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Douglas Alden explains the vision behind “1927: The Diary of Myles Thomas”

"The Diary of Myles Thomas" aims "to explore what it was like to live in the 1920s" through the eyes of an athlete, author Douglas Alden says. (Illustration by Robert Hunt)
“The Diary of Myles Thomas” aims “to explore what it was like to live in the 1920s” through the eyes of an athlete, author Douglas Alden says. (Illustration by Robert Hunt)
Douglas Alden
Douglas Alden

“1927: The Diary of Myles Thomas” is an ambitious, season-long, real-time historical fiction project, examining America at the peak of the Jazz Age and the Roaring 20’s through the fictionalized diary of Myles Thomas, a pitcher on the 1927 New York Yankees.

Real-time historical fiction is an innovative new genre and allows the sharing of stories and content throughout the course of the 2016 Major League Baseball season, all synchronized to real events in 1927.

Beginning today, the project will be presented through ESPN digital and social media on Medium.com and Twitter. Read the full description of the project here.

Douglas Alden, a digital entrepreneur, three-time Emmy Award writer/producer/director, and a founding member of Classic Sports Network (now ESPN Classic) – where he was the head of programming and production for the network’s first five years – spoke with Front Row to discuss the debut of the project that is years in the making.

The Schaap Influence

My first job ever was interning for [E:60 reporter/host] Jeremy Schaap’s dad, Dick Schaap, when I was 16 years old and he was the editor at Sport Magazine, which back then regularly had great writing by people like [PTI co-host] Tony Kornheiser, Pat Conroy and Pete Axthelm. A few years later when I was working at ABC World News on stuff like the presidential elections, the first space shuttle flights and the Iranian hostage crisis, Dick came over to ABC and we reunited. He was my best friend and worked together for most of the next twenty years, until he passed away.

I was part of the group that started Classic Sports. I ran programming and production for the network’s first five years, including the year after ESPN bought us. Dick was actually the first frame of Classic. And then after Classic I went into the tech world, creating video software, but Dick and I continued working together. He co-wrote one of the great sports diaries of all time, “Instant Replay,” with Jerry Kramer. So now it’s all kind of come full circle.

What exactly is “1927: The Diary of Myles Thomas?”
Whenever I answer that question I feel like Chevy Chase in the Shimmer Floor Wax/Dessert Topping sketch from “Saturday Night Live’s” first season. (“It’s a dessert topping and a floor wax!”) The core of the project is a novel in the form of a diary of a pitcher on the 1927 Yankees about their legendary season, but it’s also a social media presentation.

It’s actually a new form of storytelling: Real-Time Historical Fiction. We’re telling the story of the ‘27 season and 1927 America along the very same timeline that the events of that year actually occurred. (For more details, see our About page.)

Why a diary and why Myles Thomas?
When I was first thinking of replaying the 1927 season, I was looking at the Yankee roster on Wikipedia and I saw this name I had never seen before, Myles Thomas. So I clicked through to his page and basically all it said was: Born 1897. Went to Penn State. Didn’t make the major leagues until he was 28 years old. And the first team he makes is the ‘26 Yankees. Then he plays on the ‘26 Yankees — who lose the World Series in seven games; the 1927 team — the greatest team of all time; and the 1928 team — and then he basically vanishes.

I read that and I think, “Wow. This guy was old enough not to be intimidated by Ruth and Gehrig’s greatness, but he’s not in their league as a player. That’s the sort of athlete who always has great stories to tell late at night, or when you’re fishing with them. It would be great to add him to the real-time mix, to have him as a character. Like Nick Carraway in “The Great Gatsby,” right? He’s absolutely in the middle of everything, but his life is completely inconsequential from a historical sense. Myles Thomas can be the Nick Carraway.

You’ve made Myles a fictional character?
Essentially. The only things I ever wanted to know about him were his statistics. I wanted to be free to create his character, so I could make the diary an intimate journey. For me the point of the project is to explore what it was like to live in the 1920s — what it was like to be an athlete at the height of the Roaring Twenties, when baseball was the only game in town, in every town.

The three worlds — Baseball, Prohibition and Jazz — really overlapped. As I did the research, I would come upon the same stories in the three different worlds, it was sort of like Rashomon, but no one had really tied them together. It was like going to three great movies at the same time, three movies that overlapped with the same themes and many of the same people. I mean, the parallels between Babe Ruth and Louis Armstrong and how they truly change the world are amazing.

The Orwellian Influence

I love journalism, storytelling and technology – and I also love George Orwell. Not just his books (“1984”, “Animal Farm”) but especially his essays. In 2010, I found out that a group in England had begun publishing Orwell’s diaries in real-time, under the heading The Orwell Diaries. And it got me thinking.

In sports, everything is chronicled. We know what happened in the games, we have newspaper articles about them, and articles about what was going on outside of sports on those days. The concept behind the Orwell Diaries could apply to sports in a cool way. That was the core idea.

Twitter and Facebook were just exploding back in 2010 — Facebook had only about 150 million users (today it’s almost 1.6 billion) and Twitter had less than 30 million (today it’s over 300 million) — and neither of them were super-integrated into content, but I thought they would be great real-time platforms for something like this.

Who else is on your team?
Since Day One, I’ve had the help of a number of fabulous historians and authors. And, of course, John Thorn, the Official Historian of Major League Baseball, has been on the project for over a year. He asked to come aboard—which was a mind-blower—and everything I’ve written I’ve had vetted by John. He’s been the advisor to Ken Burns on “Baseball” and “Jackie Robinson,” and has some serious baseball and history bonafides. And, somewhat ironically for a historian, John possesses one of the most innovative minds I’ve ever met.

[Senior writer, ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com] Steve Wulf introduced me to John. Steve is one of the deans of baseball writers — and he was part of the birth of rotisserie baseball. He’s writing these amazing letters from Ford Frick, a Yankee beat writer who later became the third baseball commissioner. Myles’ diary is the melody of our project, and Steve’s letters from Ford Frick act as both a harmony and a counterpoint.

Any last thoughts?

There’s a real importance to the stories that we’re telling—and we hope people constantly say, “Why didn’t I know that?” That’s what I keep saying.

I mean, why didn’t I know all about A.R. “Rube” Foster? He is not only, arguably, the most important African-American in the history of baseball outside of Jackie Robinson, but truly one of the most important human beings in the history of baseball, outside of Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth. His life is mind-blowing. Why doesn’t everyone know about him? I’m honored to tell his story in a diary entry, and I wanted to get it historically right.

And, finally, the real-time nature of the project makes it obvious whether or not we got the facts right, so we’d better be accurate. It’s mind-blowing to read a diary entry about an event and then read a contemporaneous news article about it. It’s mind-blowing to just see these names in the box scores. It brings a level of verisimilitude to the work that I don’t think has ever been attempted before. And it’s more than a party trick.

And it all happens in real-time, along the exact timeline that the events we’re describing actually happened almost 90 years ago.

That’s what real-time historical fiction is going to be about.

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