In August Wilson’s Fences, we follow Troy Maxon, a disillusioned, bitter middle-aged man who used to play baseball in his prime – however, since he played before the color barrier was broken in major league baseball, there was no chance for him to shine. This has left him a broken shell of a man who clings to what mild successes he had in the past and participates in an extramarital affair which tears his family apart.
This failure in baseball and other life pursuits is contrasted strongly with Jackie Robinson, the person who ended up actually breaking the color barrier years after Troy had his chance. When comparing Troy Maxon, the main character of August Wilson’s Fences, with the pioneering black baseball player Jackie Robinson, it is easy to see that the racial segregation inherent in baseball caused African-Americans a lot of bitterness, while still working hard to overcome their obstacles and earn their spot on the field.
Troy Maxon carries quite a lot of bitterness towards professional baseball; he was only able to play in the Negro Leagues, and then but for a short time. His experience is indicative of many players who were not able to make the crossover into the MLB successfully, and he is very resentful of that happening to him. (Koprince 2006, p. 350) The major leagues are something that he and many other players, such as George Giles, always dreamed about, but they will never reach it.
The fact that, years later, Jackie Robinson was able to make it only fanned the flames of resentment among these former baseball players. While many African-Americans would be happy that one of them made it into the major leagues, those ones who tried and failed would carry incredible bitterness towards him. Troy is no exception; he claims that he ‘done seen a hundred niggers play baseball better than Jackie Robinson,” and that he knew “some teams Jackie Robinson couldn’t even make!” (Wilson, pp. 9-10) Other players, such as Joe Greene, talked about how he was resentful of Robinson’s attention and acclaim, feeling that other, better players before him should have received it. To people like Troy and Greene, Robinson was just lucky, and benefited from perfect timing and public relations savvy.
One of Troy’s biggest sources of resentment comes from the segregation and inequalities that he experienced (and continues to experience) as a black man, both in baseball and in life. He sees it ruin other people’s lives, like Josh Gibson, and compares that with white baseball players who rake in much more money, despite potentially not being as skilled or adept at the game as he or Gibson was. (Wilson, p. 9) He attempts to warn his son Cory, who wants to get into football, that “The white man ain’t gonna let you get nowhere with that football noway.” (Wilson 1.3.78) He is already disillusioned with the lack of equality in sports, just taking it as a given, something that will never change, at least for him and his family.
In her article “Baseball as History and Myth in August Wilson’s Fences,” Susan Koprince (2006) depicts Troy as a dualistic figure, a black man who wants to succeed as white men do, which is indicated by his desire to be a slugger, a position in baseball normally occupied by white stars like Babe Ruth. Since Jackie Robinson was typically more of a dynamic player who focused less on the home run, it is another gesture of defiance against this popular pioneering black player. (p. 353)
The figure that Troy resents most, besides himself, is Jackie Robinson, the real baseball player who broke the race barrier and began playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. (Rubenstein 2003) In a sense, Troy is right about Robinson; much of what allowed him to achieve success and finally break the color barrier was timing and savvy marketing. The latter goal was achieved with the help of Branch Rickey, the GM of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who had made the risky decision at the time to bring on a black baseball player: “Rickey apparently decided that Robinson possessed the right combination of talent, intelligence, and experience with whites.” (Rubenstein 2003) What’s more, it is thought that Rickey was mostly doing this service to the African-American community out of greed; the publicity itself would bring him a fortune and massive crowds.
Compared to Maxon, Robinson seemed to be able to handle being that symbol more than Maxon could. His quest for baseball glory was a personal one, not one for his race or his ethnicity. This is especially evident given what Maxon’s first son, Lyons, has to say about him:
“You got to take the crooked with the straights. That’s what Papa used to say. He used to say that when he struck out. I seen him strike out three times in a row…and the next time up he hit the ball over the grandstand…He wasn’t satisfied hitting in the seats…he wanted to hit it over everything!” (Wilson 2.5.57)
Despite Maxon’s assurance that you need to deal with what life gives you, he seems especially unable to do so. His unending resentment over the path his life has taken causes him to take up drinking, ignore his family, and have a love child with a mistress. While he did seem to love his son and his family, he had a great amount of trouble getting over what had happened to him to express it satisfactorily. The American Dream (baseball) had failed him, and what made it worse was seeing an (arguably) worse player steal the glory that was meant for him. (Koprince 2006, p. 354)
In the grand scheme of things, Jackie Robinson and Troy Maxon are polar opposites. While both strove for equality and integration in baseball, only Robinson made it. While Jackie Robinson was thought to be a morally virtuous man, Troy Maxon’s failures in life led him to seek out an affair that led to a love child and the dissolution of his marriage. In this way, baseball was the ultimate barometer of the American Dream – if you succeeded at one, you succeeded at the other, and failure went the same way. Robinson managed to make it, shooting to stardom and becoming a role model for young black men everywhere; Maxon, on the other hand, was given the short end of the stick, making him resent Robinson and baseball in general. He clings to a positive image of himself in order to live with the mistakes and bad circumstances of his life, looking to baseball as his one accomplishment. One can only wonder if Troy Maxon would have made the same decisions if he had found success in major league baseball.
Koprice, Susan. “Baseball as History and Myth in August Wilson’s Fences.” African American Review 40.2 (2006): 349-358. Print.
Rubinstein, William D. “JACKIE ROBINSON AND THE INTEGRATION OF MAJOR
LEAGUE BASEBALL.”History Today 53.9 (2003): 20. Academic Search Alumni Edition. EBSCO. Web. 6 Apr. 2011.
Wilson, August. Fences: a play. New York: New American Library, 1986. Print.