How Baseball’s Official Historian Dug Up the Game’s Unknown Origins

A lifelong passion for the national pastime led John Thorn to redefine the sport’s relationship with statistics and reveal the truth behind its earliest days

A man in a green sweater sits in front of a wall of hanging photographs
John Thorn, perhaps the most knowledgeable historian of our national pastime, at home in Catskill, New York. Elias Williams

Baseball, more than any other sport, is grounded in history, built on legend, an enduring portal into the past. So it made a certain sense in 1999 when Major League Baseball’s ninth commissioner, Bud Selig, created an unusual position in pro sports, ensuring that this most classic of American games would have an official, in-house historian.

Selig first tapped the encyclopedic knowledge of Jerome Holtzman, who had just retired as a longtime baseball writer and columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune. Holtzman, a Chicago native, held the post until his death in 2008. But it’s arguably MLB’s second (and current) official historian, John Thorn, who has truly defined the role, from developing new mathematical ways of understanding the sport to pushing our knowledge of baseball’s roots further and further back into the past.

Thorn was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany in 1947, the son of Jewish parents from Poland who were conscripted into forced labor after Germany invaded in 1939. The family wound up emigrating to the United States in 1949, when Thorn was still a toddler.

“As an immigrant, you want to be an American, but more broadly, you want to be part of the team, you want to be part of the group, you want to have some shared endeavor, and baseball seemed to supply that model more than almost anything,” Thorn says.

He remembers one early baseball experience with glittering clarity. It was an afternoon in 1959, in the Forest Hills section of Queens, New York. He was holding down center field when an opposing batter launched a drive over his head. “I turned fully, racing with my back to the infield, stuck out my glove, and the ball landed in it,” he recalls. “In baseball, I thought, anything could happen. Even I could be a hero.”

Baseball provided an outlet for the young immigrant boy to fit in—not just on the diamond in Queens, but earlier in his Bronx neighborhood. There, he would flip baseball cards with other kids toward the wall of his apartment house; the card flipped nearest to the wall won, and Thorn proudly recalls once winning a Jackie Robinson card. Through these routines, Thorn says, “I felt a part of something larger than myself, my family, my street. I was one of the gang.”

an in home library
A selection of Thorn’s exhaustive library of books about baseball and U.S. history. Thorn himself has written, edited or anthologized several dozen books. Elias Williams

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This article is a selection from the April/May 2024 issue of Smithsonian magazine

Though he was raised in the Bronx, home of the Yankees, Thorn grew up rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers, largely because of Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier on April 15, 1947—two days before Thorn was born. Even as a young boy, keenly conscious of his identity as an immigrant and outsider, he already felt a strong kinship to Robinson: “We were brothers under the skin.”

Thorn’s family moved from the Bronx to Queens in 1954, and he soon had dreams of becoming an explorer who might roam the world unearthing buried treasures—something he would do with striking success as a baseball historian.

First, though, Thorn brought his passion for discovery to the study of literary history. For one year, beginning in 1968, he pursued a doctorate at Washington University in St. Louis, planning to write his dissertation about George Herbert, the 17th-century English metaphysical poet, who Thorn says satisfied “an antiquarian bent—the one that would morph into my study of American history and, notably, baseball.”

Then, in 1969 he had a career epiphany while working on his dissertation. “I was having a hard time with the thesis because the Mets were marching to the pennant,” he recalls, referring to the Miracle Mets, who would win their first World Series that fall in one of the biggest upsets in sports history. “I came to realize that I cared more about the Mets than I did about Herbert or metaphysical poetry.”

As fate would have it, one of his professors recommended an editorial opening at the New Leader, a biweekly magazine about politics and culture, and Thorn jumped at the chance. He wound up working there as an editor from 1969 to 1972. But it was his next gig, as an editor at Hart Publishing, where his love of baseball finally dovetailed with his professional work. The company asked him to refresh a 1950 book called Big-Time Baseball, soon republished as A Century of Baseball Lore, with Thorn as the author. The book, a work of deep and quirky detail, marked the official start of Thorn’s personal quest into baseball history.

“It was a silly little book, written on assignment with a specific mandate to match the style of standing material,” Thorn says. “But one faintly amusing story after another, it struck me even then, built up into a folklore of both the nation and its favorite pastime.”

As Thorn pursued deeper historical research into baseball, he also came to redefine its relationship with statistics, often in concert with the pioneering baseball analyst Pete Palmer. Thorn and Palmer shared a passionate belief that advanced stats could help more accurately illuminate a player’s performance; one example is what’s called “ultimate zone rating,” which seeks to quantify how many runs a fielder has saved.

a stack of books about baseball
A few of the dozens of books Thorn has authored or edited. Elias Williams

In 1984, Palmer and Thorn came out with their first book together, The Hidden Game of Baseball, which later statisticians credited with inspiring much of the ensuing statistical revolution by creating sophisticated new ways to measure player performance. In 1989, the duo published Total Baseball, an invaluable book for the pre-internet age that provided exhaustive lists of players’ stats dating back to the 19th century. It was a sensation, giving an untold number of American kids reams of statistical treasure to pore over and memorize. (Total Baseball is one of several dozen books that Thorn has written, edited or anthologized.) By the time Total Baseball appeared, Thorn and colleague Bill James were becoming rock stars in the growing field of sabermetrics—named for the Society for American Baseball Research, or SABR—which relies on quantifiable evidence to determine which players have the most promise (for example, a high on-base percentage) as well as which plays tend to have lower yields (sacrifice bunts). As the New York Times gushed in 1989, “Bill James and John Thorn have popularized, if not revolutionized, the way baseball is viewed and discussed.”

Over the ensuing decades, Thorn continued to quietly reshape how fans, sportswriters and industry insiders observed, interpreted and anticipated baseball in books and talks, also appearing as an expert in Ken Burns’ mammoth 1994 documentary “Baseball.” Then, in 2003, he came upon a most precious piece of buried treasure, the sort he had been seeking since he was a boy: the first known reference to the game called “baseball” being played in the United States.

a room with baseball memorabilia
Thorn’s collection of MLB memorabilia includes this portrait of his friend, Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton, painted by Arthur K. Miller. The painting is a gift from Bouton’s widow, also a dear friend of Thorn’s.  Elias Williams

While researching a book on the origins of the sport, Thorn had chanced upon an 1869 history of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, covering the years 1734-1800. The Pittsfield history referred to a 1793 document that mentioned “baseball.” With prodding from the late major league pitcher Jim Bouton, who then lived about 25 miles from Pittsfield, a city librarian and others looked for the document among the town council’s minutes from the 18th century. After ten days of searching, they finally found a vintage bylaw that mentioned baseball, which turned out to be from 1791—and which painted the sport in an unflattering light. The Pittsfield law flagged the young game as a nuisance that needed regulating: banning people from playing baseball (and other ball games) within 80 yards of the new town meeting house, to protect the building’s windows.

The discovery helped vault Thorn to greater fame than before—and established him as the expert on almost any question about the game. Increasingly, the early years of baseball became his main area of research and led to his 2011 book, Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game, an exceptionally thorough work, written in a breezy style and filled with innumerably delightful and surprising facts. Among them is his note about ancient forerunners to the game: “Bat-and-ball games go back to the banks of the Nile nearly 4,500 years ago in the game seker-hemat, or ‘batting the ball.’” In a review, the New York Times concluded that Thorn “can probably lay claim to knowing more baseball minutiae than any other living human.” Others noticed, too. The year Baseball in the Garden of Eden was published, Selig tapped Thorn as MLB’s second official historian. “John Thorn has been brilliant,” says Selig, who now teaches baseball history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Arizona State.

“I have a theory that one of the big problems in life is that people don’t understand the history of things,” Selig says. “And if you don’t understand the history, how can you understand what’s happening?” He adds: “I can’t emphasize enough how much [Thorn’s expertise] has helped, on real issues that we were talking about.” Today, Thorn’s responsibilities include research, writing a blog and doing media interviews—but his outreach also centrally includes hunting down the answers to queries posed by fans.

a room with baseball memorabilia and photographs
A corner of Thorn's study containing treasured materials from the early days of his two favorite sports: baseball and boxing.
  Elias Williams

One regular question is whether Babe Ruth should be credited with 715 home runs, or 714. In 1918, playing for the Boston Red Sox, Ruth hit a walk-off homer with one man on base—by modern standards, a home run. Yet before 1920, the game ended when the winning run scored—so Ruth was credited with a measly triple. Thorn will explain this history to fans, along with his opinion that Ruth really did hit 715 homers.

Thorn is not afraid to use the modern tools of baseball analytics to take a fresh look at some of the game’s other biggest icons, such as Yankees Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio. On the occasion of DiMaggio’s 100th birthday in 2014, Thorn argued that the player wasn’t the elite center fielder he’s cracked up to be. Appearing on the MLB Network, he said: “If you look at DiMaggio’s range factor, he never led the American League and he never even finished second once.” Brian Kenny, a host for the network, pushed back the next day: “I don’t want the next generation to think DiMaggio was some sort of fraud and he was trumped up because he was popular and he married Marilyn Monroe. This guy from 1936 to ’42 was the best player in baseball, quantifiably.”

“Spirited debate is one of the great things about baseball,” Thorn says. “Only one who has busted myths will recognize their power, their hold on the imagination. Legends command respect, but evidence is good, too.”

Wild Cards

Some of the earliest and wackiest baseball inventions never made it to first base

By Brandon Tensley

Drawing Board

Some ideas were especially forward-thinking. A 1913 patent proposed an “amusement apparatus,” which showed a baseball diamond on a board that used stick figures, bells and flashing lights to allow fans in one city to follow a game from afar, using the telegraph for updates. Though the apparatus wasn’t widely available, this display represented a forerunner to real-time game updates on sports websites.

Curve … Bat?

a patent drawing of a curved baseball bat
National Archives

Bats have largely stayed the same since the late 19th century. But there have been several colorful attempts to modify the instrument: One 1890 patent proposed curving the barrels of bats, which the inventor thought would ramp up the spin of a ball and make it harder to catch. A 1904 patent, meanwhile, suggested notching small grooves in the bat’s barrel, meant to lower the odds of hitting foul balls.

Bells and Whistles

a drawing of a patent of a bell under a base for baseball
National Archives

How to determine exactly when a runner reaches a base? An 1875 patent suggests an elegant solution: A base should have a bell inside of it—or perhaps “a sounding whistle, electrical connection or any other suitable enunciating device”—to help the umpire decide if a runner was safe or not. In a similar effort at eliminating human error, an 1888 patent sought to help umpires keep track of balls and strikes with a handheld device that allowed them to slide buttons along a wire with each pitch.

Catcher’s Box

a patent drawing for a cage contraption to be worn by baseball catcher
National Archives

Maybe the most innovative idea in the sport’s history was a 1904 patent intended to provide catchers with an additional layer of defense. The proposed invention would have trapped balls in a cushioned, chest-mounted wire cage and passed them gently to a catcher’s waiting hands.

Correction, April 1, 2024: A previous version of this article mistakenly identified the source of Thorn's painting of Jim Bouton; it was a gift of Bouton's widow. It has been updated to correct the error.

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