Q&A with John Thorn, baseball historian

  • Updated: March 27, 2011 - 2:24 AM

John Thorn, 63, was recently named the official baseball historian for Major League Baseball, and it's not hard to understand why.

hide

Baseball historian John Thorn

John Thorn, 63, was recently named the official baseball historian for Major League Baseball, and it's not hard to understand why. He has authored several books, including his most recent, "Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game," which takes a hard look at the origins of the sport. He will appear Tuesday night with Garrison Keillor at the Fitzgerald Theater to talk about the book. Last week, Thorn was kind enough to answer some questions from the Star Tribune's Michael Rand.

Q How did you get so interested in baseball history -- and in getting to the bottom of stories that maybe haven't been told before?

A I started in college [Beloit College in Wisconsin] as an English major and math major, which is an odd pairing. It wasn't until my sophomore year that it became clear my talents lay more in the literature line. ... The analytical path I was trained in for literature made me curious and kept me attuned to the idea that there might be subtext -- that the accepted story may not be quite so.

Q Does it get harder as time passes to convince people that a story isn't how they think it is?

A I think facts, no matter how diligent and how voluminous, will not kill a legend. Legend is always more powerful than fact. Abner Doubleday [often credited with inventing baseball] will survive -- not in fact, but in the same way that we think about Santa Claus as the father of Christmas and Dracula as the father of Halloween, Abner will be the father of baseball. My aim is not to get rid of Doubleday. But I believe the real story, the messy story, is so much better.

Q With the most recent book then, is that what you were trying to achieve -- to get into the details of what may have really taken place with the origins of baseball?

A Over the nearly 30 years I researched the book, my perspective shifted. Originally, I set out to get the story straight and untangle the myths from the facts. Midway through, it became more interesting to me to determine why people were bothering to create these stories.

Q You played a prominent role as senior creative consultant on Ken Burns' "Baseball" documentary. How much of a challenge was it to fit that into the 18-plus hours -- even though that seems like a lot?

A We had 50 hours of great film, and we felt horribly squeezed by the 18-hour window. It was torture because so much stuff was left on the floor. There are concessions you make. You aren't making it for the particularly avid baseball fan, but for a general audience.

Q Is there a period of baseball history that really grabs you or moves you?

A That has shifted over time. When I first began writing baseball, I was enamored of the Dead Ball Era, the period before Babe Ruth that started around 1900. ... But as I learned more and more, I became magnetized toward earlier periods, and the archeological instincts took over. ... If you care about the beginnings of anything, you just fall in love with the earliest examples and the most primitive thinking about what it might become.

Q Are there stories or particulars from the origins that make you think, "My goodness, if this hadn't happened in a particular way, this might have been entirely different."

A Yes, I do think -- why did the Massachusetts [version of the] Game disappear more suddenly than the dinosaurs? I have played it and umpired it. It could be argued that it's a better version than the one that survived. What did the Civil War have to do with the spread of baseball?

Q Do you think people want easy explanations for the invention of the game, and that's why the stories have survived?

A There's no question there's a psychological need to have a single inventor and have a complicated story straightened out. For some people who think they want to know who really invented 90-foot basepaths, nine innings and nine men ... they'll find out by reading "Baseball in the Garden of Eden." It's not a quick and easy answer in most cases. But I'm certain I've advanced the understanding of how baseball began.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

ADVERTISEMENT

NY Mets 8 FINAL
Atlanta 2
Philadelphia 3 FINAL
NY Yankees 1
Detroit 5 FINAL
Baltimore 4
Toronto 4 FINAL
Pittsburgh 1
Cincinnati 2 FINAL
Cleveland 4
San Diego 3 FINAL
Seattle 4
Chicago WSox 6 FINAL
Los Angeles 4
Kansas City 13 FINAL
Texas 2
Oakland 9 FINAL
San Francisco 2
Wisc-Milwaukee 0 FINAL
Milwaukee 8
Arizona 6 FINAL
Colorado 3
Univ of Minnesota 1 FINAL
Minnesota 3
New York 82 FINAL
Indiana 105
Phoenix 105 FINAL
Orlando 100
Cleveland 117 4th Qtr 0:27
Toronto 110
Utah 84 FINAL
Boston 85
Charlotte 115 FINAL
Brooklyn 91
Denver 81 4th Qtr 9:07
Minnesota 68
Detroit 68 3rd Qtr 9:41
New Orleans 73
LA Lakers 71 3rd Qtr 0:44
Miami 74
Philadelphia 90 3rd Qtr 0:27
Oklahoma City 84
Memphis 89 4th Qtr 7:38
Houston 82
Sacramento 38 3rd Qtr 12:00
San Antonio 54
Milwaukee 9:30 PM
Golden State
Portland 9:30 PM
LA Clippers
Ottawa 3 3rd Prd 12:28
Winnipeg 1
NY Rangers 1 3rd Prd
Detroit 1
Pittsburgh 9:00 PM
Colorado
Montreal 9:00 PM
Anaheim
Longwood 65 FINAL
Presbyterian 61
Campbell 64 FINAL
Gardner-Webb 72
Liberty 70 FINAL
UNC-Asheville 80
Ohio State 77 FINAL
Penn State 67
Maine 66 FINAL
Albany 83
Duquesne 81 FINAL
Fordham 66
George Washington 67 FINAL
George Mason 51
Tennessee 78 FINAL
LSU 63
Notre Dame 71 FINAL
Louisville 59
SE Missouri St 74 FINAL
Morehead State 79
St Francis-PA 73 FINAL
Mount St Marys 58
Hartford 52 FINAL
New Hampshire 54
Wagner 68 FINAL
Robert Morris 91
Long Island 70 FINAL
St Francis-NY 79
La Salle 50 FINAL
Saint Josephs 55
Providence 79 FINAL
Seton Hall 66
UCF 45 FINAL
South Florida 74
Binghamton 57 FINAL
Stony Brook 62
UMBC 39 FINAL
Vermont 66
Sacred Heart 85 FINAL
Bryant 91
Richmond 56 FINAL
Massachusetts 53
Wake Forest 51 2nd Half 0:54
Duke 94
Purdue 44 2nd Half 4:03
Michigan State 53
Miami-Florida 64 2nd Half 0:26
Pittsburgh 61
St Bonaventure 64 2nd Half 0:37
Saint Louis 48
New Mexico St 66 2nd Half 2:10
TX-Pan American 48
Houston 57 2nd Half 1:12
Tulane 59
Howard 62 FINAL
NJIT 71
TCU 30 2nd Half
Oklahoma State 34
Cincinnati 27 1st Half 0:07
Tulsa 20
USC 35 1st Half 0:05
UCLA 46
Miss State 36 2nd Half
Vanderbilt 32
Utah State 30 2nd Half
Wyoming 40
St Johns 24 1st Half 3:39
Marquette 21
SIU Edwardsville 19 1st Half 7:38
Eastern Ill 21
Air Force 9:00 PM
Fresno State
Nebraska 9:00 PM
Illinois
Colorado State 9:00 PM
Nevada
Boise State 9:00 PM
San Jose St
San Diego St 10:00 PM
UNLV
Oregon 10:00 PM
Oregon State
UC Santa Barbara 10:59 PM
Hawaii
Toledo 64 FINAL
Northern Ill 68
Wake Forest 69 FINAL
Boston College 53
Eastern Illinois 35 FINAL
UT Martin 68
Austin Peay 69 FINAL
SIU-Edwardsville 72
Virginia Tech 57 FINAL
NC State 56
Massachusetts 55 FINAL
St Bonaventure 49
Auburn 71 FINAL
Florida 49
Penn State 63 FINAL
Indiana 68
Clemson 53 FINAL
Georgia Tech 80
Davidson 63 FINAL
La Salle 74
Loyola-Maryland 46 FINAL
Lafayette 58
Boston U 48 FINAL
Colgate 58
Coll of Charleston 58 FINAL
James Madison 107
Delaware 76 FINAL
Elon 77
Drexel 58 FINAL
Northeastern 42
Hofstra 75 FINAL
UNC-Wilmington 76
Towson 56 FINAL
William & Mary 68
Miami-Ohio 55 FINAL
Akron 67
Ball State 85 FINAL
Central Michigan 69
Buffalo 55 FINAL
Bowling Green 47
Western Mich 65 FINAL
Eastern Michigan 74
Ohio U 69 FINAL
Kent State 56
Youngstown St 62 FINAL
Cleveland State 73
Illinois-Chicago 54 FINAL
Wright State 74
Alabama 56 FINAL
Vanderbilt 66
Detroit 60 FINAL
Milwaukee 56
Purdue 49 2nd Half 4:32
Wisconsin 53
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Who is doing the best job coaching a Minnesota pro sports team?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close