This article was written by John Thorn
This article was published in The National Pastime: Premiere Edition (1982)
Editor’s note: More than three decades after publication, the Society for American Baseball Research is reissuing the debut number of The National Pastime, a publication I created for it in 1982. Not only in retrospect but also at the time, this felt like a new path for SABR, and for me. Here is my 2014 preface to The National Pastime, republished in facsimile. To purchase a paperback or ebook, click here; or better yet, join SABR and get it free.
When I joined SABR in mid-1981, ten years after its founding, I could not imagine the future, neither the society’s nor mine. I was a defrocked English Lit guy poking around in journalism. I had written a couple of baseball books — “on the side,” I told myself, though my central endeavor was by no means known. If I didn’t have the chops to play with Dickens and Dostoevsky, I figured, maybe I could write baseball books for real grownups, like those of Larry Ritter and Harold Seymour, already longtime idols for me.
After covering the SABR convention in Toronto for The Sporting News, and meeting so many strange and wonderful individuals, I knew I had found a spiritual home, a place where my nose for mathematics, my curiosity about history, and my love of the game’s imagery made me a fit with like minds: Pete Palmer, Bob Carroll, John Holway, and Mark Rucker, among so many others.
It struck me in the fall of 1981 that SABR’s main vehicle for publication, The Baseball Research Journal, hosted outstanding research but was editorially narrow and visually unappealing. I proposed to the Executive Board — consisting of Kit Crissey, Jerry Gregory, Vern Luse, Bob Soderman, John Pardon, Cliff Kachline, Frank Phelps, and Stan Grosshandler — that I create a new publication to broaden our scope and look to appeal to a somewhat wider, non-specialist readership. Maybe, I figured, such an “American Heritage of Baseball,” as I thought of it, might even give a boost to SABR membership. On January 9, 1982, the board gave me a green light.
That they also provided no funding — except for the cost of typeset, printing, paper, and mailing — meant that I would have to scramble a bit, but that was OK. I enlisted contributors — those mentioned above, my newfound friends, my onetime idols, and veteran authors, journalists, and researchers. Gordon Fleming, author of The Unforgettable Season, a pioneering new form of baseball book, sent me a brilliant treatment of the Merkle Boner. Dr. Seymour and David Voigt, who had long disapproved of each other, took the roles of lion and lamb for this new journal, coexisting peaceably and contributing bold, fresh articles. Baseball Research Journal regulars like Art Ahrens, Al Kermisch, and Ted DiTullio contributed fine pieces. And an unpublished researcher, a bank accounting officer named Frank J. Williams, submitted an exhaustive article, handwritten on yellow legal paper, which upon publication became a landmark in the history of baseball record keeping (See: https://ourgame.mlblogs.com/all-the-record-books-are-wrong-340d12173b88.)
I designed the publication and on my kitchen table laid out the reproduction proof with paste pot and Exacto knife. I created the headlines with Letraset transfer type and a burnishing tool, as our printer Dean Coughenour of Manhattan, Kansas, could not obtain display-size versions of the type I had specified. If all this sounds like complaint, then I have failed to strike the proper tone. Trust me, it was heaven. I could not have believed more fervently than I did in the opening words of my “house column”:
The National Pastime has sprung into being to depict the panorama of baseball, from its murky beginnings on up to last night’s news, showing that the past of this great game is every bit as exciting as its present.
The debut issue was mailed in late October and immediately met with rave reviews. Its nominal cost was $5, but that was paid only by nonmembers — whose cost could be reduced to nothing if they added $10 to purchase a SABR membership. Our rolls rose from 1250 in July 1981 to 2800 at year end, 1982. In the June/July 1983 issue of American Heritage, which had been my model for TNP, the editor wrote:
Thorn, who assembled the portfolio of baseball pictures in this issue, is editor of The National Pastime, a handsomely produced publication sponsored by the Society for American Baseball Research (P.O. Box 323, Cooperstown, NY 13326). And like all of SABR’s three thousand members, he is interested in exploring and preserving the legacy of the sport.
Actually by the time that issue of AH hit the stands, SABR membership had climbed to nearly 4000. This debut issue, which even in reprint more than three decades later, still looks handsome to me, also won an honorable mention in the 1983 PRINT Magazine annual review of the nation’s top achievements in the graphic arts.
But enough button-popping about the look of the thing. It is the quality of the writing that will impress most today, as it did then.