Baseball as History and Myth in August Wilson's: Fences

Article excerpt

The game of baseball has long been regarded as a metaphor for the American dream--an expression of hope, democratic values, and the drive for individual success. According to John Thorn, baseball has become "the great repository of national ideals, the symbol of all that [is] good in American life: fair play (sportsmanship); the rule of law (objective arbitration of disputes); equal opportunity (each side has its innings); the brotherhood of man (bleacher harmony); and more" (qtd. in Elias, "Fit" 3). Baseball's playing field itself has been viewed as archetypal--a walled garden, an American Eden marked by youth and timelessness. (There are no clocks in the game, and the runners move counter-clockwise around the bases,) As former Yale University president and former baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti once wrote, baseball is "the last pure place where Americans can dream" (qtd. in Elias, "Fit" 9).

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Fences (1987), however, August Wilson uses both the history and mythology of baseball to challenge the authenticity of the American dream. Set in 1957, just before the start of the civil rights movement, Fences takes place at a time when organized baseball has finally become integrated, but when racial discrimination remains widespread. (1) Indeed, the protagonist, Troy Maxon--a former Negro League slugger--is consumed with bitterness, convinced that if you are a black man in America, "you born with two strikes on you before you come to the plate" (69). Throughout the play Wilson places Troy within the historical context of the Negro Leagues, allowing his character to echo the feelings of actual black ballplayers who were denied a chance to compete at the major-league level. Furthermore, by situating Troy within three of baseball's mythic settings--(1) the garden, (2) the battlefield, and (3) the graveyard or sacred space--Wilson contradicts the idea of America as a "field of dreams," using baseball instead as a metaphor for heroic defiance. (2)

In Fences Wilson taps into a history of black baseball that began in America in the decades following the Civil War and continued in various forms until 1947, when Jackie Robinson finally crossed baseball's color line. Roger Kahn explains that "no documents attest to baseball's apartheid. There was simply an understanding among every major league club owner and every minor league club owner for more than 60 years that no blacks could play in so-called organized baseball" (38). The Negro National Baseball League, founded in 1920 and reorganized in 1933, contained teams such as the Chicago American Giants and the St. Louis Stars (and, in the 1930s, the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords--the two clubs most likely to be Troy Maxon's team in Fences). (3) The Negro American League, originally formed in 1923 as the Eastern Baseball League, boasted teams such as the Baltimore Black Sox and the Cuban Stars, and often faced the Negro National League in a World Series. Legendary stars like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Cool Papa Bell all made their livelihoods playing for these segregated teams, never having the opportunity before 1947 to compete at the major-league level.

So what would life in the Negro Leagues have been like for Wilson's character Troy Maxon? As Robert Peterson explains in Only the Ball was White (1970), the black ballplayers were traveling men--barnstorming the country on any kind of transportation they could find. They rode in packed automobiles and on broken-down buses, playing a game almost every day and competing all over the country. To supplement their incomes, they often played winter ball in Florida, California, Cuba, or Mexico. "Negro baseball was played the year round" (Peterson 3). According to first baseman Buck Leonard, this itinerant life was not an easy one:

      Some seasons we would play 210
   ball games. You're riding every day,
   playing in different towns. No air conditioning. …