Interview with John Thorn, Official Historian of Major League Baseball

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by Protoball Functionary, January 2013

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Note: A shorter version of this interview appeared in the January issue of Protoball’s Next Destin’d Post.


Protoball: How is the job of Official Historian of Baseball different from what you imagined it might be? How is it the similar to what you expected?

John Thorn: Overall, I confess to having been a bit surprised – and pleased – by the level of media interest in baseball’s history and, by extension, its Official Historian. I believe I have settled in comfortably as a spokesperson for the game’s past and the pleasures it holds for fans of any age.

From day one, I knew I had the major assignment of chairing the new MLB Origins Committee. What this actually entailed was not set out for me, but early on I settled upon what I believed would be the most promising path to an illuminating official report. This would be not to look for more Haystack needles in the 18th century but to see baseball’s rise and flower as a sequence of serial beginnings, with interesting variations in many locales at many times. This meant more work for me, and for my esteemed colleagues and committee panelists, but it was highly rewarding work. Building out the Memory Lab portion of the MLB.com website and populating the “Our Game” blog with origins reports was an unforeseen “assignment” but one that I embraced.


Protoball: Interesting; this sounds congruent with the small "Local Origins" project that SABR's Origins of Baseball group started a while back. In general terms, what are the new observations coming out of the MLB Committee's work on the serial beginnings?


John Thorn: The “local origins” or spread project was of course the inspiration for our committee's vision of serial beginnings (rather than one light-bulb moment). We extended from the SABR vision to inquire of the international baseball community, via the federation chiefs of more than a hundred nations, how baseball was believed to have begun in their homelands. It would have been easier, of course, to offer up our own understanding of how baseball originated in, say, Japan or Venezuela, but that would have denied us access to locally embraced legends, which were generally more fact based than our own Doubleday tale.


Protoball: Have you run into many people in the MLB orbit who are interested and knowledgeable about base ball before the Pro Era, from 1871 on?

John Thorn: By and large, no. But the MLB.com Memory Lab has enticed many club representatives to take a localized interest in how baseball may have begun in their states or cities.


Protoball: Looking at the Memory Lab at http://mlb.mlb.com/memorylab/index.jsp, it looks like there are already about 250 offerings there, including [Commissioner Selig's . . . and yours.

John Thorn: Our Memory Lab is designed to enlist ordinary fans as well as baseball professionals to share their top personal memories of baseball. It is naturally centered more on the last decade or two, and has a more recent focus than I might have anticipated. All the same, the effort has worthwhile in conveying the message that an appreciation of baseball’s history, and our own within it, enhances or pleasure in watching today’s games.


Protoball You're keeping us pretty busy reading with your blog at http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/. What types of subjects are drawing the most responses?

John Thorn: Those entries that attach to 20th century events, and that involve tangible artifacts of the game, have been most popular. This is unsurprising, of course.


Protoball: The report of your Origins Committee must be due out soon. Will it have anything new to say about the game's earliest years?

John Thorn: We will have many surprises for the casual observer, but fewer for the devotee of the game’s ancient days. The Committee’s objective was not to break new ground – although we will have done some of that – but to consolidate the best current knowledge about how baseball began and spread across North American and the world.


Protoball: What new findings might startle the casual baseball fan?

John Thorn: I might point to the story of the Polish workers playing ball at Jamestown in 1609, about which David Block wrote for the special origins issue of Base Ball (see http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/?s=1609). Even experts have been amazed that (a) Poles were at Jamestown and (b) that they played a bat and ball game {Pilka Palantowa) that may be part of baseball's family tree. (The bibliographic foundations for this revelation are, to put it mildly, shaky. However, this find led Block to ruminate on the allied game of long ball, which bears further study.


Protoball: David has recently estimated that origins researchers have about ten times as much data at hand as those did who wrote at the advent of the internet. How do you see it?

John Thorn: Certainly the quality as well as the quantity of new data about the game has exploded over the past decade or so. The internet has been a great research tool and a great exchange medium.


Protoball: The baseball establishment seems to be easing up on the idea that the Doubleday legend should be taken literally. Are you seeing that too?

John Thorn: Abner Doubleday has no base of support within baseball, except as a legendary figure. The misattribution of baseball’s invention to him is seen as a historical accident, and maybe a fortunate one as it gave us a locus for the Baseball Hall of Fame, upon whose value all may agree.


Protoball: Other than that recent book on the Baseball in the Garden of Eden, what strikes you as the most interesting new research to hit print in the past two years?

John Thorn: I think the Origins Issue of the Journal Base Ball, whose special editor was Larry McCray, is the single most significant work of the very recent past. Almost all of the early game’s principal scholars contributed to it, and the posting of their articles to “Our Game” on MLB.com has provided a wide and enduring readership.

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