Beloit College Magazine

Beloit College Magazine

Summer 2010 (July 21, 2010 at 12:00 am)

Baseball and the Big Apple


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July 21, 2010 at 12:00 am
By Erin Johansen’91

John ThornBaseball historian and author John Thorn’s status as a New Yorker became official when, as a teen, he regularly took the subway from his home in Queens to second-hand bookstores in Manhattan to pore over used books, newspapers, prints, and magazines. He’d return home with armloads of history and a growing appreciation for the city that will always remain at the top of his “favorites” list.

So how does he define a “New Yorker”?

“It means you’re tenacious,” says Thorn’68. “You’re not easily thrown off by disappointment or even disaster. There’s also something of a cynical and jaded quality because we think we’ve seen it all before—but that also can translate into a tolerance of diversity.”

Born in a displaced persons camp in occupied West Germany in 1947, Thorn wears this description comfortably. His parents, Jews from Poland, arrived in New York in 1949 with their son and memories of relatives who didn’t survive the war.

Thorn’s attachment to baseball started early. “I learned to read off baseball cards,” he says. “Sports was my ticket to connect with America.”

His love of the sport would eventually earn Thorn a place of honor in the world of baseball. His dossier includes numerous books and the title of senior creative consultant for the 1994 Ken Burns documentary film, Baseball. The Society for American Baseball Research honored him in 2006.

Beloit College was part of his journey.

“Despite coming from the capital city of the world, I was parochial,” he says. “Being at Beloit College helped make me a citizen of the world. I got a much better education than my friends at more prestigious schools.”

As part of his field term under the Beloit Plan, Thorn, an English major, tutored English and math in Appalachia. After three years at Beloit, he took a year off to be a VISTA volunteer. But disaster struck that year when Thorn had a stroke.

He returned for his senior year, struggling with left-side function and memory problems. After graduation, and a year in graduate school, he moved back to New York and worked as an editor. When his health deteriorated, true to his “New Yorker” status, Thorn wasn’t easily deterred. “My decision to become a writer seemed one of necessity,” he says, reflecting back. “When it appeared likely I would end up in a wheelchair, writing seemed like a way I could earn a living.”

Thorn didn’t end up in a wheelchair, but 35 years after his first book on baseball was published, he’s still at it, having written, edited, and collaborated on numerous books about baseball and other sports. He’s working on a book that Simon & Schuster will publish in 2011 called Baseball in the Garden of Eden, which delves into the primitive history of the sport.

In 2007, Thorn co-curated an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York called The Glory Days: New York Baseball 1947-1957 and edited its companion book. In 2008, as the 400th anniversary of New York City approached, Thorn began work on a book combining images from the city museum’s archives—including lithographs, photographs, maps, paintings, posters, and playbills—with essays that tell the story of the city’s first 400 years.

New York 400: A Visual History of America’s Greatest City, with its more than 500 images from the archives, was published in September 2009. In December, The New York Times Book Review named it one of the top coffee table books of the year.

As he worked on the book, Thorn was reminded of why he loves the city so much. “It’s an unfinished city, constantly ‘under construction,’ but its ghosts are everywhere. New York 400 turned out to be a guidebook to the city that was and, to a surprising extent, still is.”

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