Baseball Can Kill You: An Interview with the Ballpark Fatalities Stats Keeper

Fenway Foul Balls and Bats Hurt
Daniel Flynn

Death at the Ballpark: More Than 2,000 Game-Related Fatalities of Players, Other Personnel, and Spectators in Amateur and Professional Baseball, 1862–2014 will change the way you watch baseball.

Put another way, it makes spectators pay attention. Look away at your own risk!

The book documents deaths to players, fans, and others from bats, balls, collisions, lightning strikes, and other dangers since almost the inception of the game. With a fan suffering “life-threatening” injuries last month at Fenway Park, and an expanded edition of the book co-authored by David Weeks and Robert M. Gorman set to hit bookstores later this year, the time seemed right to reach out to David Weeks about the dangers of a game often described as bucolic but rarely thought of as brutal.

Breitbart Sports: A woman recently endured “life-threatening” injuries watching a game at Fenway Park. What have been the biggest dangers over the years facing fans at parks? Balls? Bats? Other fans? Unsafe structures?

David Weeks: It depends on if you’re talking deaths or injuries. By far foul balls have always caused the most injuries but have only resulted in one death in the majors and two in the minors. Death causes have changed somewhat over the years. Long ago in the days of wooden stadiums there were several collapses that resulted in deaths. Also violence among fans, players, and officials resulted in quite a few deaths in amateur games.

These days fans are mostly a danger to themselves. Most recent fan deaths have involved falling over railings or off of escalators or stairs. To date there has not been a death in a professional game caused by a bat, but there have been some scary injuries.

Breitbart Sports: What has organized baseball done over the decades to make the game safer for fans and players and what what might come next as a safety measure from organized baseball?

David Weeks: It’s been mostly up to the stadiums to decide how to protect the fans. There is a minimum for netting, but it’s up to the individual stadiums to decide whether to exceed that.

Batting helmets were finally mandated in 1971 and after the death of Mike Coolbaugh in 2007 base coaches were required to where them. Many smaller stadiums, especially college, have begun running netting all the way down to first and third base. However, Major League stadiums have been extremely resistant to this idea.

As far as bats, MLB commissioned a study in 2008 to find out why so many maple bats were breaking. Based on the study recommendations were made to bat manufactures on how to improve the slope of the grain to prevent breakage. Another outcome was that MLB required bat manufactures to have at least $10 million in liability insurance and absolve MLB from all liability in the event of an injury caused by the bat.

Breitbart Sports: Your book contains many unbelievable, yet true, sad stories. Can you share a few that left you astounded?

David Weeks: A few of the strange ones…  In 1902 Stanton Walker was seated between two other men watching a game in Ohio. The guy on one side of him needed to sharpen his pencil so the guy on the other side passed a knife to Walker to pass over to him. At that instant a foul ball hit Walker’s hand and drove the knife into his heart. In a game in Florida in 1949 lightning struck the backstop and traveled around the infield killing the third baseman, short stop, and second baseman. And then there was the guy in 1891 that was rounding third base and got hit by a runaway horse. Of course any death is tragic, but there are two that stuck in my mind. One was the kid that killed his father with a foul ball at a game in New York in 1928. The other was an 8-year-old girl that was playing with friends on a playground in Richmond in 1942. A baseball game was being played on a field next door and somebody hit a foul ball that hit her in the heart, killing her instantly.

Breitbart Sports: Do you think the oddness of some of the fatalities counterintuitively demonstrates the relative safeness of the game? In other words, some of the fatalities involve an awful lot of bad luck atop the inherent dangers of baseball, no?

David Weeks: Yes, and no. I think the problem is that most people only see the fatalities and not the thousands of injuries every season.

One study showed almost 2,000 fans were injured by foul balls during a Major League season. Without the prompt and excellent medical care she received, the Fenway fan could have very easily been a fatality. Will she have permanent damage and life debilitating damage? I don’t know, but there have been plenty of people hit by foul balls that have lost eyes, suffered permanent mental damage, and other life-long injuries. So I think looking at only the fatalities is missing the point. And while attending a baseball game is perfectly safe for most fans, is there a way to make sure injuries like these don’t happen?

Breitbart Sports: My son plays in a Little League game as I write. Do you worry that someone taking your book out of context, or blowing up the incident at Fenway out of proportion, might scare kids or parents away from the game? Baseball, on the whole, is good for you and sitting on the couch in front of a screen isn’t, correct?

David Weeks: That’s definitely not our intent, though I will admit that I get a little more nervous now when I see a screaming liner coming back at my son. But I’m also more safety conscious, which was one of our intentions.

Most fans don’t realize the dangers when they’re in the stands. Players have an advantage because they’re always focused on the game. I can’t count the number of times and I’ve watched people in the boxes along the baselines not paying the least bit of attention to the game. I think this shows that the warnings on the ticket stubs and the announcements during the game are ineffective at convincing fans they need to be aware of the dangers. All it takes is one hard foul and there could be another death. When we’re sitting anywhere in an unprotected area I make my son pay attention every time a batter steps into the box.

But you’re right, baseball is a great game I would rather people be out at the stadium than sitting in front of a TV. But they need to understand that if they have small children or would rather be socializing than watching the game, field level seats down the lines are probably not the best choice.


Please let us know if you're having issues with commenting.