When Jackie Robinson and Dan Bankhead became the first African-Americans to play in World Series
Seventy years later, the Dodgers are once again in the Fall Classic
Seventy years ago, Jackie Robinson and Dan Bankhead became the first African-Americans to play in a World Series. The pair did so in 1947, during their rookie seasons, as the Brooklyn Dodgers faced the New York Yankees.
Robinson brought an end to the ban on black players in Major League Baseball when he joined the Dodgers, while Bankhead was brought onto the team later as the first black pitcher in the majors.
Seventy years after Bankhead and Robinson broke the color barrier in the World Series, the Los Angeles Dodgers will play in the Fall Classic again. And just like in 1947, the Dodgers organization is at the forefront of history, as manager Dave Roberts is the first skipper of Asian descent and the fourth of African-American heritage (his mother is Japanese-American and his father is black) to manage his team to the World Series.
In this special edition of Remember Whensday, we look back at Robinson’s and Bankhead’s rise to the majors and the historic 1947 World Series.
During the Dodgers-Yankees seven-game series, Robinson had 27 at-bats. He finished with seven hits (including two doubles), three RBIs, three runs, two walks and four strikeouts. Bankhead did not pitch in the series, but the Dodgers used him as a pinch runner.
Other than Game 2, which the Yankees won 10-3, every other contest was decided by three or fewer runs, including Game 7.
The Yankees won the deciding game 5-2 on Oct. 6, 1947. The Dodgers took a 2-0 lead on a double from Spider Jorgensen in the second inning. The Yankees scored five unanswered runs to win the championship.
Robinson was gradually brought up to the majors via the minor league Montreal Royals. He finished the 1947 regular season with 12 home runs, 29 stolen bases, 48 RBIs and MLB’s Rookie of the Year award.
Bankhead, born in Empire, Alabama, was the son of a former Cotton Belt League baseball player and coal miner. When Bankhead turned 19, he began his Negro Leagues career playing for the Chicago American Giants. He came back to his home state and played for the Birmingham (Alabama) Black Barons, where he went through a host of positions before settling on pitcher.
Bankhead had breakout performances in two Negro Leagues All-Star Games, one of which was played in Chicago’s Comiskey Park in July 1947, where he was spotted by two Brooklyn scouts.
Dodgers president Branch Rickey decided to watch Bankhead for himself, traveled to Memphis and eventually bought his Red Sox contract for $15,000. Rickey’s team was in the midst of a heated pennant race and needed pitching, which made the prospect of seeing Bankhead all the more tantalizing. Bankhead was inserted into the lineup hastily, compared with Robinson’s gradual introduction to the majors.
“Bankhead has a great future as a pitcher in the major leagues,” Rickey told The New York Times. “I don’t know how soon.” He explained that Bankhead “may be a little bit nervous — I’m afraid he will be.”
“I know this boy has the physical equipment to help this club. The only question is whether he will be able to withstand the tremendous pressure under which he will work. His problem is greater than Robinson’s — all eyes are on the pitcher.”
Bankhead and Robinson would be roommates when the team traveled for games and formed a friendship that The New York Times reported involved a “jovial argument” that concluded with Bankhead informing Robinson, “Not only are you wrong, Robinson, but you are loud wrong!”
On Aug. 26, 1947, against the Pirates, Bankhead made his debut, and it was rough. His first pitch hit Pirates batter Wally Westlake on the elbow, and Bankhead gave up a homer. He pitched three innings, allowing eight runs and 10 hits. He also homered in his first major league at-bat.
“I was scared as hell,” Bankhead said in Crossing the Line: Black Major Leaguers. “When I stepped on the mound, I was perspiring all over and tight as a drum.”
Years later, former Negro Leagues star Buck O’Neil explained Bankhead’s nervousness:
As Joe Posnanski records in “The Soul of Baseball” (HarperCollins, 2007), O’Neil once said: “See, here’s what I always heard. Dan was scared to death that he was going to hit a white boy with a pitch. He thought there might be some sort of riot if he did it.”
O’Neil went on: “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 was sent to the minors after the 1947 season for two seasons. He returned to the Dodgers in 1950 for a season and a half before eventually leaving the league and playing 15 years in the Mexican League.