A Real Home Run

How a long-forgotten TV show in the United Methodist Archives grabbed the attention of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Four years after Robinson appeared on Talk Back, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Photo by Getty Images

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.

2 Responses to “A Real Home Run”

  1. Dave Luckens says:

    thanks for the article-as an old brooklyn dodger fan i have many memories of the fiery athletic prodigy the gowanus faithful called “robbie”.he could move his head six inches and cause a big league infielder to fall on his butt.you had to be there.he also was a successful business executive,civil rights activist,served on the new york parole board,a rockefeller delegate to the repub natl convention in 1964,and still found time to drive in from stamford to referee basketball games at the harlem “y” on weekends until his many physical infirmities made that impossible-beyond that he always had time for the adoring kids who stood waiting outside the players entrance at ebbets field-signing autographs,offering advice to players from from the sealtest little league,speaking to the kids in a familiar tone-as if the little urchins were his teamates.
    my best robinson story concerns a younger friend of mine who used to fish as a child in the pond next to 42′s ranch house in stamford.he once took his catfish to the house to offer to the feeble old man inside-whom he did know know,and who stood on a walker possessing nothing of the astonishing physique of just a few years earlier.robinson declined the offer-had all the catfish he needed,but took the boy to the basement for a demonstration on how to clean the fish.on the way out,they passed a trophy room which had a blinding array of plaques and huge trophies.my friend made the obvious breathless inquiries.”i used to play ball.” -”which sports”? -”pretty much all of them.-lets grab a bite upstairs,i’ll tell you a few stories.”marcus Aurelius would have liked jackie robinson.

  2. Will Gravely T64 says:

    The Methodist connections to JR are featured in Arnold Rampersad’s bio. Most important spiritual force besides his mother was Kart Everette Downs who came to Scott UMC in Pasadena after graduating at Gammon Sem in Atlanta and grad work at BU. He assisted JR in working through resentments because of local racism in CA, convinced JR to teach Sunday School, supported him in his civil rights challenges to the military during JR’s WWII service, hired him when Downs was president of KED’s alma mater, Sam Houston College to teach PE and coach and conducted the marriage of JR to Rachel Isum in LA 2/10/46. JR trusted Branch Rickey in part because of BR’s strong Christian/Methodist faith. Downs died young at 35 and JR helped raise funds for an endowed professorship at Sam Houston in his honor. There is no way to know if these Methodist links had anything to do with the presence of the film in the archives, but they are a relatively unknown part of the private life of JR (who also gave speeches, raised funds, etc. for the National Council of Churches programs and for interfaith organizations). Will Gravely, Professor-emeritus of Religious Studies, University of Denver

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