Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Big Picture

These remarks were delivered at the first annual conference of SABR's 19th Century Baseball Research Committe, at Cooperstown on April 18, 2009:

Thanks to Peter Mancuso and to the previous 19th Century Baseball Research Committee chairmen, some of them gathered here (I see Fred Ivor-Campbell and Bob Tiemann ... but not Mark Rucker, John R. Husman, or Paul Wendt). But for truly making this occasion necessary, my thanks must go to you in the room and all our colleagues in this robust research committee, which has grown from an initial 20-something to now some 550. Such success would have been unimaginable to Mark and I back in 1983.

Within the well-deserved context of self-congratulation that marks this first annual gathering, what I’d like to talk about today is the state of research into early baseball, that former dark side of the side of the moon: how far it has come in the 25 years that coincide with the tenure of this committee, and where it may yet go, for we have only scraped the surface and returned with a few moon rocks.

It may seem incongruous for a gang of mythbusters to be gathering here in the town that, to a significant extent, Abner Doubleday made. And yet the location is apt, for however it may have found its way here in Cooperstown, the Baseball Hall of Fame is a great institution with a legacy all its own and a keen sense of the interplay between myth and what we think of as history—that is, what happened. Legend, which runs alongside fact in such a way as sometimes to undermine it and sometimes to enrich it, offers clues to a history not found in news clips.

For example, while there is no need to recite for this audience the story of how Abner Doubleday came to be anointed Father of Baseball by the Mills Commission, it may come as news to some that Mills never bought the tale of two Abners and pursued the real story even beyond the end of his mandate at the end of December 1907. In the report he issued at that time he wrote:

"I am also much interested in the statement made by Mr. Curry, [first president] of the pioneer Knickerbocker club, and confirmed by Mr. Tassie, of the famous old Atlantic club of Brooklyn, that a diagram, showing the ball field laid out substantially as it is to-day, was brought to the field one afternoon by a Mr. Wadsworth. Mr. Curry says ‘the plan caused a great deal of talk, but, finally, we agreed to try it.’"

It is possible, he continued, "that a connection more or less direct can be traced between the diagram drawn by Doubleday in 1839 and that presented to the Knickerbocker club by Wadsworth in 1845, or thereabouts, and I wrote several days ago for certain data bearing on this point, but as it has not yet come to hand I have decided to delay no longer sending in the kind of paper your letter calls for, promising to furnish you the indicated data when I obtain it, whatever it may be."

Mills was wondering whether an upstate Wadsworth, perhaps one of the Geneseo clan, might somehow have brought the Doubleday diagram to New York. The requested data about the mysterious Mr. Wadsworth never emerged, and the Wadsworth connection was not again the subject of published curiosity, though Louis F. Wadsworth has been a more or less constant preoccupation of mine since the time we launched the 19th Century Baseball Research Committee. Only in very recent years has his story, with all its implications for baseball history, unfolded. (No, he did not carry a diagram from Cooperstown to New York City, but I will not say more at this time.)

Today we dismiss the Cooperstown myth—that baseball was played here before the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club played it in New York City. After the Doubleday myth was thoroughly exploded, serially, by Will Irwin and then Robert Henderson and then Harold Peterson, journalists and even serious students of the game could be relied upon to say, “Baseball grew up in the city, not in the country.” That is in my view untrue-- even if baseball as a game for grownups evolved in the city as a nostalgic reenactment of the joys of youth, those joys were rightly understood to be agrarian. My best guess—and I assure you it is not mere guesswork—is that the American game of baseball grew up, if not exactly here in Cooperstown, then in multiple variants and locales in the Housatonic Valley triangle of Western Massachusetts, Eastern New York State, and New York City. Future General Abner Doubleday had nothing to do with it, but then again Alexander Cartwright had little to do with “inventing” the New York Game.


Questions about baseball’s evolutionary tree (or as better conceived, bramble bush) have tended to dominate the listserv activity of this committee, as some of our most active researchers have taken up mental residence in the antebellum period. But when Mark Rucker and I first believed that such a group would be valuable, our concerns were quite different. On September 30, 1982, we sent out a letter to some 30 individuals—mostly collectors, which will explain some of the language below—known to have an interest in early baseball, especially its visual record. That letter read, in part:

"To whom it may concern: Knowledge of baseball from the 1860s to the 1890s, the era of earliest organization, has till now been restricted to a very few. With more information continually appearing, the opportunity for research is expanding, as is interest in the earliest known teams and players. To accommodate this growing fascination, and to widen the possibilities for gathering information, we propose a new S.A.B.R. committee dedicated to the Nineteenth Century game."

The committee will compile photographic and factual records of individuals and clubs from the New York Knickerbockers to the end of the century. Considerable attention will be focused on the late 1850s, the 1860s, and 1870s, where it is most needed. A particular goal will be to assemble a photo file (copied from original sources) of all major teams and players, a virtually unattainable task, but one which should give the committee long life. The committee’s job must be pure research, and will not be a vehicle for the selling and trading of documents."

Among the concerns of the new committee, approved by SABR in 1983, was the relative absence of this century’s players from the Hall of Fame. This continues as something of a preoccupation. In a letter from Rucker and myself to research committee members in October of that year we wrote:

"We hope the [accompanying table, with interests of members accompanying their names] will help communication among us. The way to exploit the talents in this committee is through continual exchange of information and advice. We hope someday to have a large group of us assembled in one place where a close rapport can develop. Until then, however, consistent contact through the mail is our best way to learn from one another."

Our 19cbb list has served this function far better than anyone might have imagined in 1983. Email and the internet had in fact already been invented but would not come into widespread use for another decade. This gathering today is the first meeting as Mark and I envisioned it (the SABR annual get-together is dedicated almost exclusively to structural review of committee activity).


Long before 1983 there were historians and researchers and aficionados of early baseball whose accomplishments are singular because they were, in one respect or another, first. We don’t have time to discuss each of them in detail, but let’s at least call the roll of pre-committee notables. Some were shoebox and scrapbook fillers like Frank Marcellus, John Tattersall, Tom Shea, and Mike Stagno, not storytellers but vital to the statistical annals. Others had a highly personal stake in how the game’s history would be told—Henry Chadwick, Albert Spalding, Al Spink, Will Rankin, Will Irwin. There were the revisionists—Robert Henderson, John Rickard Betts, Harold Peterson. There were the academically trained historians—Harold Seymour, Foster Rhea Dulles, David Voigt, Melvin Adelman, Steve Riess. And there were the campfire writers, who stoked the flame of memory—the great Lee Allen and the unfairly neglected Robert Smith. There were the one-book wonders like Seymour Church, Irving Leitner, or Preston Orem. And you will tell me later, I hope, to which giant I have forgotten to give props.

Since 1983 we have seen many dramatic finds and studies, many of which attach to this group, individually or collectively. Some of us have used up our lifetime allotment of 15 minutes of media fame, including George Thompson, Ted Widmer, and yours truly. Some have produced ground-breaking larger works that continue to inspire researchers—David Block, Peter Morris, Paul Dickson, Dean Sullivan, Larry McCray, Bob Tiemann, just to name a few. Others have published articles that have transformed prior understandings of well-worn topics—Richard Hershberger, David Ball, Fred Ivor-Campbell, Randall Brown. Everyone in this room today has heard of Doc Adams and Jim Creighton.

Oh, I could go on. But it’s time to wrap up with the matter that even for antiquarians is of the highest interest: what to do next. Not all of the baseball myths are hundreds of years in the making. Some are rather modern, and are worthy of reexamination. I offer these falsehoods as but five of twenty that might be rattled off without much head-scratching:

1. William Hulbert founded the National League because the National Association was drowning in drink, corruption, and scheduling nightmares related to weak co-op nines.

2. When the pitching distance moved back 10 feet in 1893—truly 5 feet, but that’s another story—many pitching careers were ruined (like those of actors from the silent era after The Jazz Singer).

3. Albert Spalding was a ruthless capitalist rather than a sentimental idealist and mama’s boy.

4. Professional baseball play began with the Cincinnati Reds of 1869.

5. The reserve clause was an evil mechanism designed to assert owner rights over those of the players.

Just as holding this meeting in Cooperstown may be seen as paradoxical, so may the success of our committee members in discovering new details, especially amid the newly digitized historical newspapers. For decades, writers on early baseball were given to grand pronouncements supported by highly selective if any evidence. Today we have reams of evidence which appear to contradict many bits of received wisdom and general understanding ... but we seem a little short on synthesis. We need to knit together the diverse findings and make sense of the larger vista now afforded to us.

I have a friend, Dan Diamond, who knows more about hockey than any of us knows about baseball. His favorite term of derision for a marketing type or corporate suit was, “He’s a big-picture guy”—by which he could have said, “he doesn’t really know much about anything.”

As I wrote in the current number of Base Ball, just off press, we would do well to contextualize the game in a way that expands our understanding not only of baseball but also of the nation whose pastime it is. But because both the devil and the angels are in the detail, we still need to find that first name for the “Sullivan” who played two games for New Haven in 1875. I am pleased to think of myself, like each of my colleagues in the 19th century baseball research committee, as a small-picture guy.

--John Thorn


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Thorn, I'm a journalist trying to contact you for an article I'm writing; is there a private email address where I may reach you directly? Mine is
Ben Wallace

8:01 AM  
Blogger Guano said...

Hi John! Thanks for bringing the old game alive. I am one who roots for Bad Bill Dahlen's entry in the Hall of Fame, and I tell my Cub friends about the back-to-back-to-back Cub championships of 1880, 1881, and 1882. Larry Corcoran was awesome!

But really what I want to ask you, when is that new 20th edition of Total Baseball coming out? I've been anticipating it for sssoooooo long! If you published an update edition before Christmas each year, you could sell them like hotcakes. If you released it at the start of spring training, that would be fine also. MLB being so huge, I wish they would merge with Total Baseball and put it all online. Total Baseball is the final arbiter for important debates such as who finished 2005 with a better overall rating, Derrek Lee or Pujols? How close did Barry Bonds come to having the highest single season rating in 2004?

Thanks for all your diamond labours!

John Alft (

11:03 AM  
Blogger Susan Sklaroff said...

Dear John Thorn,
On Aug. 1, you left a nice comment on my blog, "Rebecca Gratz & 19th-Century America," for which I thank you again.

The reason I'm writing you now is that I was watching Ken Burns' Baseball with my 26-year-old son who has Asperger's and actually seems to know practically everything that's covered in the documentary. Well, a commentator named John Thorn comes on and I think what are the chances? Very good as it turns out.

Unbeknownst to my son, I was getting weepy during the episode we were watching because so many people I adored -- Red Barber, Stephen Jay Gould, et al.-- are no longer with us. I'm so happy you are alive and kicking and a Renaissance man to boot, I'm writing you this goofy note.
Good going! (My son's really impressed that a sportswriter of your standing found something of interest on my blog, so thanks again for your comment.)

5:47 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

John - I listened to your interview with Garrison Keilor in which you describe what you call "Massachusetts" baseball. It sound a lot like what us Native American call "Long Ball" and have played for centuries. My elders always told us that we taught white people how to play baseball, hockey and lacrosse. Long Ball is still actively played in several Native communities. If you want to discuss more I can be reached at

3:29 PM  
Blogger Bryan Cheeseboro said...

Hi Mr Thorn,
My e-mail is I don't know of any other way to contact you but I want to ask you some questions about Ty Cobb. I have always understood him to have been a racist bigot, as Ken Burns' documentary shows (as well as many other sources). But now I understand that someone has released a book claiming history has been very wrong about Cobb. What do you think about this?

4:47 AM  

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