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A tale of two falling stars

Posted: Wednesday, Apr 17th, 2013




Having recently seen the movie “42” and its story of Jackie Robinson becoming the first African-American to play major league baseball, I’d like to share some thoughts on it. Not as a reviewer, other than to say I enjoyed it thoroughly, but as an amateur historian wishing to provide more details of Jackie’s pivotal rookie season in 1947.

The movie only covered Jackie’s first year with the Brooklyn Dodgers, though at the end of the film a screen note informed the audience that black players Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe joined the team in 1948 and 1949. My only disappointment was there being no mention of Jackie’s other black teammate during his rookie year. In fact, that teammate was the first black to pitch in major league baseball. My knowledge and interest in that black pitcher is at least partly due to his name: Dan Bankhead.

Though I inherit some African-American blood from my great-grandmother Mary Washington Free, who had a black father and Choctaw mother, my relationship by name to Dan Bankhead comes through a more unfortunate path, which I’ll share. My ancestor Richard Bankhead and his brother George headed west from South Carolina around 1820. Both settled temporarily in Tennessee, then Richard continued on to Texas while George went south into Alabama, where his descendants became wealthy with investments in mills and politics.  

At the end of the Civil War, the Alabama Bankheads had a large number of slaves, and when freed, some of them took Bankhead as their family name. Dan Bankhead was born in Empire, Ala., but other emancipated Bankheads chose to move north. Among my Alabama cousins was actress Tallulah Bankhead, who considered descendants of the freed family slaves to be full members of her family. A biography describes her reconnecting with African-American Bankheads in Detroit, and proudly declaring them to be tall and handsome like the rest of her family. 

Yes, I’m unfortunately a distant cousin.

Dan Bankhead was signed by Dodgers owner Branch Rickey while playing with the Memphis Red Sox in the Negro League. He joined the Dodgers in the summer of 1947, and made his first appearance on Aug. 26 as a relief pitcher. It was initially a promising debut, with him hitting a home run in his first major league at-bat. However, it was downhill from there, with him giving up 10 hits in 3 1/3 innings.

Part of Dan’s collapse in that premiere appearance might have resulted from him also becoming the first major league black pitcher to hit a white batter on that same day, when his blazing fastball struck Pittsburgh Pirate outfielder Wally Westlake on the elbow. There was a hushed silence, but nothing happened among the crowd and teams as Westlake headed to first ... but perhaps something happened to Dan. 

He had difficulty pitching inside, and the speed of his pitches became undermined with increasing lack of control. He was winless in seven appearances during his third and final season, with an earned run average ballooning to 15.43. After leaving the majors, Dan made a living in the Canadian and Mexican baseball leagues, but never achieved anything near his potential. In the movie “42,” Jackie Robinson was described as being “Built to last.” Whatever ingredient made Jackie that way was never discovered by Dan Bankhead. Though he was eventually given the team number “43,” that’s as close as he ever got to matching Jackie.

I guess Dan and Tallulah Bankhead were related in more than name, for like Dan’s pitches she was fast, but lacked control. Her triumphant stage career never transferred to Hollywood due to her wild living and outrageous quotes during the 1930s when film studios were seeking squeaky clean images for their stars. Just one example of her press statements: “My father warned me about men and booze, but he never mentioned a word about women and cocaine.”  

As a result, her greatest stage roles in “Jezebel,” “The Little Foxes,” and “Dark Victory” went to the more discreet Bette Davis. Though Tallulah did receive a 1944 Academy Award nomination for her role in Alfred Hitchcock’s film “Lifeboat,” her acting career was undermined by her lifestyle. The last appearance I know of before her 1968 death was as a villainess called “Black Widow” in the Batman television series.

So here’s an affectionate salute to those two other Bankheads, along with a twinge of regret for what might have been. 

•••

Steve Bankhead is a resident of Watsonville and a frequent contributor to the Register-Pajaronian. His opinions are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the Register-Pajaronian.

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