John Thorn Interview: On MLB Stats and Finding Baseball's Earliest Stories
It's been quite a month for baseball writer John Thorn: He's been named Major League Baseball's official historian, been appointed chairman of a special MLB committee that will investigate the origins of the game and he's published a new book, also about early baseball history.
And that's not to mention the three-part Guest Column he wrote for Bleacher Report in which Thorn, co-author of the seminal sabermetric books The Hidden Game of Baseball and Total Baseball, wrote that he longs for more story, less stats in baseball writing.
His new book, Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game, takes off from the story of the Special Base Ball Commission on the game's origins in 1905-07.
Recruited by former player and sporting goods magnate A.G. Spalding, the commission members issued a report, despite the misgivings of chairman A.G. Mills, saying what Spalding wanted them to say, that baseball was American in origin, invented by the future Civil War officer Abner Doubleday.
The Doubleday myth—the man died at 73 without bothering to mention the game—persists, with commissioner Bud Selig reportedly writing in a letter just last year, "From all of the historians which I have spoken with, I really believe that Abner Doubleday is the 'Father of Baseball.' I know there are some historians that would dispute this, though."
Given the ample historical evidence, the idea of Doubleday as the father of baseball is not likely to survive Thorn's commission, whose members include filmmaker Ken Burns, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, pundit George Will, Sandy Koufax and Mickey Mantle biographer Jane Leavy.
I asked Thorn via email about his Bleacher Report series and his research into the origins of baseball.
Bleacher Report: In the guest columns you wrote for Bleacher Report last week, you said that you were ready to say, "Farewell to stats," that baseball needs more story, less sabermetrics. You got cuffed around a bit online for that, with some people suggesting you had gone over to the anti-intellectual, anti-science crowd with that attitude. Were those people misreading you?
John Thorn: Yup, there was a lot of hyperventilating. Just because I am increasingly bored by sabermetric arcana doesn't mean anyone else has to be; it remains good for people who like that sort of thing. It also doesn't mean that I've gone soft in the head and now think batting average is a more accurate measure of prowess than Runs Created or Win Shares or WAR.
I'd just like to see—in writing about baseball—more energy and better craft, minus statistical bludgeoning and invective. Except in expert hands, stats can get in the way of story; an array of data that might better be presented in a table instead clogs up sentences.
B/R: MLB named you this week as the chairman of a "Baseball Origins Committee," with a charge to "seek to determine the facts of baseball's beginnings and its evolution." You published a book this week, "Baseball in the Garden of Eden," which is about the facts of baseball's beginnings and its evolution. Did baseball just put you in charge of a committee to write the book you just wrote?
JT: Good question, if something of a fat pitch. First, "Eden" deals with the rise and flower of the game in America, with little attention to how it developed in other countries...and it is just one man's view, even if it is the product of nearly 30 years' research.
Other scholars may disagree with me, or may have evidence that was unavailable to me. And baseball began not in a single spark of genius, in a single place at a single time—it began serially in different regions, states and towns, and with endless variation.
The new origins committee places Major League Baseball behind a quest for evidence and ultimately a set of conclusions backed by historians and researchers who are under no obligation to deliver a prearranged verdict, as was the case with the Mills Commission of 1905-07.
B/R: This month you were named Baseball's Official Historian. What's the job description?
JT: To serve the game. I'll try to provide assistance to Major League Baseball and its various divisions in matters of historical evidence and interpretation, and take on projects from time to time as the commissioner may suggest or approve.
B/R: As you write, a similar committee anointed Abner Doubleday the inventor of baseball a century ago, despite the misgivings of its chairman, A.G. Mills. Why has it been so important to so many people—including Bud Selig affirming it in a quote last year—to keep that obvious fiction alive?
JT: I must differ with the notion that the commissioner has a horse in the race whose first name is Abner. Doubleday has indeed been the Father of Baseball since the Mills Commission Report of 1908, but it is a legendary role, pointless to attack yet again. We may embrace Abner Doubleday as we do Santa Claus—legend is powerful—AND we may look for the historical roots of the game.
B/R: What's caused this shift for you, from being a seminal figure in the sabermetrics movement with The Hidden Game of Baseball to advocating for narrative, anecdote and story, which are often the driver of received wisdom that sabermetrics seeks to investigate and, where appropriate, debunk?
JT: As I wrote at the end of the article, which was delivered intact and divided into three segments for presentation purposes, I haven't changed a bit in my analytical approach to the game. I still follow the sabermetric method as Bill James has defined it: "to present new evidence from original source material rather than simply shuffling the existing data to make one's point."
I am opposed, naturally, to regurgitating anecdote or any other form of received wisdom, unless it is characterized as such. Read Baseball in the Garden of Eden and then tell me about how I've gone over to the dark side.
B/R: You told me you loved Michael Tanier's response to your Bleacher Report pieces, in which he took the stance of "stats" responding to your "farewell"—your Dear John, as it were. Anything to say back to "stats"?
JT: Stats, when it was good it was good; I won't deny that. We both may have moved on—I wish you and Nate Silver all the best—but you will always have a place in my heart, if seldom in my sentences.
I'll keep a place in a table open for you, though. You still can be beautiful whenever, like a poem, you elegantly compress a big story into a small space. I have not forsaken you, perhaps, as much as you became the pet of too many. But you're a big girl now, and it is your right to appear where and when you will.
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