Before the explosion of online stats sites like Baseball-Reference.com, Baseball Prospectus, or FanGraphs, many went to the local library or plunked down money without thinking about it for Total Baseball, The Official Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball that started its run in 1989, and was (and still is) one of the baseball researcher’s best friends. The publication, which was edited and authored by John Thorn and Pete Palmer, was basically the print version of Baseball-Reference, with essays sprinkled about. Whether BP saw what Total Baseball did, or not, that model continued with them (although, sadly, the back-of-the-book essays have disappeared), and the likes of The Hardball Times.
Palmer, to many, has been the “numbers man” while Thorn the author. He’s penned Treasures of the Baseball Hall of Fame, The Hidden Game of Baseball, The Glory Days: New York Baseball 1947-1957, and The Armchair Book of Baseball along with Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game set for publication in just a few weeks (March 15, to be exact). His research on the origins of baseball (technically, other stick and ball games from the past) has redefined the subject. While many had believed that baseball originated in the 19th Century, Thorn may well have shown that the game really has its origins in the 18th Century.
I was lucky enough to sit at John’s table in 2006 when he won the Bob Davids Award, SABR’s highest award, and can say that he’s one of the nicest people to ever chronicle the game. He was featured in Ken Burns’ Baseball, Burns’ recent follow-up companion The 10th Inning and he’s been a prominent fixture on MLB Network’s Prime 9 series.
So, when it was announced last week that Thorn has become the Official Baseball Historian for Major League Baseball, it shouldn’t have been a shock. And yet, with the passing of Jerome Holtzman, who served as Official Baseball Historian from 1999 until his passing in 2008 for the league, it was a bit in the making.
Thorn has barely got his feet wet at the new position, but we caught up with him to see what the new gig is all about. MLB, you’re in good hands. – Maury Brown
SELECT READ MORE TO SEE THE INTERVIEW WITH JOHN THORN
Maury Brown for The Biz of Baseball: When did you and MLB begin discussions about possibly becoming the league’s official historian?
John Thorn: The post was offered to me in January. This was followed by some discussion of terms--that took about a minute!--and, more importantly, what I might do, with this great platform, to bring baseball's history to life for today's fans.
Bizball: What’s your primary responsibility?
Thorn: To follow through on MLB initiatives for research and possibly public involvement in historical matters. Also, to be responsive to MLB’s needs for historical information and understanding—whether for legal, properties, or media purposes. But, Maury, I haven’t been on the job for even a week yet, so it’s too early to say how things may evolve.
Bizball: What information do you have access to that you may not have had before assuming the position?
Thorn: At this point I don’t know. I understand there are some proprietary historical materials which MLB has held close rather than made public. This is characteristic of government and business alike, and I am by no means expected to craft policy in this or any other area.
Bizball: Are you staffed, or are you conducting research on your own?
Thorn: I will work within MLB, securing the aid of current staff as a first option always. If down the road a project runs beyond in-house capacity to manage and service it, additional help could be secured, I suppose.
Bizball: How much is tracking current events as opposed to imparting history of the game?
Thorn: I will continue to follow the news closely, as I always have. The past becomes instantly and delightfully relevant when it provides useful backdrop to developing events. I have neither the mandate nor the desire to hammer fans with who did what in July 1937.
Bizball: Will you continue to be a staple of MLB Network programming?
Thorn: Of course, that’s not up to me—but I enjoy participating in MLBTV’s documentaries and concept programming. If the folks over there continue to like my work, sure, I’ll continue to lend a hand.
Bizball: Ever envision being baseball’s official historian when you began researching?
Thorn: No, of course not. I have been at this since I was a kid, and my first baseball book was published in 1974. Jerome Holtzman inaugurated the position in 1998, so until then I could hardly aspire to fill a post that did not exist. When he died, I confess to thinking that I might be a solid choice for the next in line. In the years since, however, as the post went unfilled, I gave no thought to succeeding my friend in service to the game. But now it has happened, and I am thrilled.
Maury Brown is the Founder and President of the Business of Sports Network, which includes The Biz of Baseball, The Biz of Football, The Biz of Basketball and The Biz of Hockey, as well as a contributor to FanGraphs and Forbes SportsMoney. He is available for hire or freelance. Brown's full bio is here. He looks forward to your comments via email and can be contacted through the Business of Sports Network.
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