Sports Nut

You’re Out

The national pastime’s shocking death toll.

I caught a foul ball once. Sort of. It was in the fall of 1998, at Coors Field in Denver, and I was sitting on the third-base side. The ball blazed over my head, then thudded into a woman’s left breast a few rows back. A second later, it shot out from under my seat and rolled into my foot, as though it had just finished a trip through the interior of a miniature golf course obstacle. I reached down and picked it up.

I did the whole ecstatic exercise. I held the ball over my head. I turned right, then left, showing off my trophy. Then I caught sight of the woman behind me. A small crowd of loved ones and wincing strangers had huddled around her. I decided the only gentlemanly thing to do was to toss her the ball. But I had to wait a moment, until she straightened up and stopped moaning.

The typical baseball game sends 35 to 40 of these projectiles into the stands, some of them rocketing in at upward of 100 miles per hour. But it was a nice night for baseball in Denver, and so, for five or six more innings, even as the foul balls kept being popped, poked, lined, and ripped into the seats around me, I just sat there, blanketed by all the warm feelings our national pastime inspires. Even then, it never occurred to me that, as the introduction to a strange recent book puts it, “baseball is sometimes lethal.”

Death at the Ballpark: A Comprehensive Study of Game-Related Fatalities, 1862-2007 is an impeccably sourced compendium of the men, women, and children who have died or been fatally injured while playing, officiating, or watching baseball in the United States. Its authors, Robert M. Gorman and David Weeks, two librarians and baseball historians at Winthrop University in South Carolina, have spent the last eight years scouring local-newspaper archives (sample search terms: “baseball and death” and “baseball and killed”) for examples, in some cases going so far as to track down death certificates to confirm their results.

Given the fetish for statistics in baseball, it was probably inevitable that someone would get around to recording this, too: the number of people baseball has rendered incapable of generating more statistics. Gorman told me he was drawn into this morbid line of research after stumbling across the death of a minor leaguer named Herb Gorman. (“He had my last name. It kind of piqued my interest.”) Neither Gorman nor Weeks had ever really thought about baseball as a deadly activity before, and, Gorman told me, after publishing two preliminary articles—one on beaning fatalities and another on fan fatalities at major league stadiums—”we thought maybe we’d exhausted whatever was out there.” They were very wrong. They chronicled 850 baseball deaths in Death at the Ballpark, spanning professional, amateur, Little League, and even backyard pickup games. And though the book purports to be comprehensive, readers have already tipped them off to about 50 incidents they missed.

The authors say their aim was to “raise awareness” about baseball’s many dangers, but there aren’t any recommendations for making the sport safer here, no real signs of impassioned outrage, and no warnings to suburban parents about aluminum bats. Death at the Ballpark is fundamentally a reference book—a list carefully organized into categories like “Thrown Ball Fatalities, Amateur Fatalities—Position Players” and “Thrown Ball Fatalities, Amateur Fatalities—Baserunners.” Often, however, the authors pause for a half-page to narrate a death in noirlike detail. The opening paragraph of one entry ominously begins, “Patrick J. McTavey, 38, worked home plate during a heated semipro championship game on Long Island, NY, on September 26, 1927,” and ends: “It was the last call he ever made.”

It’s weirdly moving, if not exactly consoling, to learn just how many of baseball’s casualties made the play before expiring. There’s the amateur shortstop who, in 1902, caught a bad hop in the throat and used his last moments to throw out the runner at first. The third baseman in an Indiana league who, in 1909, tagged out the runner plowing headfirst into his gut, then succumbed to the resulting internal injuries three days later. There’s just something about baseball that inspires a kind of heroic resolve.   John McSherry, the major league umpire who collapsed at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium in 1996, had actually postponed treatment for the heart condition that felled him so he could call the game. * It was Opening Day.

All the old romantic baseball tropes turn up again and again in Death at the Ballpark. But the effect is haunting, since here each is mercilessly punctuated with a death. There’s the aging minor leaguer, battling his way back to the majors after a couple of stints in the show—except that Millard Fillmore “Dixie” Howell, who played in the White Sox farm system in the ‘50s, never gets called up again and dies of a heart attack instead. A few incidents are such ruthless perversions of our shared baseball idylls that it’s as if Roman Polanski had recut Field of Dreams. One July night in a backyard in Houston in 1950, a 7-year-old boy asks if he can throw his dad one more pitch before heading inside. The father says OK. The son pitches. Then the father swings and connects, inadvertently “striking his son over the heart.” The son dies before they can make it to the hospital.

There’s no underestimating baseball’s versatile capacity for killing us. Late Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti famously wrote that baseball “is designed to break your heart,” and the statement takes on new meaning reading Death at the Ballpark, particularly Gorman and Weeks’ section on commotio cordis, or concussions of the heart. A commotio cordis can be brought about only by getting struck at a particular place in the chest at the exact moment between heartbeats. And yet it manages to dispatch several pages’ worth of victims.

Fatal fastballs to the head, meanwhile, aren’t nearly as common as you’d expect. In the past 150 years, only one fan at a major league baseball game has been killed by a foul ball—a 14-year-old in Los Angeles named Alan Fish. The liner that fractured Fish’s skull came off the bat of Dodger pinch-hitting specialist Manny Mota, whose own teenage nephew would be killed 14 years later while playing shortstop in New York—a coincidence Gorman and Weeks don’t stop to note. Mota’s nephew, a high-schooler, was struck by lightning as he stood in the field, five minutes after the umpire announced he was going to call the game at the end of the inning.

Lightning is another improbably frequent killer (though perhaps it’s less improbable when you consider that baseball is played in summer, typically on flat fields surrounded by metal bleachers and fences). During a 1949 amateur game in Florida, the third baseman, shortstop, and second baseman were all killed by a single lightning bolt, which struck the backstop, then shot around the infield as though completing a double play.

The grim catalog rolls on. A semipro pitcher in Cincinnati is “struck simultaneously on the head by both a thrown and batted ball while warming up before a game.” Pickup games played on improvised fields lead to outfielders chasing balls into the paths of cars, buses, trains, and, in one case, a hearse. At Ebbets Field in 1950, a man slumps over in his seat, shot through the back of his head by—it only becomes clear after days of police work—a teenager who was fooling around with a rifle on the roof of his apartment building several hundred yards away and with no clear line of sight.

Then there’s a story Gorman and Weeks had both heard versions of but always assumed was apocryphal until they ran down a local newspaper account confirming it: In Morristown, Ohio, in 1902, one man asks another if he can borrow his penknife so he can sharpen the pencil he’s using to keep score. The second man hands his penknife to the guy seated between them, named Stanton Walker, and asks Walker to pass it on. At that exact moment, a foul ball whaps Walker on the wrist, and he stabs himself.

Still, in the end, you could choose to see something slightly uplifting about the sheer volume of these freak and incomprehensible accidents. Take it as an indicator of just how much time Americans have spent on and around baseball fields over the last century and a half—of what baseball means to us. We’ve managed to die on the diamond in so many crazy ways only because it’s one of the places we’ve done the most living. We’ve all been shagging flies in that minefield together.

Gorman told me that, while working on the book, he himself got smacked square in the forehead by a foul ball at a Triple A Game in Charlotte, N.C. “And my wife, she got hit in an odd way!” he added, almost as an afterthought. Then he launched into another story, about another game, on another night.

Correction, May 26, 2009: This piece originally and incorrectly stated that John McSherry collapsed while umpiring a game in St. Louis. It was in Cincinnati. (Return to the corrected sentence.)