A Visit With MLB's Historian

November 26, 2017

On a Saturday earlier this month, I realized that I was pIanning to spend the weekend in Hudson, N.Y., just about the time that one of my favorite writers, MLB’s official historian John Thorn, was going to deliver his annual post-season wrap-up of the baseball season just past, right across the Hudson River in his hometown of Catskill, so I promptly invited myself to attend John’s talk. I’d never met him, though we’ve communicated from time to time, but he welcomed me warmly to attend. I think I’ll arrange my future weekends in Hudson around his schedule of talks, which apparently are followed by long and loose Q. and A. sessions from those in attendance.

We had a flat tire en route across the Hudson, so we walked in at just about the point, early on, when he was quoting Warren Spahn on hitting being timing and pitching being the art of upsetting timing. (The transcript is reproduced here: https://ourgame.mlblogs.com/bullpenning-sabermetrics-and-the-revenge-of-the-nerds-5a026e3ee2a1, though I wouldn’t swear that John stuck very closely to the script—seems to me I heard long sections that do not appear in this transcript, and I don’t remember the numerical table of swing-and-miss percentages being recited at all.) He spoke on the general subject of sabermetrics, and how it has (and hasn’t) changed the game, more or less the very subject I’ve been working on.  Among the interesting opinions John spouted as he fielded questions from his audience was that he wasn’t concerned about the length of games, per se, so much as he was concerned about the pace of games.

"Why would two hours of enjoyable baseball," he turned the question back on his questioner, "be better than three hours of enjoyable baseball?"

The answer, it seemed to me, was obvious: it wouldn’t be. A three-hour game that demanded a viewer’s constant attention would be better than the two-hour version. The problem is that the current, three-hour+ model is jam-packed with static moments and all sorts of downtime, not that the game’s length is inherently problematic.

I posed only one question. I had written to him a few days earlier, telling him that I was working on a piece for BJOL (a piece I’ll publish in another day or so), provocatively enough entitled "How Sabermetrics Has Ruined Baseball," asking if he had found a rebuttal to my thesis. He mildly observed that my title was "clickbait," especially for this readership, but he said it with approval, knowing that engaging (and often enraging) readers is every writer’s prime duty. (This concept was also voiced by one of Roger Kahn’s editors, who defined a good column as "Entertaining but just short of libel.") John’s rebuttal was also mildly voiced: baseball is cyclical, he said, but my article projected that sabermetrics would continue changing baseball in the precise direction it has been changing in, whereas in his view, things like exceptionally high pitch counts that derive from sabermetrics may well reverse their patterns in another decade, cyclically returning the game to one prizing exceptionally aggressive batting styles. We could see low-pitch count games again, and then where would my thesis be?

I didn’t buy it, but it was a thought I hadn’t previously entertained. I will explicate my "ruination" thesis at length in the article itself, but rather than introduce that piece with a digressive literary discussion, I’ll just put the digressive intro here. In the Q. & A. session, one of his other answers had concerned baseball fiction, which he asserted really didn’t exist. All of baseball fiction, he confidently stated, was terrible, awful, unreadable stuff, with the exception of The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Proprietor by Robert Coover.

I happen to admire this book inordinately. I have a particularly fond memory of its author, whom I introduced to a college audience on the evening of October 29, 1986.  That date sticks so precisely in my memory because earlier that day, my oldest child was born. (My suggestion to name her "Mookie" got outvoted. We ended up naming her after her mother's favorite Jane Austen heroine and my favorite Confederate general.) I raced from the hospital to meet Coover for dinner before he gave his reading, arriving a few minutes late to the restaurant. When I told Coover my excuse, he beamed at me and inscribed the copy I’d brought of his novel The Public Burning—not to me, but to my newborn daughter, effusively welcoming her to life on planet Earth. (My copy of U.B.A. was a lowly paperback, and remains unautographed.) Since that dinner, Coover has been one of the authors I’m fondest of. But fond as I am, I couldn’t quite accept John Thorn’s flat decree that, with this one exception, there has never been a decent novel written about baseball.

I suggested that perhaps Bang the Drum Slowly by Mark Harris was pretty good, but that just resulted in John Thorn’s formidable array of eyebrows scrunching up on me. "The Southpaw," Harris’ previous baseball book, "was better," he told me, but it still stunk. And as much as John admires Philip Roth, "The Great American Novel was the worst thing he ever wrote. Or maybe The Breast was worse." At this point, I had to end the conversation: Roth has written many books, most of them excellent, with a few stinkers, The Breast and The Great American Novel not among them. I just published an essay on 1970s fiction, praising The G.A.N. to the skies, and when I taught a course in the contemporary novel, I tried to make the case that The Breast might be the most overlooked work of American fiction in the entire 20th century, the book Kafka might have written if he’d been born in New Jersey and were a talented stand-up comedian.

This was not an easy case to make: The Breast is (I argued) a profoundly tragic fantasy about a man who finds himself transformed overnight into a gigantic female breast, which everyone in his life (including the reader) finds hilarious. Visitors to his hospital room, where he lies, helpless, blind, terrified and mystified, start out amazed and somber at the sight of him, but end up cracking up in equally helpless paroxysms of laughter. So the narrator pleads with the reader to take his complaint seriously, but the images and the stories he tells are so comical that even the reader (even this reader) couldn’t quite empathize fully with the narrator’s plight. I mean, a giant tit? Inexplicably formed out of a man’s body? Ridiculous!! So I (as Roth intended) could not, finally, extend my empathy to his narrator, and that is Roth's human tragedy, the need we all share to distance ourselves from others' distress. Suffering as badly as anyone in his bizarre situation might be, he finds his plight is made much worse by the refusal of humans to take it seriously. Anyway, this interpretation became a very tough sell for me, in that my classroom was mostly populated by 20-year-old female English majors, who were not inclined to take their male professor’s assessment of a male author’s depiction of a male protagonist’s problem being turned into a female body part as anything other than grossly insulting to their gender.  Since then, I’ve kept my evaluations of Roth’s genius mostly to myself.

Including John Thorn’s assessment, even harsher than that of the most doctrinaire feminist student in my class. It wasn’t a day for arguing, anyway—it was a beautiful fall afternoon in the Catskills, the kind of day that Rip Van Winkle got lost in the autumnal woods for a few decades, and I had plenty more examples of baseball fiction to propose, which I’m sure he could have shot down one by one. (He already had airily dismissed The Natural by Malamud as trash, and a few other examples of baseball writing that questioners had suggested as decent novels, short stories, and poems.) Besides, other people wanted to have a word with him, so I dropped it, and looked out over the vista of the Hudson River from a height, the very definition of "picturesque." When I mentioned that we wanted to visit the studio of Thomas Cole, a 19th century Hudson River School painter, that was just up the street from the 1837 Greek Revival mansion (http://www.greatnortherncatskills.com/arts-culture/beattie-powers-place ) in which he gave his talk, John had told us where we could find Cole’s grave, a few blocks from his studio, as well, so we skedaddled to take in the sights. I recommend a pilgrimage to Catskill to anyone who finds himself in upstate New York next November. His annual talks are free and open to the public.

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

COMMENTS (15 Comments, most recent shown first)

Steven Goldleaf
Sansho1--I think When She Was Good was an early experiment, in which Roth tried to see how gifted he was at writing in a vein that he'd studied carefully but that was not natural to him, just as a test of his writerly craft. The style was early 20th century American realism--Dreiser has been suggested as his stylistic model, though I see a little Howells and even James and Wharton in Roth's prose--and i think it was an experiment that only technically succeeded. It certainly wasn't Roth's finest hour, by a long shot.
10:41 AM Nov 28th
 
tate
I also love The Great American Novel. It's the funniest novel I've read; Ball Four is the funniest non-fiction and funniest book overall. (One of the Pilot pitchers insisting that pitching coach Sal Maglie-I think it was the Barber-if it wasn't I still making it him it makes a better story- muttered derisively during the annual Father and Sons game " 40-0 and no gets knocked down." Pitching coaches back then where at best useless and the rest of the time dangerous. From what I remember (its been a while since I've read it.) the game that J.Henry Waugh developed in UBA was surprisingly statistically sophisticated for 1968.

Side note-At a Chicago area SABR meeting in 2011 one of the speakers (whose name I forget) gave a talk about 1850's base ball in (I think) New York and one of things he spoke about was the effort to identify everyone in a certain team photo. He said that he had a dispute with John Thorn about one of players and that John was terrible at facial recognition. The speaker made a a pretty strong argument for his case.
8:03 AM Nov 28th
 
brian14leonard
Mr. Thorn, your link doesn't work because it includes the period at the end. Without the period, it works well. Thank you for all you do for baseball, and thanks to Steven for this engaging article.​
10:45 AM Nov 27th
 
sansho1
I haven't read "The Breast", and while I count two Roth novels (of the 15 or so I've read) among my all-time favorites (Portnoy, The Plot Against America), I beg that you not assign "When She Was Good" to any class with which you are not actively courting anger and resentment.
9:36 AM Nov 27th
 
jthorn
I see that the NYTBR will not permit a click from this page to my referenced essay. Those interested will need to copy the url into the browser...
7:58 AM Nov 27th
 
jthorn
Thanks to Steve for this fine essay. I was glad to meet him and clearly we cordially disagree on some things.

For those commenters who think I should stick to history or sports or gardening and ought not to fuss with baseball's literary traditions, that genie has long been out of the bottle: I would refer them particularly to my Armchair Book of Baseball, issued in two volumes (1985 and 1987, later gathered into one), and to my long-lived blog Our Game (https://ourgame.mlblogs.com/), where literature and culture regularly tiptoe between the stats.

Further cultural chops may be found here, in 22 essays with scarcely a word about baseball, which I wrote between 2004 and 2006: https://www.bestthinking.com/thinkers/arts_and_entertainment/art/art_history/john-thorn.

Oh, and the Ethel Reed story is here, at my former blog, now a bit overgrown with weeds: hudsonriverbracketed.blogspot.com/search?q=poster+girl. Sadly, the illustrations are no longer up, but I have an array of her work.

And for those who like Harris and Kinsella and Malamud--and Roth, whose opus I deeply love except for the two titles Steve mentions above--well, my views about the sorry state of baseball fiction went on display in the New York Times Book Review more than a decade ago: www.nytimes.com/2006/07/02/books/review/02thorn.html.

Folks will disagree with me, and that's fine of course.


Again, thanks to Steve for attending my annual Hot Stove League talk in the 'hood and for loving baseball and literature enough to argue about them with me.
7:14 AM Nov 27th
 
MarisFan61
Steve: "Obscure" in that hardly anyone knows of her, probably including most art history scholars. I'd guess it's mostly just aficionados of vintage posters, and that even many of those don't know of her.​
11:27 PM Nov 26th
 
raincheck
I would prefer great 2 hour games.

I love articles that seek to engage and think that articles that seek to enrage are cheap, easy, and uninteresting.

I agree with Thorn that changes in the game tend to be cyclical. Humans always project the future in straight lines, which is never how the world works.

I do like It Looked Forever.

Can we still be friends?
9:22 PM Nov 26th
 
steve161
Maris: Ethel Reed isn't all that obscure. A Google image search turns up a batch of posters. She has a Wikipedia entry describing her as "an internationally recognized American graphic artist" and citing a biography. Not too long ago, there was a retrospective at the Met.

As for Thorn's views on baseball fiction: de gustibus and all that. I suppose he'd agree with those critics who considered Shoeless Joe maudlin. I don't agree with them or him. You pays your money...
8:36 PM Nov 26th
 
JohnPontoon
mikeclaw: You're thinking of The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, also an excellent book.
5:04 PM Nov 26th
 
JohnPontoon
I also think Mark Harris's "The Southpaw" and "Bang the Drum Slowly" are novels of outstanding literary merit... honestly, on the basis of those two novels alone, one can sensibly dismiss Mr. Thorn's putative opinion of baseball fiction as being mere provocation, an opinion bereft of value. I actually believe that the all-but-never-mentioned last book in that series, "It Looked Like For Ever," is the masterpiece of the lot.

So, yeah, I'm typing this stuff to say if you liked the book "Bang the Drum Slowly," you should read "It Looked Like for Ever." Also, Mark Harris's collection of nonfiction baseball essays, entitled "Diamond," is pretty great.
5:00 PM Nov 26th
 
mikeclaw
He obviously didn't like Shoeless Joe, which I love ... but there's another Kinsella work (novella? short story? I forget how long it was) called The Dixon-Cornbelt League that I found rather charming.


4:29 PM Nov 26th
 
MarisFan61
BTW, thought I'd mention this other thing....

I'm sort of a collector of antique posters, especially from the period that they call "the turn of the century," meaning circa 1900, especially the American poster artists. (Not really a 'collector' except that I have a lot of them; it's just that those are what I like putting up on the walls.) One of my favorite poster artists is an fairly obscure American woman named Ethel Reed, who for a long time had the extra interest of very little being known about her life after about her early-20's (her somewhat racy early-20's). Some years ago, I came across a major article about her. The author's name was John Thorn. Obviously it wasn't the same John Thorn but I found it interesting that he had the same name as the baseball writer....

Cutting to the chase: It's the same John Thorn. Among all other things, he's also one of the world's authorities on this obscure American artist.
9:31 AM Nov 26th
 
evanecurb
The Great American Novel is one of my favorite books, ever. It's not a great novel in the sense that I think of one. A great novel prompts one to think about the human condition, or offers some insight into it that we may not have thought about before. The Great American Novel funny. It brought me joy. That's enough to make it an all-time favorite.
9:26 AM Nov 26th
 
Bucky
As a historian, it would appear his literary views are better off unstated.
9:03 AM Nov 26th
 
 
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