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ESPN’s ‘1927: The Diary of Myles Thomas’ a new form of storytelling

New York Yankee Myles Thomas, 1927

New York Yankee Myles Thomas, 1927 Credit: National Baseball Hall of Fame Library

Douglas Alden called it “insane,” but in a good way. And so it is.

It is “1927: The Diary of Myles Thomas,” and, well, explaining the ambitious, ongoing project unfolding in a far corner of ESPN’s vast content universe is nearly as complicated as executing it.

Alden, the creator and executive producer, called it “a new genre of storytelling — real-time historical fiction,” and said it must be experienced to be fully understood, which is true. But let’s try.

Thomas was an obscure pitcher who went 7-4 at age 29 for the 1927 Yankees — “I love the fact that he’s so mediocre,” Alden said — which made him a blank canvas on which to tell a fictional story rooted in historical facts.

So Alden is writing a seasonlong diary on Thomas’ behalf that ties in his more famous teammates, other baseball figures of the day and personalities and events from parallel worlds such as jazz amid the birth of modern pop culture, not to mention evolving race relations.

Alden, who was part of the founding team of Classic Sports Network before it was bought by ESPN in 1997, never had heard of Thomas before, which was what made him so appealing.

“This guy is like Nick Carraway,” he said of “The Great Gatsby” character. “Completely historically insignificant, but he’s in the middle of it.”

Alden got the go-ahead from ESPN president John Skipper in the autumn of 2014 and began writing early in 2015; he still is writing, working on entries for the later parts of the ’27 season. (Spoiler alert: The Yankees win the World Series.)

The diary is only part of a multi-faceted website and social media presence that will include about 3,000 Twitter posts, historical essays and letters by veteran baseball writer Steve Wulf as if they had been written by a Yankees beat writer of the era, Ford Frick, who later became commissioner of baseball.

Alden said the site, which calls itself “an experiment in storytelling,” is a team effort involving his own staff, outside contributors and ESPN.

“I was just telling the guys,” he said, “that there aren’t a lot of times in life where you get to really do something where you get to create a meaningful work of art, and I think that’s what we’ve done here.”

Through it all, the first rule has been historical accuracy — or at least plausibility, with all entries vetted by John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s official historian.

Any fictionalized event has to at least be factually plausible. For example, on May 7, Thomas encounters Louis Armstrong when he and his Hot Seven band record “Wild Man Blues” in Chicago.

Did they really meet? Probably not. But they could have. The Yankees were in Chicago that day.

When it comes to baseball action, there is no fudging — other than pitch counts, which did not exist. It all happened as told.

Alden is a TV writer/producer/director and technology entrepreneur who worked for many years with the late Dick Schaap. He said he has spent a career in storytelling, and “figuring out new ways to use technology to tell stories.”

This seems to qualify, even if the audience proves modest for a work a friend described to Alden as “ ‘Ball Four’ meets ‘The Great Gatsby.’ ”

For all of his research, Alden said the one person he did not want to know anything about was Thomas himself, beyond his statistics. He merely is a vessel for the stories around him.

Again, this is not easy to explain. Best go here to explore, starting with the “About the Project” link.

Alden said he could have done it on his own on a blog, but that ESPN’s resources and reach made it far more viable.

“To have the opportunity I do to create a new form of storytelling and be able to share it through a company that has so much scale — this is an opportunity that is insane,” he said. “I’m just so grateful.”

New York Sports