An almost-forgotten link between Jackie Robinson and the Methodist Church is now residing in the library of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
The accomplishments that earned Robinson a place in the hall are well-documented. The first player to integrate professional sports in America had an impressive 10-year major league career with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
His activities outside of baseball drew less attention. But a 1958 television program produced by the denomination offers a brief glimpse of Robinson, who died in 1972 at the age of 53, in the role of civic leader.
"This film was essentially unknown," said the Rev. Robert Williams, top executive for the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History. "The Baseball Hall of Fame was unaware of it. Jackie Robinson's widow didn't even have memories that he had made the film. It seemed to be a piece that had been totally forgotten."
It all started with a planned road trip by baseball enthusiasts at the commission and Drew University in Madison, N.J., where the commission is based.
Williams, who grew up in Philadelphia, is a hometown fan who remembers the 1958 batting average for Richie Ashburn of the Phillies.
Last fall, a colleague from the British Methodist Church, David Worthington, was planning a U.S. trip and wanted to visit Cooperstown. "Even though he's English ... he's a great baseball fan, especially a Boston Red Sox fan," Williams explained.
Williams mentioned the trip to Chris Anderson, Drew's librarian, who had previous contact with the Hall of Fame regarding another piece of baseball memorabilia. "That jogged his memory."
Looking at old films
While a student at Drew in 2004, Anderson worked on a project related to films in the Archives and History vault. "We were planning to digitize them, so we were really creating an inventory of the films," Anderson said.
Among the films were episodes of "Talk Back," a TV program produced by TRAFCO (Television, Radio and Film Commission) - one of three predecessor agencies of United Methodist Communications - and distributed by the Broadcasting and Film Commission of the National Council of Churches.
While looking at individual film frames of a "Talk Back" episode on a magnifier, Anderson said, "I noticed someone who looked familiar. I thought it might be Jackie Robinson, but I wasn't sure."
After comparing the frame to images he found on Google, he determined the identity was correct. "We marked it down as kind of an interesting thing to find him in this film."
Anderson, a Cleveland fan, remembers his grandmother talking about Larry Doby, an African-American player signed by the Indians 11 weeks after Robinson broke the color barrier, and Bob Feller, a pitcher with a fastball called "the Van Meter Heater."
So he decided to join the Nov. 1 road trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame and asked his father, the Rev. David Anderson, a retired United Methodist pastor and fellow Indians' fan, to come along. Kevin Newburg, a Cubs fan and Drew doctoral student, also joined the group. Dale Patterson, the commission's archivist, provided the DVD copy they presented to the hall.
Nelson Price, a retired United Methodist Communications executive who was a producer for the program after the Robinson episode, said that "Talk Back" was designed to help local communities discuss important moral questions.
During the first half of the 30-minute show, actors in a scripted drama would pose a moral or ethical dilemma. In the second half, a local panel "discussed possible solutions to moral, ethical and religious aspects of the question," Price said.
"For the most part, it was a locally originated program," he added. "It really got a lot of pastors and lay persons involved in television in the early days."
Serving as moderator
Robinson, then an executive at the Chock Full o' Nuts company, is not prominent in the 1958 program, Anderson pointed out, but simply introduces the morality play and moderates a panel of four respondents. "His total time on the tape may not be more than two or three minutes," he said.
Whether Robinson had a Methodist connection "is still a little fuzzy," added Anderson, who cannot confirm if Robinson was a member or attended a Methodist church at the time of the broadcast period. But through biographies, he said, he had learned that Robinson's mother and grandparents were part of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and that he attended a Methodist church in Pasadena, Calif., as a young adult.
Williams surmised that Robinson's participation in the "Talk Back" show probably didn't attract too much attention at the time. Today, he added, "it's much more striking to see him in a different role."
Archives and History has retained the original 16-millimeter black-and-white episode. Williams and Anderson recently delivered another DVD copy to the Major League Baseball Productions studio in Secaucus, N.J., which is doing a documentary on Robinson.
As an archivist, Williams considers the "Talk Back" episode to be an example of why it is important to keep documents. "Unless we preserve enough of our story, the past won't have a future and the future won't have a past," he said.
As a baseball enthusiast, the "back-lot tour" and thank you letter with a lifetime pass to the Hall of Fame was equally rewarding. "For a baseball fan, it's just been great fun," Williams declared.
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or [email protected].