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  • Walking Around the Fences:Troy Maxson and the Ideology of “Going Down Swinging”
  • David Letzler (bio)

In act one, scene one of August Wilson’s Fences, Troy Maxson, a retired Negro League slugger who works as a garbage collector in 1957 Pittsburgh, makes a complaint to his friend Jim Bono and his wife Rose. They have told him that he “just come along too early” to play in the integrated major leagues:


There ought not never have been no time called too early! Now you take that fellow… . what’s that fellow they had playing right field for the Yankees back then? You know who I’m talking about Bono. Used to play right field for the Yankees?




Selkirk! That’s it! Man batting .269, understand? .269. What kind of sense that make? I was hitting .432 with thirty-seven home runs! Man batting .269 and playing right field for the Yankees!


Troy’s criticism has probably not registered that strongly with Fences’ audiences, since by the time the play debuted, George “Twinkletoes” Selkirk, who played right field in the Bronx from 1934 to 1942, had been long forgotten by all but the most devoted historians and fans. They likely take more notice moments later, though, when Troy turns his diatribe to a more beloved player:


They got a lot of colored baseball players now. Jackie Robinson was the first. Folks had to wait for Jackie Robinson.


I done seen a hundred niggers play baseball better than Jackie Robinson. Hell, I know some teams Jackie Robinson couldn’t even make! What you talking about Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson wasn’t nobody.


The play’s critics, however, appear to have taken even this provocative attack at close to face value. After all, it fits nicely into the standard take on Fences, in which Troy’s tragedy represents that of a lost generation of great black baseball players, mute inglorious Babe Ruths denied fame and glory by the institutional racism of their time. Almost unanimously, critics have joined Troy in being “angry that he, a great player who hit .432 with thirty-seven home runs, never played for the majors while white Selkirk … played right field for the Yankees” (Birdwell 89), despite Selkirk’s “paltry” hitting (Koprince 352). While Troy’s criticism of Robinson causes some to recoil—noting that Troy seems partly motivated by “jealousy” (Saunders 49) toward “Robinson, and other baseball players who now have opportunities he was denied” (Bogumil 39)—they still yield to his overall claim, citing contemporary Negro Leaguers who also disparaged Robinson and concluding that Robinson achieved his historical position as much because he was a “model citizen” (Koprince 351) as because of any baseball ability, making him “the right man for the job in spite of not being the most gifted player the Negro Leagues had to offer” (Saunders 47). Most take for granted that had Troy been given a chance in the major leagues, he would have not only played better than a journeyman like Selkirk but “could have … surpassed even the likes of Jackie Robinson or Babe Ruth” (Shannon 97).

It is not hard to see why critics so frequently agree with Troy in this way, given his sympathetic historical position and his justified anger in response to Bono and Rose’s rationalization. Nonetheless, though, Troy’s baseball judgments are demonstrably wrong: indeed, throughout the play, Troy gets about almost everything he says [End Page 301] regarding the sport wrong, a problem nowhere more profound than with respect to the maligned Selkirk. This does not merely suggest that Troy may not have been one of the greatest players who ever lived: as I argue in this essay, it implies that the entire social, racial, and political world view Troy derives from baseball is misguided, especially regarding the very thing many critics most celebrate, his insistence on “going down swinging.” By not realizing Troy’s professional failings, critics have been unable to see how they are intertwined with his personal ones, causing them to misunderstand the nature of Fences’ tragedy.

To fully comprehend why Troy’s fixation on “going down swinging” is so harmful, though...


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pp. 301-312
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