African Reserves

How a WWII sailor became Major League Baseball’s first black pitcher

Dan Bankhead was Major League Baseball’s first African-American pitcher. Prior to that, he played Negro League baseball for the Birmingham Black Barons and Memphis Red Sox from 1940 to 1947.

Then, when MLB began to fall apart, he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1947 to 1951.

During World War II, Bankhead served in the Marine Corps Reserves from April 1942 until June 1946, when he was honorably discharged with the rank of Sergeant.

While in the Marines, he played for the Montford Point baseball team at Montford Point, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and toured the United States to help boost morale and support the war effort.

Marines training at Camp Montford Point. Screenshot from YouTube.

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 in June 1941, black people were, for the first time, allowed to join the Marine Corps. Bankhead received his recruit training in a separate unit. Between 1942 and 1949, Montford Point camp was a recruit depot for black recruits, training 20,000 African Americans.

When Bankhead joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, the Marine Corps was still separate. In 1948, through Executive Order 9981, President Harry S. Truman ordered the military to integrate.

In 1974, Montford Point was renamed Camp Gilbert H. Johnson.

Dan Bankhead Montford marines baseball coffee or die
Black enlisted and white non-commissioned officers made up the Montford Point baseball team in March 1943. Dan Bankhead was considered one of the most dominant pitchers in the black leagues before becoming the first black pitcher in MLB. Library of Congress photo.

Camp Johnson became the home of the Marine Corps Combat Service Support Schools. In 2007, a documentary titled The Montford Point Marine Project was released, honoring the Black Marines who trained at Montford Point.

As for Bankhead’s MLB pitching career with the Dodgers, he amassed a 20-9 win-loss record; 4.83 earned run average and 228 strikeouts.

Bankhead, born May 3, 1920 in Empire, Alabama, died of cancer at a Veterans Administration hospital in Houston, Texas on May 2, 1976, the day before his 56th birthday.

Read more : WATCH: ‘Bullets Have No Color’ – Montford Point Marine Recalls Overcoming Racism and Tyranny in WWII