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.

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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.

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