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.”

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