It’s impossible to say with absolute certainty where the inspiration for a piece of art comes from. In the case of August Wilson’s powerful creation Troy Maxson, the central character in Fences, the inspirations are myriad and fascinating. Wilson’s family members, men he knew when he was growing up, plus his own fertile imagination all conspired to bring this complex man to life on stage. However, there are some Negro League scholars who believe that the Negro League baseball player Sam Bankhead was possibly one of the models for Troy Maxson.
Bankhead, born in Empire, Alabama in 1905, was the oldest of five brothers who played professional baseball in the Negro Leagues. A righthander, Bankhead played professionally from 1930 to 1950 for the Birmingham Black Barons, the Homestead Grays, Pittsburgh Crawfords, Memphis Red Sox, and Ciudad Trujillo, among other teams.
His younger brother Dan was the first African-American to pitch in the major leagues, getting an opportunity Sam couldn’t have imagined for himself, playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, 1950-51, compiling a record of 9 wins, 5 losses and a 6.52 earned run average.
Sam Bankhead was primarily a shortstop and a rightfielder – although he played every position on the field at one point or another – and was known as an aggressive line drive hitter with good speed. His contemporaries reported that he played excellent defense and was known to have a cannon for an arm.
There is little doubt, according to baseball scholars, that Bankhead would have held his own against Major League pitching. He hit .387 in nine Negro League All-Star games, which featured the top players in the circuit. In 21 games where Bankhead faced major league pitchers, he hit .342 (27-79). Totalling up all of Bankhead’s statistics, a difficult task given the inconsistent recordkeeping in the Negro Leagues, he hit .311 over the course of his career.
The connections between Bankhead and Troy Maxson come from the events occurring after his playing days concluded. After 20 years of playing professional baseball year-round, Bankhead took a job working with the Pittsburgh sanitation department, mirroring Maxson’s profession in the play. Working alongside his godson Josh Gibson Jr., son of the Negro League superstar, Bankhead did get favorable treatment from his boss, a baseball fan who remembered him.
As the years passed, Sam Bankhead became increasingly bitter, drinking more and more, reportedly refusing to see Dan play in the majors. In 1976, Sam got into an argument with a co-worker over who was the best employee at their respective hotel. Bankhead slapped the man in the face, and was in turn gunned down. He was 71 years old.
While the stories of Maxson and Bankhead radically diverge, there is a single tantalizing commonality – a Negro League baseball player trying to make ends meet as a garbage man – that sparks a greater conversation.
– Steve Scarpa