Two days ago, Major League Baseball announced that it had hired John Thorn, an author and member of the Society for American Baseball Research, as its official historian. The position had been vacant since the 2008 death of Jerome Holtzman, the longtime Chicago sportswriter who invented the save stat. Thorn is a great choice: a historian who combines a sense of humor with a love for the game’s minutiae, his hiring is probably the best thing to come out of MLB’s press office all winter. But his hiring is good news for another reason: unlike Bud Selig, he doesn’t believe Abner Doubleday invented baseball.
Back in November, Selig caused a minor storm by sending an email to a baseball fan in which he wrote:
From all of the historians which I have spoken with, I really believe that Abner Doubleday is the ‘Father of Baseball.’ I know there are some historians who would dispute this, though.
In fact, it has been more than a century since baseball’s Mills Commission first credited Doubleday as the founder of baseball, and in the past hundred years essentially every credible baseball historian has disputed the old Doubleday story. Few have done so more prominently than Thorn, who was quoted in a New York Times article about the Selig letter. Thorn debunked Selig’s statement, though he soft-pedaled any criticism of Selig: “It’s merely odd that the commissioner believes this. It is surprising. I don’t think you can mistrust his other judgments.”
A member of SABR’s 19th Century Baseball Research Committee, Thorn has frequently written about the beloved but factually incorrect myths that underpin baseball’s beginnings. As he wrote in a biography of Doc Adams for the SABR Bio Project:
The history of baseball is a lie from beginning to end, from its creation myth to its rosy models of commerce, community, and fair play. The conventional tale of the game’s birth is substantially incorrect-not just the Doubleday fable, pointless to attack, but even the scarcely less legendary development of the Knickerbocker game, ostensibly sired by Alexander Cartwright…
The truth of the paternity question? Eighty-year-old Henry Chadwick had it right when he said in 1904, only one year before the formation of the Mills Commission, “Like Topsy, baseball never had no ‘fadder’; it jest growed.”
That captures a flavor of both his clear prose and his humor. More than a year before the creation of the OldHossRadbourn Twitter feed, Thorn spent a week in April 2008 writing a baseball advice blog in the voice of Abner Doubleday. (“Although he neglected to invent the game or even take an interest in it in all the days he walked the earth, in death Abner has become rather smitten. Who wouldn’t? All day long he swaps stories upstairs with the Babe, the Mick, Satchel … and even Alex Cartwright, with whom he has formed a cordial tandem.”)
Thorn’s list of credentials, not just on the early history of baseball, is long. He was the senior creative consultant for Ken Burns’s landmark documentary Baseball; Thorn’s latest book is a history of baseball’s early days, Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game, due to be released in two weeks. He was also the longtime co-editor with Pete Palmer of Total Baseball, a sabermetric landmark that later became adopted as the official encyclopedia of baseball. For all his contributions, SABR awarded him the Bob Davids award, given in honor of the founder. The child of Holocaust survivors, Thorn was born in a displaced persons camp in West Germany, and moved to the New York area when he was 2, where he fell in love with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Today, he lives in Saugerties, New York, just 90 miles away from Cooperstown.
He’s one of the good guys, a passionate baseball fan who is also one of the preeminent baseball scholars of his generation. He has enriched our understanding of baseball history for decades now. Maybe he can actually teach the commissioner a thing or two about the game, and stop baseball’s leadership from perpetuating the Doubleday myth into the 21st century.
Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.