This article was written by Christina Kahrl
This article was published in the Fall 2013 Baseball Research Journal
Thorn is the Official Historian of Major League Baseball, an honor that reflects his incomparable contributions to baseball history. In partnership with Pete Palmer, he created The Hidden Game of Baseball and Total Baseball: The Official Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball, not only a complete record of the game’s statistical history, but one that included sabermetric analysis. He also served as senior creative consultant to Ken Burns’s Baseball.
JOHN THORN (1947–) is the noted co-author of The Hidden Game of Baseball, subsequently the editor and publisher of Total Baseball: The Official Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball, an incomparable scholar of the origins of the game, and is today the Official Historian of Major League Baseball, having taken office in 2011 as just the second man so honored. But the unusual road taken to reach that role reflects both the man himself and the benefits of a love of the game for Americans from any walk of life.
Thorn was a child of Polish refugees who emigrated to the U.S. in 1949. Like the children from so many previous generations of immigrants, Thorn quickly developed a love for baseball. “I fell in love with the cards before I loved the game, when I discovered that baseball was something that all the kids on my street corner cared about. I was an immigrant kid and was looking for a way into America. With my background I saw myself as an underdog and so Brooklyn had to be my team. I began watching the game seriously when I was eight, in 1955, on my Admiral television, but I had already begun to follow their exploits in the daily newspapers my father brought home with him each night.”
After graduating from Beloit College in 1968, Thorn worked his way into the business of writing about baseball from modest beginnings, remembering, “I never wrote about the game for a newspaper and, odd as it may seem today, wrote a book about the game before I ever wrote an article,” dismissing that initial effort as “a rather wretched volume.” But Thorn’s famous partnership with sabermetrician Pete Palmer was wellstruck within moments of their first meeting at the opening reception for the 1981 SABR Convention. “We very soon afterwards began work on first, a proposal for a new kind of baseball encyclopedia,” Thorn recalled. “A publisher loved the proposal we crafted in 1982 and offered us what seemed like a king’s ransom, but with an unworkable deadline. We declined the offer and turned immediately to The Hidden Game. The encyclopedia would follow, in 1989, as Total Baseball.”
In concert with Palmer’s analysis, Thorn’s thoughtful scholarship and articulate insights made The Hidden Game one of the great classics of baseball analysis. Total Baseball followed up with a similar commitment to rigorous scholarship, taking up the challenge of providing not simply a complete factual record of the game’s statistical history, but one willing to include sabermetric analysis of player performance.
Achieving the role of baseball’s Official Historian reflects Thorn’s contributions to baseball history, previously recognized by SABR with the 2006 Bob Davids Award.
A contributor, editor, and author of many works, Thorn served as senior creative consultant to Ken Burns for the epic documentary Baseball, and his research into the origins of the game culminated in the elegant Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game (2011), tracing baseball’s American origins back to the eighteenth century.
His current responsibilities as Official Historian come with specific duties, some of which reflect his expertise (“The Baseball Origins report, for example,” Thorn notes), but provides him with the freedom to pursue a number of projects, some self-directed, some on demand from the game itself. Thorn observes, “the latter would include media interviews and pants-pressed-while-u-wait research for divisions of MLB — legal, marketing, promotional, the MLB.TV network.”
Reflecting on his current gig, Thorn is clearly enjoying himself. “All of this job is fun,” he said, “but I could say that about the past forty years. The line that separates work from play is invisible. I can go hard at some baseball task all day and then, tired at last, back away from the keyboard, crack open a cold one, and go downstairs to watch a ballgame.”
Thorn reflects on baseball scholarship to come through the context of his personal commitment to creating good history, observing, “The new frontier is the old frontier: perspective and context. Great new finds are certain to come — they always do — but that alone does not make for the practice of baseball history. Analysis without synthesis is expertise, which is admirable, but history is something larger.”
For more information on the Henry Chadwick Award, click here.