Yesterday was the birthday of Fred Rogers, the longtime host of the children’s TV show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. And while Rogers passed away in 2003, the work that he accomplished during his lifetime lives on. His work in television had a positive influence on multiple generations of children. Rogers also convinced Congress to not cut funding for public television, and was a proponent of technology that would allow TV programs to be recorded for later viewing. All that, and he was once the “Celebrity Captain” of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Most would not correlate the kind and soft-spoken “Mister Rogers” to the hard-checking sport of hockey. But during the 1991-92 season — the NHL’s 75th anniversary — each team had a Celebrity Captain. Some teams appointed a former player, while others had film and television stars as their Celebrity Captains. Rogers was a native of Pennsylvania, and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was produced in Pittsburgh, making him a hero even more so to the people of that town.
That season, Pro Set released a set of hockey cards known as “Pro Set Platinum,” which included cards for twelve of the celebrity captains. Fortunately, Rogers was one of them. While he appeared in a few card sets after his passing, his 1991-92 Pro Set Platinum card is this first-ever trading card — his “rookie card.” The front shows Rogers’ in his trademark sweater and comfortable shoes, while the back gives his biography (as of 1991):
The soft voice of Pittsburgh Penguins Celebrity Captain Fred (Mr.) Rogers has resounded over radio and television for more than 35 years. The composer, musician, writer and producer developed his first children’s program in 1953 for WQED, the nation’s first community-supported public television station. During the seven years of The Children’s Corner, he began studying theology and child development. He was ordained by the Pittsburgh Presbytery in 1962 with a charge to continue his work with children and families through the media.
Rogers began appearing on Misterogers in 1963, and distribution to PBS affiliates began in 1968. The show, which became Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in 1969, contains nearly 600 episodes and reaches seven million families each week. Through a nonprofit corporation, Rogers produces a variety of materials to encourage the healthy emotional growth of children and their families.
A genuinely kind and caring man, Fred Rogers pioneered children’s television. His show ran from 1968 to 2001 for a total of 998 episodes, and had a big impact on the lives of millions of children – both American and Canadian – growing up during that time, myself included.
But his work went further than producing this long-running, award-winning program. When a $20 million endowment for public television funding was in jeopardy – President Nixon wanted to use half of that money towards the Vietnam War – Rogers spoke with the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Communications. His speech was successful; not only did the Senate refrain from cutting the grant, but they increased it to $22 million.
Rogers was also an advocate of the VCR. In the Supreme Court case Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Rogers testified on behalf of the VCR manufacturers, stating that he did not mind his show being recorded and watched at a later time because “…some public stations, as well as commercial stations, program the Neighborhood at hours when some children cannot use it,” and “that anything that allows a person to be more active in the control of his or her life, in a healthy way, is important” (source).
Rogers was one of the most prominent witnesses to testify on the issue. Think about that next time you record your favorite show to watch later, or pause a hockey game long enough to go get your pizza out of the oven.
As a child of the 1980s, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was one of the “big three” of children’s shows in my early life – the other two shows being Sesame Street and The Electric Company. Rogers stressed values and community, without being religious or preachy. He stressed that we are all special just the way we are, and discussed real issues for children, such as anger and fear, and how to cope with these. His kind words and acts were above and beyond a simple game that we enjoy so much.
Follow Sal Barry on Twitter @PuckJunk. ■