In August Wilson’s Fences, Troy Maxson is a former Negro League baseball player who narrowly missed the opportunity to play in the Major Leagues. When he was a young player at the top of his game, Major League Baseball was segregated. The first African American baseball players were not recruited to the majors until Troy was already too old to be a viable team member. This experience leaves Troy cold and bitter, and it influences his relationship with his son, Cory, who has aspirations of playing college football.
This experience was not an uncommon one for the scores of African American ball players who played in the Negro Leagues. Only now, approximately fifty years after the dissolution of the last Negro League teams, are the skills and talent of these Negro League players beginning to be honored by modern day baseball. A look at the history of Negro League baseball offers a glimpse into a world of segregation, but it also offers a look at an elite group of skilled players representing their communities on a national stage.
Until the 1950’s, baseball in America mirrored the broader racial culture. In baseball, the all-white National and American Leagues garnered most of the money, prestige, and attention for professional sports fans. African American ballplayers played in the Negro Leagues. The Negro Leagues had their beginnings in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the organization of the first professional, paid teams of baseball players. These teams would participate in circuits, called Barnstormer leagues, where teams would travel across the United States playing in large cities and small towns or anywhere else that provided a field and fans. In 1920 the first professional league of black baseball teams was organized by Rube Foster, a baseball pitcher and manager. The league was named the Negro National League. It consisted of eight team: the Chicago American Giants, Chicago Giants, Dayton Marcos, Detroit Stars, Indianapolis ABC’s, Kansas City Monarchs, St. Louis Giants, and the Cuban Stars.
The history of Negro league baseball is best seen through the careers of famous Negro legends Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson (both are mentioned in Wilson’s play). Paige is considered to be not just one of the best Negro league pitchers ever but also one of the greatest pitchers in the history of the entire game of baseball. Paige notoriously refused to give his exact age, though historians of the game have determined that he was born sometime around 1906-1908 in Mobile, Alabama. Paige suffered a rough childhood – he was born into poverty and resorted to stealing by the time he was a boy. He was sent to Mt. Meigs Juvenile detention center as a child. It was here that Paige first learned the game of baseball and learned that he had a special talent for pitching.
Paige played for at least eight Negro league baseball teams throughout his career, though his time spent in the Barnstorming leagues and in South American winter leagues meant that his career was much more prolific than what can be verified. Because statistics were not widely kept during Paige’s career, his legacy has relied more on legend than on numbers. Paige would famously call in his outfielders or tell his infielders to sit down when he was pitching to certain batters, so sure was he of his ability to strike the batter out. In the Negro league World Series of 1942, Paige claimed that he intentionally loaded the bases just so that he could pitch to Josh Gibson, the league’s best batter, and strike him out on three straight pitches.
Gibson himself is, perhaps, a model for Troy Maxson in Wilson’ play. Gibson was known as the best hitter in Negro league baseball. According to the Baseball Hall of Fame, into which Gibson was inducted in 1972, Gibson hit almost 800 home runs in his career (the current leader in career homes runs is Barry Bond with 762). While this number is impossible to validate since, like Paige, Gibson’s statistics were never officially kept by league officials, these stories of legendary ability speak to the status that such players held in the imaginations of fans and baseball historians.
Like Troy Maxson in Fences, Josh Gibson would never play in the white Major Leagues. This fact haunted Gibson for much of his life. Later in his life, he is reported to have suffered from alcoholism and depression, diseases that his former teammates and friends say was brought on by his frustration and disappointment with the game. Gibson died of a stroke in 1947, just months before baseball was integrated when Jackie Robinson signed a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Satchel Paige, on the other hand, would get the chance to play in the Major Leagues. At the age of 42, Paige was signed by the Cleveland Indians to pitch from their bullpen during the pennant race of 1948. Though his pitching was not as electric as it had been in his younger days, Paige played a crucial role in helping the Indians win the American League pennant that year. In 1965, in what was considered a gimmick promotion, Paige was brought on to pitch in a game for the Kansas City Royals. He thus became the oldest man to ever pitch or play in the Major Leagues.
The Negro leagues, as seen through the lives of its players, is remembered as a symbol of both great injustice and great achievement. Several of its players, including Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron, would go on to legendary careers in the Major Leagues. Most of the league’s great players, however, were denied the chance to compete against their white counterparts. Players such as Gibson and Paige, including other great stars like Monte Irvin, Cool Papa Bell, and Judy Johnson, are remembered for their individual achievements but also for the way they ushered in a golden era of black baseball. Through such players, baseball was not just white America’s game. It was a game for all.