By Way of Introduction

On March 1 of this year, Commissioner Selig named me Major League Baseball’s Official Historian. In mid-month he announced my major duty over the next two years: to chair a special Baseball Origins Committee. Among its eleven panelists are five top-drawer baseball scholars—David Block, James Brunson, Adrian Burgos, Steve Hirdt, and Larry McCray—and six baseball-loving individuals who are also broadly concerned with history: Ken Burns, Len Coleman, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Jane Leavy, George Will, and the Commissioner himself.

To those of a suspicious cast of mind, some questions may leap to mind. First, if a historian is official is he still a historian? Or is he oxymoronic, like a jumbo shrimp? To that I answer with confidence that no predetermined conclusions await my endorsement. Second, why would baseball, as a multibillion dollar business thriving in the internet age, care about its origins? The answer to that is more complex, and hints at the continuing importance of baseball in America even as it may relinquish its status as the nation’s most popular sport.

“The best part of baseball today,” Larry Ritter, author of The Glory of Their Times, was fond of saying, “is its yesterdays.” The old marketing adage is that in any field there are two positions worth holding: the first and the best. And it is because of baseball’s current success—the game on the field is unquestionably superior to that of a century ago—that a special quality of interest pertains to its early years. The paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, a noted baseball enthusiast, observed, “Most of us know that the Great Seal of the United States pictures an eagle holding a ribbon reading e pluribus unum. Fewer would recognize the motto on the other side (check it out on the back of a dollar bill): annuit coeptis—‘he smiles on our beginnings.’” That is why we now look to study baseball’s origins—in the England, Iceland, or Egypt of long ago, as well as the more recent serial beginnings of the game in Texas, or Idaho, or the Dominican Republic, or Japan.

In the labors of the new Baseball Origins Committee over the next two years, archival data gathered by scholars including myself (my new book is titled Baseball in the Garden of Eden) will be supplemented by fans’ memories and perhaps artifacts. The public may be expected at first to care little about who threw a ball to whom in 1823. The idea is to branch from “who first played the game, ever, anywhere” to “who first played the game in your town” and “who first played the game in your family.” Aided by the vast resources of mlb.com and perhaps such social networking tools as Facebook and Twitter, we can build an international, national, regional, local, and family album of baseball’s beginnings.

In this space I will continue to discuss the aims and efforts of the origins committee, but not to the exclusion of more recent events and personalities in baseball’s marvelous history. In baseball as in no other sport, honored ghosts cavort on the playing fields alongside today’s heroes.

Clearly I love the game’s earliest days—my next book will have a working title of Cy Young’s America—but history begins with last night’s box score. The past is everywhere present. I hope you’ll write to me with suggestions or questions, or stories about how baseball has been a part of your family album. You may count on me to be interested.

–John Thorn

8 Comments

Some of my first recollections of the game were about my father telling me about his Yankee heroes of the 1950s and 60s, and later, those of his father, who was an avid Giants fan. It’s still amazing for me to imagine that my grandpa grew up in the days of Mathewson, Marquard, McGraw, and became an adult watching Ott, Terry, and Hubbell. I never got to speak with him about those deadball era days, as he passed when I was young, though every time I make a painting of someone from the earlier part of the century, I imagine that he’s watching me do so from somewhere, and hopefully smiling…

Thanks for the spin back to the Polo Grounds of yore, where I saw my first ballgame! I also saw Mantle and Berra and more at the original Yankee Stadium, largely obliterated with the “renovation” of the 1970s.

For the first time in my life, I feel like the history of the game is in good hands. For far too long the early history of baseball has been treated somewhat carelessly by its stewards and I am hopeful that this marks a change in course. This is an outstanding group of individuals who know and understand the game and I have every confidence that our understanding of the history of baseball will not only be much improved but will also inspire others to reach beyond the tattered and tired in search of genuine history. Most of all, I am excited that a true historian has been appointed to this position. This marks a significant step forward for the game and our understanding of it.

Thanks so much for the kind words. Baseball’s relation with its own history and that of the nation is unique among American sports. I’ll be an honored servant of that history.

Best of luck with this, John. We await news and celebration of many wonderful games gone by!

Thanks, David. The greatest of all baseball games remains, for me, when the Brooklyn Atlantics defeated the Cincinnati Red Stockings, victorious through 89 straight games, on June 14, 1870. I know that game is a favorite of yours, too.

Mr thorn:

Do you still publish the “Total baseball” encyclopedia??
I have not been able to find the print book available either at the chains or online. It would be great to purchase a 2011 edition!!!
I have a 1994 edition..I need to update !!

thanx

Gene Noll
Arlington, VA

Alas, Total Baseball’s last edition came in 2004, and the availability of the statistics on the internet has signaled a seeming demise for the baseball encyclopedia in print form. For now, try:
http://mlb.mlb.com/stats/sortable_player_stats.jsp?c_id=mlb&tcid=mm_mlb_stats

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