Major League Baseball’s official historian, John Thorn, pictured holding a royal decree knighting his great-grandfather, says the past enhances the present in sports as well as family matters. (Hillel Kuttler)
Born in a DP camp, baseball’s historian adopts America’s national pastime
by Hillel Kuttler
CATSKILL, N.Y. (JTA) — The past escorts John Thorn home from the moment he greets a visitor at a 139-year-old railroad station, crosses the Rip Van Winkle Bridge and arrives at his residence, a county historical landmark.
Clad in a facsimile jacket of the defunct Negro Leagues’ Kansas City Monarchs, he enters the billiards room of his home in this Hudson River town 35 miles south of Albany, its walls crammed with old framed prints and theater posters.
The environment befits the official historian for Major League Baseball and one who devours Americana.
“I am a sports historian by trade,” the 66-year-old Thorn says, “but I am an antiquarian in all things.”
While Thorn may delve into baseball lore for a living, it was more than just a game for this son of Holocaust survivor parents who was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany.
As an immigrant raised in the New York City boroughs of the Bronx and Queens, the young Thorn collected baseball cards and read their statistics and text, which he says helped him assimilate in America. Thorn says he was drawn to the national pastime because of its “possibilities for fairness” and the heroic figures who played the game.
His baseball-inspired imagination enabled Thorn to “construct my own legends untied to my European roots,” he explains while sitting in his second-floor office surrounded by books filling floor-to-ceiling shelf units.
Growing up, Thorn refused to speak with his parents in their native Polish, but only in the English of the family’s adopted land. The household included an older “brother,” Adam — actually a cousin whose parents were murdered, like much of the family, in the Holocaust. Thorn recalls that his parents had ransomed Adam from a peasant who shielded him during the war. Adam became a successful businessman; he’s retired and lives in Florida.
As one whose story mirrors that of many other post-war Jewish immigrants, Thorn says he shares both the sense that America “was a blessedly safe haven” and that baseball welcomed his family into the country. So his work as a consultant for the National Museum of National American Jewish History on its upcoming exhibition documenting Jewish ties to the national pastime is personal, too.
While Thorn is baseball’s authority on matters of the past, he extends the game’s historical allure to present and future generations. He and MLB Advanced Media launched BaseballMemoryLab.com, where fans can share baseball experiences; the remembrances are hyperlinked to relevant articles and videos.
Thorn has “incredible command of historical information,” says Josh Frost, his colleague at MLB Advanced Media, “constantly breathing new life into [Memory Lab] to keep it fresh.”
The site also hosts Thorn’s blog, Our Game, which pries open the treasure chest of baseball history’s attic. Embedded in one recent entry were four baseball cards, perhaps hinting at Thorn’s fondness for his own roots in the game and its legendary performers.
Legend and fact, in Thorn’s view, aren’t so contradictory. In his 2011 book, “Baseball in the Garden of Eden,” Thorn confirms the view of historians that Abner Doubleday’s purported invention of the game was just myth. Still, Thorn, a member of baseball’s Origins Committee, says he’s unwilling to “beat the corpse” of Doubleday because of its hold on fans.
“Let’s put the myths to one side,” he says. “We can’t kill them, but let’s get to the story that the very best scholars will endorse.”
Along with the numerous sports books he has authored and edited, Thorn for many years wrote for a New York Folklore Society journal. Legends, after all, offer delectable tales, he says.
Thorn offers the family legend about his great-grandfather Ernest Thorn, a renowned magician from Galicia, in an article he researched and wrote titled “Magician’s Blood.” Ernest Thorn, it seems, endured a shipwreck and went on to marry a Turkish woman. Near the end of his life, Richard Thorn, John’s father, learned that Ernest was a chevalier knighted by the Cambodian King Norodon I.
Soon after the article’s publication, a German antiques dealer who had recently discovered the knighthood document emailed Thorn.
“I couldn’t have written the check fast enough,” Thorn says of the $150 purchase, though he isn’t quite certain that Ernest really is his ancestor.
“It’s great to be part of muddled history,” he adds. “What is history? It is the story we tell ourselves, generation by generation.”
It was history that brought together Thorn and Jim Bouton, the ex-pitcher and author of the best-selling book “Ball Four” chronicling his baseball career. Bouton helped Thorn locate a 1791 document proving baseball was played then in Pittsfield, Mass., and Bouton later consulted with Thorn on a renovation of the century-old Wahconah Park in Pittsfield. In 2004, they staged a Vintage Base Ball game there, played under 19th century rules, that was telecast live by ESPN.
Bouton, who lives in Massachusetts, says his now close friend Thorn is “such a smart man … very funny, a wonderful conversationalist. We hardly talk about baseball anymore.”
Back in the billiard room, Thorn poses for photographs while holding the Norodon decree, stamped in 1878. On one wall hangs a painting of the Pittsburgh Crawfords, also a Negro Leagues team, taking the field. On another wall, a painting by the same local artist, John Wolfe, depicts the great Jim Thorpe in his Carlisle (Pa.) Indian Industrial School football uniform.
Thorn directs a visitor to the kitchen, where opposite the table is a century-old barber chair in which Thorn likes to read newspapers.
“History wafts over every game we’re watching now,” says Thorn, digging into his wife Erica’s homemade apple pie. “That’s my goal: to enhance the pleasure of fans today.
“Is it vital to know who Dazzy Vance was or who Babe Herman was? No, but I see Yasiel Puig, and I think of Babe Herman because he makes mental errors,” Thorn says of two former Brooklyn Dodgers and a current star of their Los Angeles successors.
“I feel I’m waving the flag for baseball’s 31st franchise, which is history, which underlies the other franchises.”