SABR History in Cooperstown

April 11, 2014
John Thorn, MLB’s Official Historian, talks to a standing-room only crowd in the Hall of Fame’s Bullpen Theater. (Milo Stewart, Jr./NBHOF)

For one acclaimed fan of the National Pastime, the Society for American Baseball Research’s Nineteenth Century Committee’s sixth annual Frederick Ivor-Campbell Base Ball Conference at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum this weekend proved to be a time to celebrate in a 21st century way.

“Before I came up I posted on Twitter, ‘Headed to Cooperstown for annual 19th Century Baseball Conference. Nerd fun, woo-hoo!,’” said John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s official historian as well as a moderator during Saturday morning’s panel discussion entitled “19th Century Outsider Baseball.”

Thorn has been a regular at these annual Cooperstown gatherings, and when asked why, he said it was the people and the subject matter.

“I clear out rooms locally when I start talking about this, so it’s very nice to have like-minded, congenial, interesting people who bring their own set of data and perspectives that I won’t find anywhere else,” he added. “I always feel like I’m much smarter after this weekend than I was before.”

So what attracted Thorn to the study of 19th century baseball?

“I think any institution that has become great – whether it’s automobiles or the United States or rock and roll or baseball – is very interesting in the circumstances of its birth and development,” Thorn said. “How did we get to instant replay? Well, it’s a long, long path. Every modern innovation does not arise from nothing, and I’m interested in following the breadcrumbs that others have placed that take me back to the source.”

Included on the conference agenda of more than a dozen items are special presentations by Hall of Fame Librarian Jim Gates and Bob Mayer; a 19th Century "Outsider Baseball" panel discussion with Scott Simkus, Gary Ashwill, James E. Brunson III; and a Member Spotlight interview of Alma Ivor-Campbell (widow of Frederick Ivor-Campbell, who chaired the Nineteenth Century Committee from 1992-98 and whom the conference is named) by Tom Simon.

According to Peter Mancuso, the Nineteenth Century Committee Chairman who runs the conference, this two-day affair, which began Friday afternoon and continues throughout Saturday, is becoming more popular every year.

“I’m trying to squeeze more people in somehow, someway. And that’s a gratifying feeling,” he said of the capacity 55 registered individuals from as far away as California. “Of course, it also has its frustration because you know there are a lot of people who would like to be here.”

Mancuso attributes the conference’s popularity to a few factors.

“What really happens here is we get to hear some presentations of people who really, really are great researchers and great baseball history personalities. That combination, I think, really resonates,” Mancuso said. “In terms of the Nineteenth Century Research Committee at SABR, baseball history is not just baseball history. It really is part of history.”

The conference will be highlighted by a Saturday afternoon keynote address from baseball historian Dorothy Seymour Mills, a SABR Henry Chadwick Award recipient and co-author of the legendary three-volume Baseball series.

“I’m going to talk a little about the amateur game during the 19th century,” she said. “I think I know more about that than I do about the professionals. And I’d like to tell them some ideas for their research that they might be interested in doing. I have ideas for different topics that they can take because I think there are certain ones that have been partly neglected and I think they can be built upon.”

Claiming never to have been a fan of the game (“I’ve never been a fan. I love history, I love writing and I love research, so those are the things I’ve combined in my work. And I’m still writing, of course, at 86.”), Mills is hoping to have her most recent work published in the not-too-distant future.

“I have a manuscript now being considered in New York and it’s a short history of women’s baseball for young people, because I think they’re the ones that need to know that baseball is not all for boys,” Mills said. “I think they’ll get something out of it. I’d like to see them learn that women played baseball.”

Bill Francis is a Library Associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum