The University of Georgia recently announced that it had discovered the oldest known film footage of African-American baseball players. New York Times reporter Robbie Brown, who wrote about that discovery, joined Bill Littlefield.
BL: Tell me where this footage was found and who found it.
RB: So there’s a plantation in South Georgia called Pebble Hill Plantation. This was an early 20th-century, late 19th-century plantation where a family from Ohio would come down to Georgia in the winters. And deep in the archives of one of the buildings on that plantation, were a bunch of old film reels. And recently the family donated boxes of reels to the University of Georgia, and the family said, “We don’t exactly know what’s on these, but we think there might be something of historic significance. And so university archivists have been going slowly through these reels and were struck by this 26-second video of African-Americans playing baseball, which they now believe is the oldest such footage ever found.
BL: The footage lasts just 26 seconds. It allegedly was shot 90-odd years ago, roughly 1917, somewhere in there. Why is it significant?RB: Well, we knew that blacks played baseball at that point. This is in an era before the Negro Leagues are even created when the game is entirely recreational for African-Americans. We knew that there were blacks playing the game, but we didn’t know much about it. There were selective photos from recreational games that had been found and some documentation of blacks playing baseball going back to the mid-19th century. But we didn’t have any video of it, and I think it takes you there to be able to see people playing it.
It also just provides more information about a relatively unknown form of the game, which is matches between different plantations in the South, which apparently at the time were fairly common, common enough for these teams to have uniforms and for these games to be arranged between neighboring plantations.
BL: And significant enough for somebody to bring out a camera, which was a pretty new device at that point, I guess.
RB: That’s exactly right.
BL: The University of Georgia asserts this is the oldest film of African-American ballplayers, but the Baseball Hall of Fame says that it has not determined that this is the case. Why are they dubious?
RB: Well, that’s right. There are only so many clues in the film itself, and even the University of Georgia acknowledges that it isn’t certain. But here’s what the clues are. The footage itself is not dated. We know that the camera that was used was purchased in 1915. And most of the footage that’s on these reels is from somewhere around that era, so the five or ten years after the camera was purchased. There are also photographs that match up with the video that was shot here. And if you analyze them in really careful detail, you can tell there are differences from one year to the next, for instance the socks that players use. And so the archivists at the University of Georgia have compared these photographs, which are dated, to the video. And they believe that that suggests that this video was shot somewhere between 1917 and 1919. But like you said, there are other experts who are going through this and have not reached a determination.
BL: Does this suggest the function of baseball at this point in time for these folks?
RB: It seems like it’s purely recreational. In part of the clip you can see people on the sidelines watching or waiting to play. But this is not in a stadium, this is in an open field. There are not many spectators, if any. We never see somebody hit a ball. We see players sort of scurrying around the field, walking off. It’s really unclear what point in the game the footage was shot. So the assumption was that this was a purely recreational form for people who worked at the plantation. We know that there were baseball teams organized at that point at lots of companies, steel mills or at factories there were would be a baseball team for blacks and one for whites. This was just sort of a Southern equivalent of that. The dominant employer at the time was plantations and if you had enough plantation workers to field a baseball team then you might put your team against neighboring plantations.
BL: Can we expect other similar treasures to be discovered in the coming years or decades?
RB: So that’s what they’re hoping, that if they put the video online, which they have, then hopefully somebody will be motivated to come forward and say, “That actually isn’t the earliest. I have an earlier one.” And that’s what they’re hoping will happen.