My interview with John Thorn

To anyone who missed it, one of my interview subjects from last year, John Thorn, was named official historian yesterday for Major League Baseball. Thorn has authored several books, including Total Baseball and served as senior creative consultant for the Ken Burns Baseball series that aired in 1994 on PBS. After seeing the news yesterday, I emailed John to see if he would be up for a phone interview. He agreed. Excerpts of our discussion from this morning are as follows:

I know when we talked about John Donaldson last June, one thing you told me was that you felt that the MLB didn’t care much about anything before World War II. I know you’re an expert on baseball before the modern era. The first thing I wanted to ask you is, as the new official historian, are you aiming to promote more awareness for baseball before World War II?

Thorn: I’m not coming in with an agenda, I’m not coming in with aims, and I believe that Major League Baseball’s preference for historic treatment of players for whom footage exists is natural in the age of the Web.

I wanted to ask you, too– this new job, how long has it been in the works for?

Thorn: Well, clearly, there were discussions underway for some period, but I prefer not to get into how the hot dog was made.

*                              *                              *

I know you’re taking over for Jerome Holtzman. No Cheering in the Press Box is one of the books I have on–

Thorn: I’m not taking over for Jerome. The position was created for Jerome. He occupied it from 1999 until his death in 2008, and I think the position was really identified with him, and no immediate successor was appointed. I’m thinking that Major League Baseball selecting me as its official historian after something of a gap after Jerome’s passing can be taken as an interest in my taking an active role in making baseball’s history more accessible.

I know Jerome was great on oral histories… What do you think that you bring to this role different than what Jerome would have offered?

Thorn: Jerome loved baseball history and made baseball history through the creation of the save. He had tremendous curiosity. His knowledge of the game was broad but sharpest of course during the period of his active reporting. I think I may have more interest and background in primitive baseball, in other words baseball before the major leagues. This was not an area of interest for Jerome.

I know you have a book due out, what is it, two weeks from now. Are you planning to keep writing?

Thorn: Yeah, yeah. That’s what I do. There may be some writing involved on behalf of Major League Baseball– that’s yet to be determined– and I will continue to write books as subjects come up that are of interest. Writing Baseball in the Garden of Eden, taking as many years with that as I did was a bit exhausting, so I don’t trust myself to identify the subject of my next book.

You said you worked on that book more or less for like 25 years, right?

Thorn: The research was well over 25 years, and the writing of the book was probably six or seven. It’s not that I was doing nothing but [writing], but this was firmly lodged between my ears for all that time. It’s a subject dear to my heart, and one to which I’ve devoted a great deal of time, and I think I found a great deal that’s not in print anywhere else and will transform our understanding of how baseball came to be, the game that we love today.

What do you think might be missing from baseball’s archives or baseball’s lore right now that you might be able to help uncover? Do you have any idea of what you might be looking for?

Thorn: No, no. You never know what you’re going to find, and I’m not going to be conducting independent forays and then suggesting to Major League Baseball that it memorialize… such things. I am now working for Major League Baseball, and I will serve at its pleasure.

*                              *                              *

I know for promoting your book, I heard you established a new Web site that points out some of the old 19th century players. I know earlier, you were saying you’re going in with no stated agenda, but do you think you’re going to try to do anything to bring light to some of these players you put up on this Web site?

Thorn: Graham, that’s an excellent question, but I think it reflects a misunderstanding of what my role in Major League Baseball is going to be. They’re not looking for me to come in and point out neglected stars from 1902. The baseball Hall of Fame takes care of that, and while I have my favorites, and I’ve written about my favorites, I don’t have any particular wish to install such people officially within Cooperstown or Park Avenue….

John Donaldson was the subject of our discussion earlier, and I’m not championing Donaldson or José Méndez or any particular ancient star. It’s not what I do. It’s not what I did previously on my own. I’m not one for advocacy.

I believe institutions ought to do what they are inclined to do. The baseball Hall of Fame installs people in its gallery that it thinks are worthy. I might have different opinions, and you might have different opinions, and that’s perfectly okay.

Other interviews: Joe Posnanski, Rob Neyer, Josh Wilker, John Thorn, Hank Greenwald

More quotes from my interview with John Thorn

Last week, I posted a story on a forgotten Negro League/semi-pro great named John Donaldson, and in writing it, I faced a high class problem for a writer: I had more solid material than could fit. As I’ve since commented, this was an 800-word piece that could’ve gone 2,000.

A lot of good stuff didn’t make the final edit including several quotes from one of my interview subjects for the piece, John Thorn, a prolific baseball author and the senior creative consultant for the Ken Burns Baseball series that aired on PBS in 1994. Thorn said several things from our short phone conversation June 3 that deserve a wider audience, and I decided yesterday to compile them into a post here.

On his relationship with Donaldson’s lead researcher, Peter Gorton

“Peter and I are not in close contact, and I have not been keeping up with the state of his research. I just know it was pretty great that he did find some Donaldson footage.”

On how Donaldson would rate with other Negro League great hurlers

“By all accounts, he would be up there, but we’re in that strange land of anecdotal measurement. People have tried to remedy this by doing retroactive statistics and filling in gaps and doing some highly suspect things in terms of statistical theory, imagining at-bats, imagining innings pitched, trying to deduce from the slim evidence at hand what a full picture might have looked like. In fact, this is more archaeology than history, and I’m very familiar with that necessity because my specialty is baseball before the Major Leagues.” [Thorn clarified in a subsequent email that he wasn’t including Gorton among this type of researcher.]

On whether he thinks baseball’s done a good job honoring Negro League players before 1920

“Major League Baseball feels no responsibility to honor white players before 1920, let alone black ones. I think if there is no footage you can throw up on MLB television or on the Web site, they’re not particularly interested in the players…. If King Kelly can’t catch a cold with the MLB producers, you can be sure that Rube Foster won’t either.”

“It’s not a matter of discrimination against old Negro Leaguers, it’s a discrimination against old ballplayers. It’s not exactly discrimination. It’s that Major League Baseball has made the judgment that 1/10th of 1 percent of all baseball fans cares about anything that happened prior to World War II, and they’re not going to devote very much of their resources to pleasing that 1/10th of 1 percent. You can’t argue with it as a business decision. You can argue with it as a philosophical or historical question because if baseball is an important institution, then it ought to be important to learn where it came from and how it grew.”

On baseball history being a niche market for writers

“You have to do what you have to do. If this is where your interest lies, if you make it your specialty, you will find an audience. I have a book that I’ve been working on for years now that’s coming out next spring called Baseball in the Garden of Eden. It pretty much begins 1770, or so, and ends in 1939 but the real serious narrative runs, I guess, 1830 to 1908. Now, this book may be read by 12 people but actually, I suspect it’ll have a wider audience.”

On the myths of Abner Doubleday and Alexander Cartwright — whose biography he recently wrote an introduction for — as the founders of baseball

“I think it’s safe to say that most of what baseball fans think about old-fashioned baseball, i.e. before their fathers were born is wrong. Whether they believe in Doubleday or Cartwright, they’re equally wrong.”

Me: “Yeah, it’s funny, I always thought I was smart for knowing Cartwright.”

“You are not alone in that position, and I believe that to this day, if you could interview all baseball fans, that 60-70 percent of them would still say that Doubleday invented the game. It’s pretty hard to kill Santa Claus.”

Some closing remarks

“One thing. In terms of the commentary that you extract from this interview for your blog, you’re free to use anything. There’s nothing off the record. I will add that I admire Peter Gorton’s tenacity and his inventiveness, and while I have no particular feelings for Donaldson this way or that or any notion of where he belongs in the pantheon, I think the man who merits celebration now is not so much Donaldson, but Gorton and you and people like you.”