Montford Point Marines Baseball pitcher Dan Bankhead and Catcher Eugene Jones. Image credit: USMC.

The boys of summer will hit the field for the 83rd All-Star game tonight.

Dan Bankhead is an All-Star veteran who helped open the doors for many of those playing this evening—when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first black major league pitcher.

June 27th, 2012, Congress honored the first black Marines of WWII who were stationed at Montford Point, Camp Lejeune, NC, from 1942-1949. Dan Bankhead was one of those Marines.

In the fall of 1943 Dan was the starting pitcher for the Montford Point-MCB baseball team, comprised of the first blacks to enlist in the Marine Corps. On that day I was the starting pitcher in Casual Company, for the Hadnot Point baseball team, an all-white team at Camp Lejeune:  both teams about to face each other in a friendly matchup between the blacks and the whites. See, in some parts of the country segregation amongst blacks and whites was still a big issue.

Flashback to Queens, New York in 1940; I’m 16 years old playing basketball for, “The Long Island Americans,” an all black team—with the exception of me. To tell the truth, until I joined the service I didn’t know race relations in America were all that strained. It was a real curiosity to be stationed in the south and see signs labeled “No Coloreds,” and to watch black people hop off the sidewalk to let white people pass. Not that New Yorkers were more enlightened; we just had a live-and-let-live mentality that didn’t care about race—unless you were racing us to the breadline.

Author Sterling Mace at Hadnot Point, New River Camp Lejeune. Image and caption credit: Sterling Mace.

Back in 1943, however, I got to the mound that day to throw a few warm up-pitches, getting ready for the big game.  Out of hundreds of Marines who tried out for the team I got the starting nod. This meant I had a good shot at playing baseball during the war. What’s more, I was proud of my fancy Marine baseball uniform. Boy I had an arm, too!

Flash forward to Peleliu on October 1st, 1944, and I’m using that arm to throw grenades over a ridge. On the other side of the ridge are Japanese and we’re trying to kill them.  The black Marines on Peleliu are ammo carriers and we kid them, “Hey fellas why don’t ya come up here with us?”  They smile and then get the hell out of there.  They’re not cowards; they know we’re just ribbing them; but they’ve got to deliver ammunition to other needy troops.  The truth is, though, they are smart Marines.  Moreover, why get yourself killed when you have no business doing it?  They bring the ammo up pronto and they never shirk their duty.

Montford Point Marines baseball players. Image credit: USMC Archives.

So, that day at Camp Lejeune I threw my first warm up-pitch and I felt a little tweak in my left arm.  See, I’m a lefty, and if you know baseball, a left-handed pitcher is worth his weight in gold.  The next pitch the pain increased. By the time I got to my fourth pitch I was in real pain, and I knew something serious was wrong with my arm.

That was first game I ever missed—where I was listed as the starter—since I began pitching at 12 years old. I watched from the sideline and Dan Bankhead was the first at bat. He’s a pitcher, right? It doesn’t matter; he hits a homerun on the first pitch.

So, Dan’s the real talent and he gets the major leagues. Me, I just go back to New York having survived Peleliu and Okinawa. I suppose it doesn’t take much to throw grenades and fire a BAR.

Now, in 2012, there are 400 deserving black Marines from Montford Point who received the highest civilian medal an American can get: The Congressional Gold Medal. That’s good. Those black Marines certainly did their jobs on islands that people can scarcely recall their names or remember why we were there.  This medal means that the Montford Point Marines are recognized as the first of their kind…but also that people will remember names of places like Saipan, Peleliu and Iwo Jima. That they were black or white, or whatever…it doesn’t matter.  Yet, I think a good number of those Marines were just happy to make it back, the same as me, medal or not.

Oh, and the result of the game in the fall of 1943?  Well, if I were pitching that day I would have probably remembered the score.  As it is, I don’t recall—only that Montford Point won.

That’s the score.

This goes out to a job well done.

Montford Point Marines Baseball team. Image credit: USMC Archives.

Montford Point Marines Baseball team. Image credit: USMC.