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Trio more than a footnote in history

Trio more than a footnote in history

They aren't much more than footnotes in baseball history, yet Dan Bankhead, Hank Thompson and Willard Brown deserve much more recognition than that.

For just as Larry Doby and Jackie Robinson were trailblazers, so were Bankhead, Thompson and Brown.

In the season of '47, this trio of Negro Leaguers followed Robinson and Doby to the Majors, and their arrival came with the same misgivings, hatreds and outrage that accompanied the two men who'd arrived there before them.

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None of the five men had a smooth ride in the bigs, said Bob Kendrick, marketing director of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

"They deserve the respect and the admiration for being courageous enough to do this," said Kendrick of Bankhead, Thompson and Brown. "In their way, they should be acknowledged, and we should know about them.

"These guys should not be forgotten."

But like so many people who weren't first, Bankhead, Thompson and Brown are mostly forgotten today. Ask anybody who the first man to break the four-minute barrier in the mile was and the answer comes back quickly: Roger Bannister.

And the second man to do so?

Whoever that miler is, he, too, is a footnote in sports history, nothing more.

Yet his story might be as compelling as Bannister's, just as Bankhead's, Thompson's or Brown's stories might be as compelling as Robinson's or Doby's. Because being third, fourth or fifth didn't shield them from the bigotry that Robinson and Doby confronted daily in baseball parks around the National and American Leagues.

"So few people realize these guys got to the Majors in '47 and think their plight might've been a little easier," Kendrick said. "I don't think people understand how close this was -- we're talking about weeks that separated Doby from Robinson and weeks that separated Doby from Thompson and Brown.

"None of these guys had it easy -- none of 'em."

In the case of Brown and Thompson, the two Negro Leaguers signed with the St. Louis Browns, a down-on-its-luck franchise that played in the shadow of the Cardinals, a perennial power that dominated the baseball landscape in the city. The Cards were also a team that threatened to boycott if Robinson played.

Was the racial climate with the Browns much different? Were the cities that Thompson and Brown went to after their call to the bigs in mid-July more tolerant of black players because Robinson's and Doby's arrival had warmed people's hearts to integration?

Baseball historians tend not to think so. They also knew that teams wanted talent.

"They were going after premier players," said Phil S. Dixon, who's written extensively on black baseball. "With any player, you don't know what they're ultimately capable of.

"But Dan Bankhead was an outstanding player. All of those players were."

Just as in the case of Robinson and Doby, Thompson, Brown and Bankhead were plucked from the Negro Leagues for reasons that didn't altogether have to do with their talent. Their selections had as much to do with their perceived ability to handle the social pressures.

"Essentially, they were taken out of their comfort zone -- obviously by their own desire -- to an environment where nobody really wanted them there," Kendrick said. "It was supposed to be a better opportunity, but it was a difficult opportunity.

"They were put into an environment that, in some ways, it was so much easier to fail than it was to succeed."

Though his career with the Browns started as a disappointment, the 21-year-old Thompson went on to play nine seasons in the Majors. He proved more than a journeyman; he never proved to be a star.

Neither did Brown or Bankhead, the first Negro League pitcher to reach the Majors. Failure followed both men. They did nothing of significance in the big leagues. Brown, a 32-year-old outfielder at the time, might have simply been too old.

Although he was a legendary slugger in the Negro Leagues, Brown played a total of 27 games in the Majors and never displayed the greatness that would later earn him induction in Cooperstown for his play in black baseball.

"People have debated for years that he didn't do good when he went up to the big leagues, and that's the reason why he shouldn't be in the Hall of Fame," Dixon said of Brown. "The thing was, he was in and out of the lineup. The Browns never let him fully play and contribute to the team.

"It was almost a publicity thing for a team that was in last place. The Browns weren't a strong team in St. Louis."

As for Bankhead, his failure had everything to do with the burden he had to shoulder. A man reared in the South, he never felt he could pitch inside, Kendrick said. Bankhead never felt he could hit a white ballplayer and live to talk about it.

His roots made him weary. His roots made him ineffective.

After one season with the Dodgers, he did what Brown did: Drifted from the big leagues to lesser leagues around the baseball world.

"There are a lot of Negro Leaguers who went into the Majors and organized ball," said Dick Clark, a respected author and authority on the Negro Leagues. "But, you know, the ones who are all celebrated turned out to be the best players.

"The guys who didn't turn out to be superstars like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Doby and Robinson are sort of forgotten."

Justice B. Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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