Unearthed in a college archive, the grainy black-and-white dramatization, made in 1958, tells the story of a bungled purchase order and a boss who wanted the guilty party’s scalp. The company’s managers faced a glaring choice: fire an inept clerk who had it coming anyway, or jeopardize the career of a highly valued executive who, in this instance, was the one who actually slipped up.
After 15 minutes, the action stops and an interfaith panel of New Yorkers assembles like a Greek chorus to debate the issue on camera. Panelists are troubled by the idea of sacrificing the clerk to spare the executive’s career, none more so than the soft-spoken moderator. He asks, “Can a business survive if all the principals are looking out for themselves?”
Fittingly, the words come from a man who keenly understood the meaning of the word “team.” On film, he introduces himself simply as “Jackie Robinson, your host.” But it is the same Jackie Robinson who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers and went on to a 10-year career that put him in baseball’s Hall of Fame.
Robinson hosted the multiracial panel in New York that discussed the work-related issues raised by the fictional Whitmore Plastics company. An all-white panel in Des Moines debated the same episode.
Other episodes, hosted by different moderators, touched on issues involving the disabled, racial understanding and the pressures of modern life.
Religion played a behind-the-scenes role in the overall production. Handouts sent to churches and other discussion groups advised moderators to “lead the participants to see the varied Christian solutions to the problem.”
By the time his segment aired, Robinson was pushing 40, newly retired from baseball and commuting to Manhattan from his home in Stamford, Conn. As vice president for personnel at Chock Full o’ Nuts, he had much say over the firing of rank-and-file workers. Yet he was a self-described softie, in contrast to the fiery determination that was part of his image as a player.
“Instead of cracking down on delinquent workers, Jack’s instinct from the start was to defend them,” Arnold Rampersad, a professor emeritus at Stanford University, wrote in his 1998 book, “Jackie Robinson: A Biography.”
Hints of that protective streak were evident in the panel discussion. “I happen to be with a firm,” Robinson said, without naming names. “I know that we sometimes get into problems because I will not fire for one mistake. But I think you have to live with yourself. You must give a person opportunity.”
Filling out the New York panel were a buyer from Macy’s, a medical researcher, a product manager for a cosmetics company and a rabbi, Josiah Derby, with a Conservative congregation in Queens.
Robinson initially questions if a business can survive with everyone looking out for himself. When the entire panel weighs in against letting one man pay the price for another’s mistake, he switches sides.
“This is a business,” he counters. “They keep pointing this out. Is it better off for a business to fire the man who made it,” meaning the mistake, or the man who is not as valuable to the company?
Even having the issue framed that way, the panelists frown on firing Richards just to spare Carlisle, and they find few angels in the lot. One of the panelists calls the men’s actions “crimes.”
“Let’s get a spiritual view on that, Rabbi,” Robinson interjects.
Swinging with ease at the softball he has just been tossed, the rabbi says that any business that makes a worker feel like “he’s just a cog is not going to produce that which our society needs.”
“It may produce goods, not human beings,” he adds.
Contrast that panel discussion about the importance of humanity and ethics in the workplace with Joel Klein's paean to himself in the Times yesterday in which he regrets not firing more teachers, closing more schools, ending tenure, seniority and other work protections for teachers and making public education into a bottom line business where only test scores matter.
Klein likes to style himself as a "civil rights leader" who fights the good fight in the civil rights movement.
A real civil rights leader - Jack Roosevelt Robinson - a man who endured taunts, death threats, and baseball spikes to the face on the baseball field in order to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball shows just what a true civil rights leader is: making sure that EVERYONE gets a fair shake in society, not just the executive and the all-mighty bottom line.