See Two Good Movies
Only one problem:
I grew up in in the .40s, the golden age of musicals: “Oklahoma,” South Pacific,” Annie Get Your Gun,” “State Fair,” “Sound of Music.” For weeks, even years, we whistled and hummed “Oh, what a Beautiful Morning,” “Bali Hai,” “Everything You Can Do,” “The Hills Are Alive,” “It Might as Well Be Spring.” I still hum them. But I can’t remember even one tune from “LaLa.”
My friend Nan Peck, a generation behind me, says, “I loved ‘Someone in the Crowd’ and ‘City of Stars.’ I thought both were very catchy!”
Moral: Don’t get old!
Denzel Washington plays and directs the best role of his life. Viola Davis wins my vote for the Oscar. Based loosely on a real ex-Negro leaguer (below), the film outshines even the great James Earl Jones’ version of 40 years ago.
The Real Troy Maxson
I met Troy Maxson in 1971, before he became the hero of the Broadway hit, “Fences,” 12 years later.
His real name was Sam Bankhead.
To me the real Sam was a more fascinating story than the film Troy. Yet both the play and the film hardly knew anything about him. Sam was the oldest and best of five baseball-playing brothers. The youngest, Dan, was the only one to reach the majors, with the Dodgers (9-4 in 1950).
Sam was 39, too old to follow Dan into the white majors. But in 1951 he did become the first black manager in white Organized Ball with the Pirates’ farm club in Farnham Quebec. This deserved a mention in the film.
Dark was falling when my taxi stopped in front of Sam’s apartment in Pittsburgh’s black Hill District. It was a rough neighborhood, and the driver was worried: “You sure you want to get out?”
I climbed to the second story over a dry-cleaning shop. The door was opened by a smallish, bent man of 61, in contrast to the square-jawed athlete I had seen in photos and James Earl Jones’ strapping, big-chested, booming-voiced Broadway incarnation. Drink had taken its toll on the athletic physique that had made Sam the best utility man in baseball, the teammate of Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and Cool Papa Bell.
Sam told me:
I grew up in Empire Alabama and worked in the mines with my father, loading coal behind a machine that cut the coal. You’d drive it in, then you’d have to know how to hitch it up to cables. I worked on what you called a “long wall”’ you had about 150 feet of coal there.
After work Negro kids had nothing to do but play baseball. They had no playgrounds, nothing. So they played ball.
Wilson didn’t put that in his script. It would have been a great touch, and persuades me that he didn’t interview Bankhead.
A lucky handful escaped from the mines via the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues. In 1929 at the age of 18, Sam joined them.
We thought we had a terrible good team. They had me up there trying to catch. I scuffled with the ball. In those days they had the Vaseline ball, they’d rub the ball, make it break all kinds of ways. Now you can’t even look at the ball wrong.
It was a rough game back then. I guess you’ve noticed Roberto Clemente dig a spot in the ground to hit from. She-it, you didn’t do that in the old time. Not in the white or the colored leagues.
At that time, we had never seen any helmets, just wore an ordinary cap. “Well, now,” the pitchers said, “you done dug yourself a hole, but you’re not gonna hit out o’ that one. You better watch your cap now, I’m gonna knock it off.”
Still Sam hit the black league pitchers for .308, lifetime.
In the film Maxson says he hit 43 homers one year. In truth, Bankhead, like most black hitters, went for singles and doubles. In addition, in that era the black leagues played only about 40-60 league games a year (the rest were semipro exhibitions).
But he did have power in the clutch. In 1938 Sam went to the Dominican Republic with Paige, Gibson, and Bell to play for a team owned by dictator Rafael Trujillo. In the championship game, Satchel said Trujillo’s goons patrolled the foul lines “like a firing squad” to show that the boss would not tolerate defeat. They were losing 3-2, when Bankhead made the greatest clutch hit of his life, a home run, to win 4-3. Paige said they dashed for the next boat home, vowing never to play for that madman again.
That would be a great story to throw into the script.
Sam could also field.
I could play any position they wanted me to play. I’m not braggin’, but I could do that. They never told me what I did best. I know where I played the most, shortstop, but I played second base one year, outfield one year.
When Paige went to the Dominican Republic, they needed a shortstop. “Get Bankhead,” he said.
“But he’s an outfielder.”
“Don’t make no difference.”
Another outfielder, Bob Harvey, recalled:
He had a beautiful arm. Nobody tagged up at third and scored on a fly. He’d throw you out from the warning track.
In 1935 Sam joined the great Pittsburgh Crawfords, possibly the best black team of all time, with Gibson, Paige, Cool Papa Bell, and Oscar Charleston. He batted behind Bell, and it was his job to protect Cool: If Bell had the base stolen, Bankhead let the pitch go by; if Bell didn’t get a good jump, Sam fouled it off.
Bill Perkins was Satchel’s favorite catcher.
Perkins was a beautiful catcher. Now these scientific guys, you got to give them the right signals so they won’t cross up the catcher. Perk would say, “Well, you done shook off everything I called. Come on, your way is my way.” He caught the rest of the game without signals and still caught everything they threw.
Josh Gibson replaced Perkins, and Sam and Josh would be roommates on and off, summer and winter, for the next 15 years.
We would play a double-header; Josh would golf two-three home runs. [His rival], Mule Suttles, hit ‘em way up high, and they’d drift over the fence. But Josh hit ‘em on a line, and they’d still go over.
We were playing in New York’s Polo Grounds, the bullpen was 440-some feet away [behind the ump, above]. Josh hit one upstairs, above the bullpen, second tier, out of the park.
In 1938, batting in huge Griffith Stadium, 408 feet down the line, Gibson slugged 23 homers in 117 league at bats. That compares to Ruth’s 60 in 540 at bats with a 296-foot target. If we assume 540 at bats for Josh, he would have slugged 108! I know it’s hard to believe, so you do the math.
In Mexico Josh hit a ball to me at shortstop. I just stepped aside and let the bullet go.
I don’t want to be segregationist, but Josh Gibson was the greatest batter ever lived.
In the winter of ’37-38, Sam and Josh sailed to Cuba, where Bankhead led the league in batting and RBI.
New York Daily News Columnist Jimmy Powers urged the Giants to sign future Hall of Famers Josh, Satch, Buck Leonard, and Ray Dandridge, plus Sam. If they did, he predicted, they would win the pennant. Of course they ignored him and finished third. If they had put those black greats in with Mel Ott, Carl Hubbell, Dick Bartell etc, the Giants might have started a dynasty to rival the Yanks – they might still be in New York. Instead, they wouldn’t win a pennant until 1951, with a big assist from Negro Leaguers Willie Mays and Monte Irvin.
In ‘39 Bankhead jumped to the Washington Homestead Grays, joining Gibson, Leonard, and a great right-hand pitcher, Ray Brown, who might have been better than Satchel. Their life-time totals:
Paige 161 – 95
Brown 151 – 66
I’d take Ray Brown over Satchel. Ray was a better team pitcher than Satchel. If there was one game, I wanted to win – one game – I’d take Satch. But for a team, I’d take Raymond Brown.
Vic Harris was the manager, but he’d consult with the players. Now if Josh called for a pitch, I might shake it off and give the signal with my hand or my glove.
In 1940 Sam and Josh were off to Mexico, where millionaire Jorge Pasquel was offering big pesos to Negro League stars. Sam led the league in stolen bases.
Catcher Ted “Double Duty” Radciffe:
Sam was a hell of a ball player, but he started Josh to drinking that tequila down there.
Back in the States the Grays won three pennants, 1943-45. In the ‘43 World Series Sam drove in the winning run against his former club, the Barons.
We thought we could beat anybody. Mr. Posey, the owner of the Grays, offered to play the Pittsburgh Pirates, winner take all. But their owner, Benswanger, said, “Can’t play you.”
However, the best blacks and whites did barnstorm against each other in October.
I’ve hit against Bob Feller, Lefty Grove, Dizzy Dean – Dizzy could break off a curve ball!
Hardest to hit? That’s easy. Bob Feller was terrible fast. And he was wild. You had to be careful at the plate, he didn’t know where he was going to throw that ball. We used to play Bob’s All Star team against Satchel Paige’s All Stars, and they would have some match-ups – mmmmm-mmmm! The games would end up 1-0, 2-0, something like that.
Sam hit better against the whites – .330 – than he did against black pitchers.
In over half a century of barnstorming, the final tally was almost a tie; the blacks came out ahead by a couple games.
In ‘48 Bankhead took over as Grays manager and led them to their last pennant. Gibson had died, possibly of a drug overdose. Luke Easter, later with the Cleveland Indians, was the team’s power hitter.
A big fastballer, Wilmer “Red” Fields, was the pitching ace:
Sam was the most respected man I met in baseball. He never raised his voice. When you did wrong, he never hollered, he’d tell you in a way that would take effect. He’d help anybody. He was the greatest team player I ever saw.
The Grays played the World Series against the Birmingham Black Barons and their teen-age rookie, Willie Mays. Homestead won it, four games to one.
Sam got the historic assignment to be the first black to manage in white baseball. One of his players was Josh Gibson Jr, who was almost like a son to him.
After I quit, I never went to see a game again. I am not jealous, but I cannot be a fan.
Of some 80 veterans of the Negro Leagues I’ve talked to, only two looked back with bitterness. One of them was Sam. Again, the film down plays that crucial angle.
Baseball had no more use for him. Black baseball was dead, and he had no other skills except mining coal. So he got a job on the garbage truck. He saved his money and was able to enjoy a comfortable retirement.
While we talked, Sam’s wife, Helen, sat quietly nearby. In the movie Maxson’s wife banished him from their bedroom after he admitted an affair, though as far as I know, that wasn’t true in real life.
The film also says he demanded that his son give up sports. Actually, Bankhead was praying the boy would become a star.
I hate to say this, but my son Anthony could have beaten any one of these players today. But he never had the opportunity. He went into the hospital when he was about 19 or 20. Leukemia. He was in the hospital about ten years. He died when he was 29.
Josh Gibson Jr, who was like a son to Sam, also never realized his big league hopes, spending several years in an iron lung.
With Tony, died Sam’s dreams of getting off the garbage truck. That would have been a better story-line than the one in the movie.
In 1976 Dan died of throat cancer, and Sam’s favorite brother, Fred, was killed in an auto accident.
On a humid Saturday night, Sam was arguing with a friend at a bar. As Sam turned to go, the man pulled a gun and shot him in the back of the head.
Wouldn’t that have been a boffo ending to the script!
Fields was shocked:
I knew he drank some, but he was not a drunk on the Grays. I’m sorry you met him like that. I still think about him a lot now. He was a wonderful person.
When I emerged onto the street, it was dark, and no taxis would venture into the neighborhood. I headed for a lighted gas station until the owner turned off the light and went home, and I shrank into the shadow, stuffing my money into my shoes. At last a providential taxi cruised by or you might not be reading this.
My publisher wangled me a spot on Jones’ publicity tour, to tout my book, Voices from the Great Black Baseball Leagues. Jones admitted to me that he hated baseball. But he was very gracious. We shared a table at press conferences, but of course nobody wanted to ask me any questions, so Jones threw me some: “What do you think, John?”
The writers dropped their pencils until I finished, then their hands all shot up again.
Several years later Jones brought a one-man show, “Paul Robeson,” to Washington, and I took a girlfriend. After the curtain, I asked her casually if she’d like to meet him. Are you kidding? We went backstage to his dressing room, and I knocked. He didn’t remember me, but he covered nicely: “Oh, yeah, John, good to see you again.”
My date was dazzled! It was a real turn-on, and when we got home, it was a night to remember!
b 9/19/03 Empire AL d 7/24/76 Pittsburgh BR TR 5’8″ 175
g ab h 2b 3b hr hr% ba sb pos
1931 BIR Bl Barons 1 4 2 1 1 0 0 .500 0 2b.p
1932 BIR,NAS,LOU – 40 13 2 1 0 0 .325 1 2b,p
1933 NAS Elite G – 138 47 5 1 1 4 .341 5 cf,3
1934 45 190 55 2 1 – – .289 2
1935 PIT Crawfords 66 272 79 11 5 1 – .290 6
1936 PIT,BIR – 155 31 8 2 0 0 .200 2 ss,2
1937 BIR,PIT – 139 46 1 0 2 4 .331 1
1938 PIT,BIR – 139 33 – – – – .237 0 2b,rf
1939 TOL,MEM,WAS – 100 41 4 2 3 17 .410 1 rf,cf
1940 BIR m 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 .000 0 cf
1942 WAS Hom Grays 45 150 40 4 3 3 11 .276 1
1943 57 262 74 7 5 4 8 .282 9
1944 52 244 83 10 4 4 9 .340 5
1945 – 67 31 3 1 0 0 .463 1
1946 41 156 40 3 0 3 11 .256 1 ss
1947 p – 244 60 12 – 3 6 .246 8 ss M
1948 – 37 6 0 0 0 0 .163 2 ph M
– 2338 721 73 26 24 6 .308 45
Baseball Reference – 1455 420 50 19 8 3 .289 45
Bankhead played in the Negro Leagues through 1950.
hr% home runs/550 ab
p as published
Vs white big leaguers
1932-3 California 1 4 2 0 0 0 0 .500 0
1933-4 21 74 25 1 1 5 35 .338 7
1935 1 4 1 0 0 0 0 .250 0
1936 2 12 3 0 0 0 0 .260 0
1944-5 California 14 1 0 0 0 0 0 .000 0
1947 Yankees 1 5 2 – – – – .400 0 p,cf _______________________________________
40 103 33 1 1 5 25 .320 7