Thomasville, GA c. 1919. From the Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection.
Athens, GA-- For Margie Compton, it was a eureka moment. Compton is a film archivist at the University of Georgia. She was viewing an early 20th century collection of home movies, shot by a very wealthy plantation-owning family in the southwest Georgia town of Thomasville.
"It's one of four pieces of film that were loosely wound together on one reel. One scene is just family," said Compton. "When I saw the baseball footage as I spooled through the film, I knew it was unique."
It shows employees of the Pebble Hill Plantation, wearing baseball uniforms and playing in a league against other teams based on old south plantations. It was 26 seconds of exceedingly rare footage.
"We suspect and are working to determine whether it is the earliest footage of African Americans playing baseball," Compton said.
Compton used the Underwriters laboratory image on the film leader, among other clues, to date the footage to 1919-- which she says also makes it the oldest known baseball footage shot in Georgia. Compton says the oldest footage at the Negro Leagues museum in Kansas City was shot in 1921.
The leader -- a white strip which bridges two pieces of film on a reel -- also tells her that the baseball footage was likely shot as an afterthought.
"This was just (the photographer) grabbing twenty six seconds of a game at the end of a reel of film. He just wanted to use up the film, send it off and get it developed. Why not shoot a ballgame?" Compton said. "It meant nothing to them, I'm sure."
But to UGA's Brown Media Archives, it has great meaning. The footage from the Pebble Hill plantation is already digitized and posted online, and housed in the archive's huge climate controlled basement in Athens. And it will become part of the lore of the national pastime -- this one, dating back more than 90 years.