By Paul Post
Baseball cards were John Thorn’s ticket to a lifelong adventure that’s produced more thrills and excitement than a game-winning grand slam.
A Jewish immigrant whose parents survived the Holocaust, he began flipping cards on the streets of New York as a young boy.
Only he was more enamored with the facts and figures on the back of each card than the baseball heroes portrayed on the front, a passion that led to his current position as official Major League Baseball historian.
“I fell in love with the cards before I fell in love with the game because they’re these cardboard gods, these iconic bits of America that for me as an immigrant boy, were visas that I could have stamped and would let me into places that otherwise I thought I might not get into,” he said.
“I love the Jackie Robinson card, 1952 Topps. That was a prize. I loved anything associated with the Dodgers. If you’re a Jewish immigrant boy, you feel like an outsider, you feel like an underdog. So you identify with the underdog club. The fact that the Dodgers lost to the Yankees every year had a certain appeal. You come close, you come close, you lose, but you fight, you come back. That kind of tenacity was very appealing. Jews in particular identified very strongly with the integration experience of African-Americans of that period, and Jackie Robinson was the god.”
However, most of Thorn’s study in a handsome Victorian house overlooking the Hudson River in upstate Catskill, N.Y., is adorned with 19th century baseball memorabilia.
“I don’t associate with baseball heroes so much,” Thorn said. “That’s not what my collection is about. I have a love for the graphics. It is the visual appeal of the item. It’s the historical heritage of an item that merits a place on my walls.”
One of his favorites is a Harper’s Weekly print that depicts one of the most exciting games ever played, between the Cincinnati Red Stockings and Brooklyn Atlantics at the Capital Line Grounds in Brooklyn on June 14, 1870.
“The Red Stockings had just gone undefeated through the entire 1869 season and through the beginning of the 1870 season,” Thorn said. “They came to New York on their eastern swing and on this day they played the Atlantics, a top-notch club. They were tied 5-5 at the end of nine. At this point it was customary to call the game a draw. Extra innings were a novelty, very rarely invoked. But the Atlantics and the Red Stockings discussed it, and after some time, resumed their positions in the field. The Red Stockings scored two in top of the 11th. The Atlantics scored three in the bottom of the 11th, including a ball hit into the stands in which one of the fans jumped onto the right fielder preventing him from getting to the ball … just a wild story.”
The Red Stockings’ amazing winning streak was over!
“I bought the Harper’s Weekly print cheaply, $50-$60, and threw it into a Victorian gild frame that I found separately. So it looks like the two belong together or were originally together, but they were not,” Thorn said.
Unlike many collectors who attend shows, conventions or shop online, Thorn finds many items in unexpected places.
“I don’t buy from dealers,” he said. “I go to antique dealers and flea markets because the pleasure is in the hunt. When you find something wonderful where it’s not supposed to be, that’s a great find. If you see something for $5 that people have been walking by for months and only because of your specific knowledge about what happened in 1863 does it resonate for you, that doubles the pleasure.”
Some of his items only have an indirect connection to baseball, which makes them all the more fascinating. One is an 1880s print that shows portraits of famous newspaper editors of the day.
“If you look closely, you have people looking at a baseball scoreboard,” Thorn said. “If I didn’t point this out to you, you would not see that.”
A poster dated May 12, 1895, promoted sales of The New York Sunday Herald whose contents included “Sliding to Second,” a baseball picture in halftone. Thorn found the piece at a poster and ephemera auction.
“I’ve got a great story with this one,” he said, pointing to another prized item. “This is a
Collier’s premium for an Edward Penfield illustration. It graced the cover of a Collier’s Magazine in 1904, but the premium is incredibly scarce. A premium was, in this case, a free poster given to news vendors and/or subscribers at a nominal charge, a dime maybe, or free. How did I find this? There was a man on the street corner in Greenwich Village in 1970 who had a stack of 20 of these. He was offering them at 50 cents apiece.
“Idiot that I was, I bought one,” Thorn said, with a rueful chuckle. “I have never seen another one. Never.”
While obviously aware of each item’s financial worth, this isn’t what drives him.
“I collect in accordance with the directions I would give to any young collector, which is collect what you love,” he said “Pay no attention to the value. I have no problem with money attaching to baseball or football artifacts. The autograph business is crazy. I wouldn’t touch it because it seems to me that two out of three things that are being marketed at over $1,000 are questionable. I never had an affection for autographs anyway because they don’t have graphic value. That’s not what I collect.
“Baseball is an immature hobby compared to coins or stamps,” Thorn pointed out. “In a mature hobby, it is scarcity and condition that drive price. In an immature hobby, you have a third factor, and that’s celebrity. The Mickey Mantle 1952 Topps card, although not scarce, fetches an enormous price because it’s a Mickey Mantle. You don’t have this phenomenon in the coin or stamp business. No one cares if it’s Emperor Franz Joseph depicted on the stamp or George Washington on the coin.
“I think baseball has a legitimate feel for collecting. I follow the hobby closely. I’m really interested, especially when early baseball material finds its way out of attics into the auction houses. I’m really interested in that.”
Moving about, he describes other favorite mementoes.
“This is a celebrated print, Leslie’s print of 1865 in which the most prominent players of the day are around the perimeter. But at the center is a man who’s been dead for three years … Jim Creighton … baseball’s first great pitcher and first great national hero,” Thorn said.
Creighton’s likeness is shown looking down from the heavens in almost angelic fashion.
“The way he hovers over the field – three years later there was still nobody to compare to him – makes it for me a great print,” Thorn said.
Another print, in color, shows the famous 1874 painting by Thomas Aikens, “Baseball Players Practicing.” The hitter, Wes Fisler, and catcher, John Clapp, both played for the old Philadelphia Athletics.
Two baseballs are displayed prominently in Thorn’s collection, from entirely different eras. One is a small handmade ball he purchased from a local resident, the kind that might have been used on 1880s sandlots across America. The other was signed by the film crew from Ken Burns’ renowned nine-part Baseball series. Thorn was the project’s senior creative consultant.
In one corner, there’s a wood carving of a 19th century baseball player.
“It was a gift to me by employees at Total Sports Publishing before it went bust. It’s new. It’s probably made in Indonesia,” Thorn joked. “It has sentimental value rather than artifact value.”
On the next wall, he points to a framed picture of Charles “Kid” McCoy (1872-1940), a late 19th and early 20th century boxer who recorded 81 wins in his championship career. Ring Magazine includes him in its list of 100 greatest punchers of all time.
“I’ve never seen this poster anywhere,” Thorn said. “I got it because the people who sold it to me didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know what it was, but I was able to research it, and it’s one of my favorite pieces.”
The picture is evidence of Thorn’s wide-ranging interests and amazing command of sports history. For example, how many other people know the real reason Christy Mathewson was nicknamed “Big Six?”
“A lot of people think it was because he was 6-feet tall or something like that,” Thorn said, with amusement. “The truth is Big Six was the most trustworthy, most reliable fire engine built to that time. It was the engine of the Americus Company, of which Boss Tweed was an officer and of course, political power. Tweed was a frequent patron of the Gotham Cottage, also known as the Gotham Saloon in New York’s Bowery section.”
Mathewson got the nickname because he was the most trustworthy, most reliable pitcher of his day.
“If I could collect 1830s and 1840s artifacts, I would,” Thorn said. “I could point to pieces that really go way, way back. But they are few and far between. When you come upon them they are so rare and so prized that either you can’t afford them or if somehow it sneaks into your hands you almost have to move it to a collector with deep pockets and a vault to put it into.”
However, he’d rather see such items keep changing hands on the open market.
“I refer to collectors as inadvertent historians,” he explained. “They assist us more than they know because they love the stuff and they preserve it. I would rather see this stuff trafficked about in private hands than buried in an institutional vault. I think the auction houses and the collectibles trade have a real intrinsic value to baseball research.”
One of the really unique items in Thorn’s collection is a framed assortment of old
baseball pins, including one depicting baseball Hall of Famer Eddie Plank believed to be from the 1911 Diamond Gum pin set.
“That’s the one that’s got value,” he said. “The others (one simply says NY Giants) are just curios. I like all of them. I bought each one of them for a reason.”
While his interests appear to lie in sports antiquity, relatively speaking, Thorn still does have a soft spot in his heart for the boyhood cards that first introduced him to baseball.
“I remember also liking the smaller Bowmans,” he said. “They were almost cigarette card size. You remember odd figures like Matt Batts (Red Sox, Browns, Tigers 1947-54), Gus Zernial (nicknamed ‘Ozark Ike,’ he led the AL in homers and RBIs for the 1951 A’s). I also remember the 1955 Ted Williams Topps card, the horizontal format. Those were terrific, and I remember collecting the Topps pins, the pin backs, which again I think would be ’55 [1956, actually]. I broke my arm that summer. I had my arm in a sling, a cast and my sling was completely decorated with Topps pins.
“I still have a photo of that,” Thorn said smiling.
Thorn's Work and Current Writings
As an author-historian, John Thorn has contributed to the sports collectibles industry with more than 70 books, including The Armchair Quarterback, Treasures of the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Total Baseball encyclopedia series and his latest, Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game.
He is currently working in a biography about Cy Young.
“It’s a ‘life and times’ book,” he said. “It is not merely a biography of Cy Young, the great pitcher and his long baseball life (1867-1955). It’s how America changed and how ways that America entertained itself changed. It’s really a look at all forms of recreation in that period, with Cy Young as the constant strand.”
In his role as official MLB historian, Thorn also chairs a “Baseball Origins Committee” charged with issuing a report at the end of last year that consolidates the best knowledge about how baseball began in America. The panel not only explored the game’s broadest origins, but its development in local communities, too.
Toward that end, the panel has created a “Memory Lab” where fans may share their own personal baseball beginnings at a new website location.
“We’re trying to connect baseball fans with their own family histories, with the history of the game, with the history of the country because I think it all runs together,” Thorn said.
The Memory Lab website is located at: www.mlb.com/memorylab.
Thorn posts information at his blog: OurGame.mlblogs.com.
See Thorn’s essay, “Cardboard Gods” at: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2011/05/23/cardboard-gods/.
Paul Post is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at email@example.com.