Never Meet Your Heroes: Reflecting on My Time at the Baseball Hall of Fame

Authored by Josh Howard

Yesterday was Opening Day 2015 for Major League Baseball. It’s only fitting then that today I share reflections upon my work experience at the preeminent steward of the American baseball past, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York. I had an good experience working with the Hall, and I met some great people [note: I won’t be naming any names, good or bad], but there were certainly bumps in the road and, to be honest, I doubt I would do it all over again.

Setting up a Digital Archive/Exhibit Project

Last year from March through September, I worked with the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum (NBHOF) to build a digital archive and exhibit based on the Wendell Smith Papers (link to finding aid). Two of those months were spent on site in Cooperstown. My time with the NBHOF six months past, I can now reflect on my time there, share some insight into this project, and hopefully pass on some advice to anyone wanting to work with a major institution doing public sports history.

With that said, and before any more explanation, here’s another link to the Wendell Smith Papers digital archive and exhibit. Give it a look! The rest of this post primarily explains what went into the creation of this resource, challenges encountered, and reflections upon my time in Cooperstown, so knowing the project will make my reflections make a lot more sense.

Who Was Wendell Smith?

Portrait of Wendell Smith  c. 1938-1945. Photo by Charles "Teenie" Harris. Courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Art.

Portrait of Wendell Smith c. 1938-1945. Photo by Charles “Teenie” Harris. Courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Art. Photo links to the Wendell Smith Papers Digital Archive and Exhibit.

Smith’s legacy is primarily defined by his role as a sports journalist who led a campaign against racial discrimination in the sporting world, specifically against segregation in major league baseball. He personally experienced discrimination early in his own playing career while a player for West Virginia State College. According to Smith, he was approached by Wish Egan — a Detroit Tigers scout — after pitching a stellar game. Egan told Smith that he wished he could sign him on the spot, but he simply did not have the authority to sign a black man to a contract.

After this discriminatory experience, Smith refocused himself on his education, earned a degree in journalism, and immediately landed a job with the Pittsburgh Courier, the largest African-American national newspaper at the time. While Smith agitated for change in his columns (and beyond newsprint) for his entire career, his primary fame came from his association with Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey from 1945-47. Brooklyn General Manager Branch Rickey entrusted Smith as an adviser on racial issues and recruited Smith to accompany Robinson throughout his first two professional seasons. Much of this activity was dramatized in the 2013 Warner Bros. film 42.

In 1948 Smith accepted a job at a white newspaper — Chicago’s American — becoming the first black sportswriter at a major white-owned and operated newspaper. From this point forward, Smith and Robinson drifted apart, in part because of Smith’s move to Chicago, but also because the pair’s political opinions diverged. Smith would go on to lead a successful campaign in 1961 to desegregate baseball spring training sites in Florida, appear regularly as a sports correspondent on WGN, and was one of two journalists (the other being Sam Lacy) to serve on the 1971-72 Special Committee on the Negro Leagues which elected to the NBHOF Satchel Paige, Buck Leonard, and Josh Gibson.

For a lengthier bio, check out the About Wendell page on the exhibit or Brian Carroll’s piece on Smith and spring training desegregation.

What are the Wendell Smith Papers?

An example of the Wendell Smith Papers. Jackie Robinson to Wendell Smith, undated. (NBHOF Library)

An example of the Wendell Smith Papers. Jackie Robinson to Wendell Smith, undated. (NBHOF Library)

In 1996 and 1997, Wendell Smith’s widow Wyonella donated Smith’s papers to the NBHOF. This collection consists of about 100 clippings of Smith’s articles from the Pittsburgh Courier, Chicago’s America, The Sporting News, and a handful of other publications. An additional 33 documents are either correspondence letters or materials related to Smith’s BBWAA membership. Altogether, the Wendell Smith Papers are a small collection of just one archival box and five folders. This allowed for a manageable project with a modest digitization plan…or so I thought.

Project Limitations

1. Legal Rights

Before my arrival in Cooperstown, nobody conducted any research into whether or not the NBHOF possessed the digital rights to any of the files in the Wendell Smith Papers. This is, in part, my fault; I assumed that since the NBHOF wanted to proceed with such a digitization project that they held the rights to said digitization. All companies who currently hold rights to the newspapers in the collection would not release the digital rights without charging extremely high fees.

The only institution willing to share their materials with me was the Carnegie Museum of Art, who shared their photos of Wendell Smith from the Teenie Harris Archive free of charge. For that, I am still extremely thankful.

2. Technology

Simply put, the NBHOF web platform did not have the capability to effectively build a digital archive as of September 2014. There was no internal search function, no ability to tag documents with metadata, and no OCR technology. When I started this project in March, I believed all of these would be present, which would have resulted in an archive of full-text documents and images that were fully searchable. Instead, the only way to access this collection is functionally similar to a “browse” option on any other archive.

The Archive

Clipping from the Wendell Smith Papers. Pittsburgh Courier, July 25, 1942 (NBHOF Library)

Clipping from the Wendell Smith Papers. Pittsburgh Courier, July 25, 1942 (NBHOF Library)

To get around these limitations (especially legal), I sought out other NBHOF collections related to Wendell Smith for which rights are held. For this, the archives, library, and photo archives staff were remarkably helpful. I pulled quite nearly every piece of paper and photo in that building related to integration from 1930 to 1975. At every point, those three departments were incredibly helpful — even cheerful — and for that, I was (and am) extremely grateful. I then digitized and uploaded all materials from those collections with relevance, no matter how tangential, to the Wendell Smith stories. Three additional collections are present in the digital archive:

  • Integration Files (BA MSS 67). This collection is really a “catch-all” for documents related to the integration of major league baseball. For the digital archive, I digitized three types of files: letters to Commissioner Landis about Smith’s newspaper articles, fan correspondences to the Commissioner’s office about Jackie Robinson, and materials from the late-1950s regarding the Boston Red Sox efforts to integrate.
  • Joint Major League Meetings (BA MSS 105). This collection contains the transcript of every year’s meetings. I digitized the December 1943 meeting because Wendell Smith attended that meeting. A delegation led by Paul Robeson and members of the black press spoke to the owners about the necessity of major league integration. This transcript also includes a few pages at the end where Branch Rickey lightly challenges Commissioner Landis on integration.
  • Negro Leagues Committee Collection (BL-175.2003). This collection contains all surviving documents relating to the special election committee set up in the 1970s to elect Negro league ballplayers to the NBHOF. Smith served on this committee in 1971 and 1972, helping to elect Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Buck Leonard, and these two years are present in the digital collection. This committee also met controversy in its first year by originally intending to induct Paige in a separate wing of the NBHOF for Negro leaguers.

The Exhibit

baseballhall org old

Screen capture of the old NBHOF Website. Replaced in September 2014.

My goal with the exhibit portion of this project was to highlight the portions of Smith’s story that could be told directly through the NBHOF archival holdings. I chose to structure them as “Wendell Smith and X” because Smith was a rather confrontational sportswriter, and he usually targeted specific individuals with his writing. For instance, when attacking baseball segregation, he usually targeted Commissions Kenesaw Mountain Landis or specific baseball owners rather than the broader institution of segregation. If you go to the site, you will see the seven story pages on the right sidebar.

So why did I choose those seven specific stories? Simply put, these are the seven stories clearly visible through just the collections present in the digital archive. I desperately wanted to tell the story of Smith’s 1939 survey of National League player opinion of the color line, and I wanted to tell a richer story about Smith’s relationship with both Rickey and Robinson. But historians follow their sources, and I was limited to those present within the NBHOF archive.

The Public History Process Incurs Problems

I believe that a multitude of voices from both within and outside of the institution are necessary to create a quality public history product. However, when I arrived in Cooperstown, I did not have a project team to work with, just myself and the oversight of a handful of curators (most of which had other pressing projects).

smith collins letter

Eddie Collins to Wendell Smith, May 11, 1945. (NBHOF Library)

To remedy this, I reached out both internally and externally. Internally and on site, I garnered input from the various NBHOF departments, specifically education, archives, photo archives, and the library. Believing in the power of shared authority, I asked each department their needs and how this web archive and exhibit could be beneficial to their job. My belief is that this product was for the entire NBHOF, so I hoped (and still hope) that each department would find the project useful in some way.

I also contacted historians and other stakeholders outside of the NBHOF. After a few months of research, I had pinpointed who I considered experts on the subjects of major league integration, the black sports press of Smith’s era, and Wendell Smith specifically. I had several conversations with Brian Carroll and Chris Lamb, both of whom were extremely helpful in expressing what they felt this project should be.

But I encountered problems within these two steps: my project was viewed as a curatorial project and, as such, it was to remain within the curatorial department. That is, unless I was willing to spend my own money. In June, Wendell Smith was posthumously awarded the Red Smith Award by the Associated Press Sports Editors. The ceremony was held in Washington DC, and Smith’s widow Wyonella and niece were scheduled to receive the award. This, I argued, was a perfect moment for the NBHOF to document, especially with the upcoming launch of my project, the new website development, and the NBHOF’s consistent desire for publicity. No funding materialized, not even for gas money. To this day, I have no idea what was said at the ceremony, and I rue the missed opportunity that a meager amount of funding could have created.

Conclusion

Throughout this writing I have referred to this project as being “with” the NBHOF (and not “for” the NBHOF) because my work was first and foremost part of my doctoral residency project with the Public History Program at Middle Tennessee State University. I would like to also be clear that it was MTSU who funded me in entirety for this project, and that the NBHOF not once offered any direct financial support even in the form of reimbursement, housing assistance, or stipend. Hell, I spent more on lunches and donuts for NBHOF staff than I received from anyone officially. Still, I was very lucky to work with the NBHOF in such a capacity, and I was even more lucky that MTSU was willing to pay my bills to do so. This project was a success I believe, but not without its problems and shortcomings.

Barack Obama

President Barack Obama views Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers baseball jersey during a tour the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., Thursday, May 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

I do have some advice for individuals who work as consultants, interns, contract historians, or public historians in residence. I wish I had followed each of these steps more closely during my project time.

  1. When starting a project, never assume legal rights and technical capability have been sorted out before your arrival.
  2. Hold the host to the project; your time is just as valuable as theirs.
  3. Ask the right questions and demand the answers beforehand.
  4. Sign a contract.

Expanding a bit on number three, work with your host to establish concrete deadlines, timelines, and work responsibilities. Stick to your guns and stay within your means. Also, do not fear asking for financial support. Projects cost money, and you should never, ever foot the bill for someone else. Finally, ask for clarity regarding working relationships, institutional protocol, and departmental relationships. Every site has their own way of doing things, and there is absolutely no way to understand without either bumbling around for months or, better yet, just asking on day one.

Writers have called NBHOF a shrine, The Pantheon, my Mecca, baseball’s Mecca, all references to the NBHOF as the locus for the Church of Baseball. I bought into this rhetoric as a kid, teen, and young adult, committing to memory random facts about the Hall and its inhabitants, dreaming of Cooperstown, and watching well over 100 ball games a year. Then why, six months after my time working with the NBHOF, does my experience there still set uneasy with me? Don’t get me wrong — I am quite pleased with the product, and most of my experience was positive. I met and worked with incredible people within the Library, IT/Digital Media, Archives, Photo Archives, Collections, and Media Departments. Still though, an uneasiness does weigh upon me. I think in part I feel uneasy because this project could have — and should have — been so much more.

But I think a more likely explanation comes from an oft-repeated adage — “Never meet your heroes.”


Josh Howard (@jhowardhistory) is a PhD Candidates in the Public History Program in the Department of History at Middle Tennessee State University. He can be reached on Twitter or at Joshua.Howard@mtsu.edu.

3 thoughts on “Never Meet Your Heroes: Reflecting on My Time at the Baseball Hall of Fame

  1. Pingback: Never Meet Your Heroes: Reflecting on My Time at the Baseball Hall of Fame | J. Howard, History

  2. Pingback: Sport in American History: An Experiment in Digital Public Sport History | Sport in American History

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