Bankhead a baseball pioneer

Bankhead a baseball pioneer

Dan Bankhead's first pitch to Pirates outfielder Wally Westlake came inside too far. As Westlake remembers it 60 years later, the pitch bore in hard, as Bankhead's high-octane fastballs tended to do, and then struck Westlake around the left elbow.

"I couldn't get away from it," Westlake said. "He just about took my left arm off."

To Westlake, being hit by a pitch wasn't uncommon. He'd been getting plunked with pitches since he started playing ball as a kid in California in the 1930s, and Westlake would continue to take pitches to his body in the seasons ahead.

Yet even he knew that getting hit by Bankhead on Aug. 26, 1947, represented a bit more history than the typical hit-by-a-pitch did.

For Bankhead, a rookie pitching in middle relief for the Brooklyn Dodgers, was making his debut on that summer afternoon in Ebbets Field. He was the first black pitcher to follow Jackie Robinson to the Majors. Larry Doby, Wilbert Brown and Hank Thompson had arrived five or six weeks earlier, but all had been position players.

At the time, fans and many ballplayers wondered what the reaction would be when a black pitcher drilled a white player for the first time.

Would chaos ensue?

Would racial tensions fuel an on-field fight that might damage the progress Robinson's arrival had made?

Nobody knew what to expect at Ebbets when it did happen.

"There was almost like a hush," said Westlake, a 26-year-old rookie that day. "What's gonna happen now?"

Nothing happened -- absolutely nothing.

Westlake headed to first base without a fuss, and Bankhead struggled along in an outing that would be all-too typical of his too-brief career in the big leagues. He left behind a resume with a single noteworthy achievement: being the first black pitcher.

Teams had Satchel Paige or Don Newcombe to pick from. But the Dodgers, who'd broken the color barrier with Robinson in April of that '47 season, decided to make Bankhead the first black pitcher.

He'd joined the Dodgers with great expectations in tow. The iconic Paige swore that Bankhead threw harder than Bob Feller, and Bankhead brought a pedigree with him that was unlike any of the other Negro Leaguers who'd come before him.

Bankhead was one of five brothers who'd made names for themselves in "black baseball." As a 27-year-old right-hander, Bankhead was in his baseball prime, so if he could duplicate what he'd done in the Negro Leagues, he'd have a career that surely would have earned him the same respect that would later go to Paige and Newcombe.

But Bankhead's debut foretold his future. He did nothing to distinguish himself in parts of three seasons in the Majors.

"Sometimes, things just work out that way," said Ted Toles, one of the few surviving players from the heydays of black baseball. "Players get drafted in football, sometimes they don't make it. That's the only thing that I can say."

It might be simpler to look at Bankhead's disappointing career in the same way Toles did. But to see a three-time Negro League All-Star like Bankhead fall the way he did deserves an answer a bit more introspective than the one Toles offered.

"Bankhead, basically, didn't quite get the opportunity he should have," said Dick Clark, an author, historian and one of the most respected authorities on the Negro Leagues. "I don't know anything about his personality, but you couldn't be a sub. You had to start."

Baseball wasn't looking for black bench players or relievers as it began to pluck the Negro Leagues clean of its high-end talent, Clark said. So the Dodgers shuttled Bankhead up and down for a couple of seasons before his career in the Majors crashed to its end.

Bankhead never came close to being Feller or anybody else whose stardom took him to Cooperstown. For throughout his time in the bigs, Bankhead never commanded the strike zone. His wildness assured him a minor role in sports history.

People say his wildness was a product of his roots.

Reared in the Deep South, Bankhead never felt he could pitch inside as he did in the Negro Leagues. He pitched in fear, which made him an ineffective pitcher.

But Bankhead still remains a pitcher with a place in baseball history. Just like Robinson and Doby, men like Bankhead, Brown and Thompson were pioneers who blazed similar paths, said Bob Kendrick, marketing director of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

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

"These guys should not be forgotten."

Certainly Bankhead, who died May 2, 1976, won't be forgotten -- at least not by the 86-year-old Westlake, anyway.

He has the memory of Bankhead's tailing fastball to remind him.

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