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

3 Replies to “My interview with John Thorn”

  1. Nice interview. I sense that he’s still trying to feel his way around what he’s going to be doing in his new job and that comparisons with others aren’t comfortable for him to go into right now.
    It’ll be interesting to watch as over time he defines and puts his own brand on his new roll, one which if past performance is any indication, will be of great value to baseball and all fans of the game.

  2. My hope would be that Thorn’s appointment would be the impetus for the HOF to mount a serious investigation into 19th century ball, similar to what they did for Black baseball a decade ago, that led to the mass inductions of many of those stars in 2006.

    There has never been a systematic, scholarly review made of the early decades of professional baseball that would identify all the players and contributors deserving enshrinement. The HOF will be lacking as a historical institution until this effort is undertaken.

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