Can John Thorn Finally Erase Abner Doubleday?

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.

We hoped you liked reading Can John Thorn Finally Erase Abner Doubleday? by Alex Remington!

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Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.

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Grant
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Grant

I’d love to see him dispel the myth that Cartwright’s Cooperstown game was the first modern game. In fact, the first modern game on record was played in Beachville, Ontario 7 years earlier. The nearby Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame has a really neat display on the real origins of baseball, but unfortunately most fans south of the border are ignorant of that fact.

rotofan
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rotofan

Ignorance is a strange thing.

The only recording of the so-called Beachville game was done by a doctor with serious drug and alcohol addictions who wrote of it for the first time 48 years after it supposedly happen in a letter — he had seen the supposed game when he was 7-years-old. The level of detail he claimed to recall is greater than what most people could recall of game the previous week. even sober people — Dr. Adam Ford battled alcohol and substance abuse.

There have been countless Americans who have dispelled Cartwright and Doubleday. By comparison, Canadians have been much less willing to examine Ford’s claims critically – there has been only two attempts, to my knowledge. As someone who has lived on both sides of the border, I’m not surprised. There is so much more shared history south of the border that Americans, at least those with an intellectual bent, are more comfortable questioning elements of that history. Canadians are much more likely to mistake honest questioning with an attack on their national identity.

Christopher Taylor
Guest
Christopher Taylor

I’m not sure what the ad hominem attack on Ford is supposed to show. Many addicts have wonderful memories and are quite truthful, but to call what Ford recorded baseball seems strange. It is closer to baseball than cricket and rounders, but still seems like a step in the evolution of the game.

I also don’t understand the sentiment “an attack on their national identity”, Canada, almost famously so has no identity. In fact, hand-wring wrestling with what the Canadian identity is could probably considered the nation’s national pastime. The lack of critical examination of Ford’s claims almost certainly has everything to do with the number of professional and amateur historians that study Canadian versus American history.

Grant
Guest
Grant

I’d love to see your sources on this information, it’s absurd for the most part. Ford was born in 1919 and while he did battle alcoholism, he was a well respected doctor until a late age in Denver. You don’t keep that profession by losing your mind.

At the hall of fame, there are artifacts from the game, and there is considerable information on the rules, the teams involved, the equipment, and much more. Much of the display has been derived from sources outside of Ford’s article. The significance of his article was that it brought attention to this historical first game of modern baseball.

You’d be well served by actually researching the subject before dismissing it based on ‘facts’ you seemingly pulled out of thin air.

rotofan
Guest
rotofan

Christopher Taylor:

There have been countless studies showing a correlation between alcohol and drug addiction and memory loss. Here’s a summary on memory loss and its causes at the National Institutes of Health:
http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003257.htm

You seem convinced addicts have wonderful memory recall. Perhaps you can provide a link that support your assertion.

Besides his lifelong addictions, the only other statement I made about Ford that he first wrote about his memory of something at age 7 nearly five decades later.

What part of my statement constitutes an ad hominem attack? Is it politically incorrect to point out a strong link between drug and alcohol addiction and memory loss? Are historians now barred from pointing out how many decades have passed between the observations of a claimed eyewitness and his recording of those observations.

You may very well be right that there are fewer professional and amateur historians that study Canadian baseball and history generally. No argument there.

But I think it is rather silly to suggest that Canadians have no identity and I say that as someone who has spent the past 14 years living in Canada and writing about Canadians. How could there be such hand-wringing over national identity, as you say, if such identity simply didn’t exist? I stand by my observations: Canadians identify themselves but in ways that are less enveloping than do Americans, and as a result, are more insecure about that identity and more apt to react defensively when they believe that identity is attacked. Perhaps the most memorable commercial campaign of the past decade was Molson ‘I am Canadian.’

Grant –

(1) You provided not a single source for your claims but dismiss mine as “absurd”. Let me be the first, then, to provide a reference:

“Baseball Before We Knew It” – David Block

Block’s book received critical acclaim from reviewers ranging from professional historians, Sports Illustrated and The New York Times. The book also pointed out how precious little real historical research had been done into Ford’s claims.

Here’s a second reference in which Ford’s claims were doubted:

“Diamonds of the North” – William Humber (who was writing about the history of baseball in Canada)

(2) If Ford was born in 1919, as you say, his capacity to remember events from the previous century is even more astounding. I realize that is a typo on your part, of course.

(3) As for Ford himself, according to research by two academics at the University of Western Ontario, he was forced to flee Canada after a dead man who was a member of the temperance society was found in his doctor’s office. A closed-door inquiry did not find Ford guilty but he was forced to leave in a hurry.

(4) I don’t think anyone doubts that a game of some sorts was played at Beachville. What is far less certain is that the game was of any significance in what was an evolution of European games towards modern baseball.

(5) I’m guessing from your comments that your only research of Ford consists of visiting the Hall of Fame site in St Marys, a place that has a vested interest in promoting the claim that modern baseball was first played nearby. While I live a short drive from St Marys, I have also read the research of those who don’t have nearly as vested an interest.

Now who, tell me, has need of doing some real research?

rotofan
Guest
rotofan

Grant –

One other thing, something that is especially relevant on a site such as this one. Block’s book was selected the year’s best (2006 Seymour Medal) by The Society for American Baseball Research (SABR).