larry Powell
McFarland Publishing, 2009
220 pages

Hall of Fame icons Willie Mays and Satchel Paige resonate deeply with baseball fans, as both were prime examples of perfection at their respective positions. They both share a common bond, as they played for one of the Negro Leagues most storied franchises, the Birmingham Black Barons. University of Alabama professor Larry Powell provides not only a history of this Southern staple of Negro League Baseball, but first hand narratives from the players who lived to tell it.

Staring in 1920, Birmingham was home for such Negro League greats as Mule Suttles, Willie Wells, Bill Foster, Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe, Piper Davis, Artie Wilson, Charley Pride and Dan Bankhead who was the first African-American pitcher in Major League baseball. The team was a fixture in an area that had very few options for African American athletes and fans. They provided hope and entertainment for many during the Depression and Jim-Crow segregation.

Birmingham's consistent presence in black baseball allows Powell to take the reader on the roller coaster ride that was Negro League Baseball, as the league peaked and then tried to hold on as key players were scooped up by Major League Baseball. He separates the book into pre and post-era integration, as the Black Barons were one of the few Negro League teams that played from the inception of the Negro National League in 1920 and survived until the Negro Leagues complete demise in 1960. This gives Powell the opportunity to isolate the perspective on how the league changed once the door opened to Major League Baseball.

The book is dominated by the interviews of the living Black Barons, most who played after 1950 when the league was considered less than Major League caliber. Such is the function of writing a narrative on the Negro Leagues in 2009, as there are only a few surviving players from the 1930's and 1940's. Many of the teams had disbanded and Major League Baseball was raiding the top talent of the league. While the competition may not have been as strong in the heyday of players like Davis, Paige and Suttles, their stories share the same hopes of making it big, the conflicts of playing for little pay versus working in local steel mills, and persevering in spite of the strong arm of the Jim Crow laws in the segregated South.

You will be intrigued by the tales of the play of these great men, and moved by their experiences of fighting against segregation to play baseball. You will discover names of the greats that you never saw play, and by the end of the book you will wish you had been there to see them. These are the stories of the Birmingham Black Barons, and they are the ones that our future generations need to hear.