John Thorn: An Interview with Major League Baseball Historian, Hudson Valley (Catskill, NY) Resident, and Author of Treasures of the Baseball Hall of Fame
Baseball’s colorful history has a new champion
Now on deck: Catskill’s John Thorn pitches facts on local baseball lore
Photograph by Kelly Shimoda
John Thorn first fell in love with our national pastime by flipping baseball cards on the street corners of New York City. It was shortly after he had emigrated to America with his Holocaust-survivor parents in 1949. He quickly found that he could win a card showing the great Jackie Robinson, a Brooklyn Dodgers Hall-of-Famer, by risking only a Wally Westlake, a little-known St. Louis Cardinals player.
Thorn not only excelled at flipping cards, but he memorized the facts and figures contained on the back of each one. Today, at 64, he is one of America’s premier baseball authors and researchers with more than 70 books to his credit, including Treasures of the Baseball Hall of Fame; the Total Baseball encyclopedia series; and his latest, Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game. He was senior creative consultant for filmmaker Ken Burns’s “Baseball” series; and earlier this year, Commissioner Bud Selig named him Major League Baseball’s official historian; he’s only the second person to hold the position since its creation in 1999.
In addition, Thorn chairs a newly organized, 12-member Origins Committee, a panel charged with consolidating the best available knowledge about baseball’s beginnings.
Thorn first came to our region in 1976 when he moved to Fleischmanns, then spent many years in Saugerties while maintaining an office in Kingston. Last year, he moved to an 1878 Victorian home overlooking the Hudson in Catskill, where he writes and fulfills the duties of his new job.
What does the official historian do?
I’m available for the various divisions of Major League Baseball, to help them with historical disputes or uncertainties. Suppose somebody wants to issue T-shirts for the Worcester Brown Stockings of 1882. Major League Baseball wants to know if it still has property rights. I can give them the full story of how the franchise was removed from Worcester and relocated in Philadelphia under entirely different management.
How did you get the position?
It’s really an outgrowth of all my past work. I am the second person to occupy the spot. The first was Jerome Holtzman, a longtime sportswriter for the Chicago Sun-Times and the author of a variety of books. He was appointed in 1999 and died in office in 2008. After some years went by, the position wasn’t filled and the opportunity came my way. Of course, I’m very pleased.
What is the Origins Committee that you are also chairing?
This is a major project. We will issue a report by the end of 2012 consolidating the best knowledge about how baseball began in this country. But we have extended our purview to how baseball began in all parts of the world, from Pocatello, Idaho to South Africa. In addition, we’ll be launching a Web site this fall to solicit memories from ordinary fans about their earliest recollections of the game. Baseball begins anew for each family, for every new member of a family, each spring. We’re interested in the experience of serial beginnings. If we get stories about Grandpa who played semipro ball in southern Ohio, we’re interested in that. We’re also interested in when your dad took you to your first ball game. So I’m trying to open the spigots of memory.
Is baseball your whole life?
Hardly. In fact, I never played Little League. I’ve played baseball and softball, but not for any organized team. I was better with a glove than a bat. I love the game and it is my great fortune to make it my profession, but I care about a great many other things, too. The Hudson Valley’s cultural history is a great plus in my life. I’ve written about Hudson Valley arts and letters, and have done so for a long time. I continue to write what I please, when I please, and for whom I please, whether in baseball or out. I like to say that I’m not good, but I’m prolific.
Do you go to many games in New York?
I’ve been to both of the new stadiums, Yankee Stadium and Citi Field, and like them both. As I’ve gotten older I attend fewer and fewer ballgames, and watch more and more on television. I find it much easier to go to the fridge to get a beer than to wait for a strolling vendor.
Who is your favorite team?
I started with the Brooklyn Dodgers. As a boy my favorite player was Duke Snider. I went to my first Mets game in 1962, but I didn’t really become a Mets fan until 1965. I still had this delusion that the Dodgers were on summer holiday out West and would come back any day now. I’m supposed to be ecumenical as the official historian, but I will say that mornings are made much better by the knowledge that the Mets won the previous night. However, I’ve said since April that the Phillies and Red Sox will be in this year’s World Series.
What is baseball’s origin in the Hudson Valley?
I believe we have records of Hudson Valley baseball in the 1850s in Catskill, Hudson, Saugerties, Newburgh, Kingston, and Poughkeepsie. There was an organized minor league, the Hudson River League, from 1903 to 1907. It was Class C or Class D, depending on your source. Kingston and Poughkeepsie had teams every year. Teams came and went in other places like Saugerties, Newburgh, and Peekskill.
Who is your favorite Hudson Valley baseball player?
Art “Rube” DeGroff was a star with the Hyde Park Robin Hoods, a semipro club. He was from Hyde Park. Then he became a star pitcher and outfielder with the Saugerties Colts of the Hudson River League. He got the nickname “Rube” because he once pitched well against the Cuban X-Giants and their star pitcher, Rube Foster, of the old Negro leagues. DeGroff had a very brief major league career (16 games, St. Louis Cardinals, 1905-06).
Where did the Catskill team play?
Are you familiar with the Otis Elevated Railway? It used to take people up to the old Catskill Mountain House. The base of the railway was located right next to the ballpark, in Kiskatom.
What do you like best about the Hudson Valley?
Natural beauty. Slow pace. I pride myself on being the world’s most boring man. This is a great place for me to feel comfortable. I don’t need glitter and tinsel, although I do go to New York City three or four times a month. I love it there, too, because it’s where I grew up. I feel like I have dual citizenship.
Why did you move to Catskill?
I like living in a large old house with all of its problems. It’s like the old Cary Grant movie, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. It’s got that kind of quality to it, with ceilings falling down, rotting porches. It’s like putting a siphon in your wallet to live in one of these, but I do like it.
Do you like working from home?
This is something new for me. Before, I always maintained an outside office because I never felt that I had sufficient discipline to ensure that I wouldn’t be in pajamas 365 days a year. Now I’m 64 years old. I’m taking a big chance by working where I live.
See Thorn’s essay, “Cardboard Gods,” at http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2011/05/23/cardboard-gods