How a long-forgotten TV show in the United Methodist Archives grabbed the attention of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
By Christopher Hann
The last thing Chris Anderson G’04,’06 expected to find when he began to sort through a hundred or so films in the archives of the United Methodist Church was a 30-minute, black-and-white television episode featuring what many consider to be the most important American athlete of the 20th century. But there was Jackie Robinson, circa 1958, in jacket and tie, leading a panel of business and religious leaders discussing workplace ethics.
“I actually wasn’t watching the films,” says Anderson, then a Ph.D. student at the Theo School and now the librarian at the United Methodist Archives and History Center on Drew’s campus. “But when I saw Robinson appear on one of the frames, I said, Wait a minute, he looks a little familiar.”
Robinson, of course, was the Brooklyn Dodgers’ electric second baseman who in 1947 became the first African American to play in baseball’s major leagues. His Hall of Fame career was noted for his sure-handed glove, his potent bat and his derring-do on the base path, the most indelible example—seared into the collective psyche of an entire generation of baseball fans from Brooklyn—being his steal of home in front of Yogi Berra in the first game of the 1955 World Series (the only Series, it is duly noted, that Brooklyn ever won). But baseball historians also venerate Robinson for the unflinching grace with which he answered the racial slurs and commensurate misdeeds inflicted on him by fans, opponents and the occasional teammate.
Anderson, an avid baseball fan who has taught a course on the history of American sports, was working as a part-time assistant in the Methodist archives when he discovered the Robinson footage in 2003. The film was part of a series titled Talk Back, produced by the Television, Radio and Film Commission of the Methodist Church and broadcast on WOR-TV in New York, among other stations.
It begins with a morality play set in a corporate office in which a malingering employee is wrongfully blamed for the loss of a large account. Then appear Robinson and the panelists, who proceed to analyze the actions of the principal characters. Anderson cataloged the film, and that was that. Or so he thought.
Then, earlier this year, in a flurry of unrelated emails with Tim Wiles, director of research at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Anderson mentioned the Robinson film. Wiles was intrigued. They worked out an arrangement in which the archives would supply a DVD of the film to Hall of Fame headquarters in Cooperstown, N.Y.
“There’s really no baseball-related content on the program,” Wiles says. “But Jackie Robinson is a cultural figure as well as a baseball figure. The mere fact that he would be chosen to lead this panel is an interesting biographical detail. He is arguably the most important cultural figure ever to emerge from baseball. So it’s a real home run for us, a no-brainer that we would want to take it, even though there’s no baseball content.”
And so it was that in early November a car departed from the Drew campus, en route to Cooperstown, carrying Anderson; his father, Dave; Bob Williams, the church’s general secretary for the General Commission on Archives and History; and Kevin Newburg, an adjunct professor in the Theo School and a longtime (and presumably long-suffering) fan of the Chicago Cubs. When they arrived in Cooperstown, Wiles led them on a backstage tour of the museum that allowed them to inspect all manner of Robinson memorabilia. “Of course, I need to go back,” says Anderson, echoing the lament of countless baseball fans newly returned from their maiden pilgrimage to the Hall of Fame, “because there’s just so much.”
Wiles says the Robinson film, to be kept in a climate-controlled basement in the Hall of Fame’s library, could prove useful to future biographers. “It gives you a little bit of his deportment and his demeanor,” he says. “If you watch someone hosting a TV program, you get a sense of who they think they are.”
RELATED: The New York Times ran a story on December 24, 2010, about the lost broadcast, including a video clip from the show.