Major League Baseball celebrated Jackie Robinson Day for the 13th time on Saturday. If you tuned into a baseball game, you saw ample evidence on the back of every player, coach, and manager as they donned Robinson’s number 42, which has been retired league-wide (save for a few grandfathered cases that have all since retired) since 1997.
Announcers spoke about how Robinson broke the color barrier when he first suited up for the Dodgers 70 years ago. They mentioned his grace and perseverance as he endured the heinous trials that came with that accomplishment and his blazing on-field talent. And they played clips of current players paying tribute and discussing Robinson’s impact on them. Only three people – coaches Gene Lamont (Tigers), Larry Bowa (Phillies), and Davey Lopes (Nationals) – who were on the field on Saturday were even alive when Robinson played his first game.
The impact of history can be lost on younger generations as society moves forward, but Robinson and his achievements clearly have staying power. They also have the ability to remind us of other trailblazers.
Dan Bankhead is a name few people know. He was briefly Robinson’s teammate in that 1947 season, and he was also the first black man to throw a pitch in the modern Major League era. Unfortunately, he didn’t have much of a career. The 1947 season was light on accomplishments and he spent the next two seasons in the minors before making a brief comeback with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
According to remarks made by former Negro League star Buck O’Neil in Joe Posnanski’s The Soul Of Baseball (via the New York Times), Bankhead’s issues stemmed from fear. Specifically that he would hit a white batter and spark a “riot.”
“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.”