Students’ film shines light on baseball’s segregated past

Harrisburg Giants team highlighted in documentary for historical senior project

It all started with an oral history project for student Jonathan Barry Wolf ’16, a double major in English and ethnic area studies. As a member of the Center for Public Humanities Student Fellows program, he collaborated with his advisor Jean Corey, associate professor of English at Messiah, on creating a film titled “There Were Giants” about the Harrisburg Giants, a professional African-American baseball team based in Harrisburg, Pa. Player/manager Oscar Charleston, who was a Hall of Fame player often compared to Babe Ruth according to “The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues,” led the team when the Giants played in the Eastern Colored League. Later, in the 1950s, the Giants integrated.

As Wolf learned more about the team, he wanted to bring its story to light. So, he contacted Nathan Skulstad, Messiah’s assistant professor of film and digital media, along with film students Kyle Kull ’15 and Scott Orris ’15 who were enrolled in Skulstad’s documentary class.

“Their story is inspiring, and we believe that it deserves to be heard by a broad audience. The Giants took a brave step toward equality for all people when they integrated, and the inclusivity embodied in the Harrisburg Giants’ actions is worthy of a film,” said Wolf.

Creating the documentary

The film documentary project began in October 2014. The three students handled all of the logistics, filming, editing and technical details that come with producing a film. Although they received insight from various professors and advisors on campus, they handled the various roles needed by themselves. Orris, who previously earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Messiah in 2008, also graduated in May with a degree in film and media arts. His background in history research complemented Kull’s digital and technical knowledge.

“[Wolf] arranged all our interviews with the players and adds his ethnic and area studies background to his help with the film. He asked the interview questions while Kyle and I focused on the technical aspects of filming,” said Orris, who edited the documentary.

The documentary features four of the 11 surviving players—Jim Weedon, Leo Burnett, Ed Nork and Bruno Demartio—talking about their experiences in baseball.

“We chose not to have a narrator present the film,” said Wolf, “mainly because we wanted to prevent three white guys making a film about a diverse group of people…so we took our hands off and let them write their stories.”

New facility used to create the film

To complete the project, the students used the new Film and Media Production Studio installed last year in the lower level of Hostetter Chapel. The facilities include a production studio for broadcasting and filming courses, along with a control room where students can edit live broadcasting. The lab includes the Foley Studio, a room dedicated to creating and recording sound effects and other audio in post-production. An equipment room also houses the department’s cameras, lighting kits, microphones and more for students to check out for projects.

Public engagement and the Humanities

Using digital technology, the film connects Messiah’s educational work in the humanities to the public service in the Harrisburg area. “It is a great collaborative venture,” said Pete Powers, dean of the School of Humanities, “bringing together students from many different disciplines. And, it’s a great example of undergraduate student research—something we have been emphasizing at Messiah College as a whole and within the School of the Humanities.”

The students showed a clip at the 2015 Humanities Symposium in February and invited the Giants players to a campus Q-and-A session. In addition, the Harrisburg mayor’s office honored the players with the Martin Luther King Keeper of The Dream Award, which celebrates those who have shown dedication to integration and equality.
So much more than a senior project, the film stands as a recorded piece of not only local sports history, but also Civil Rights history.

“The fact that these men can be honored for the steps they took toward reconciliation, inclusivity and acceptance has been the most rewarding part of the project for me. I hope that the Giants can continue to be honored and that their story will continue to impact people’s lives,” said Wolf. “We also hope that through this film, people nationally will be able to hear about the Harrisburg Giants and will be able to learn more about the American Negro Leagues and be inspired by the equalizing actions of the team.”

— Adela Antal ’16