A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What are your chances of getting brained by a fly ball during a baseball game?

September 15, 1978

Dear Cecil:

While sitting in the ball park the other day watching the Orioles make mincemeat out of — oh, I think it was the Royals, my companions made fun of me because of my fear of the stray fly ball. I maintain that getting cracked in the head with one of those is no joke, and that it has laid a fan to rest more than a few times. My friends think I'm nuts, but I know you'll prove my fears have a foundation in truth. Can you help me show them I'm not paranoid, just cautious? Then maybe we can sit behind the home plate screen.

Cecil replies:

Baseball may be the most statistics-crazed sport of them all, but the clubs seem strangely reluctant to keep records of fan fatalities. You may have noticed the disclaimer printed on the back of your ticket, in which the management gracefully declines any responsibility for injuries you may suffer while in the park. There is some question as to whether that disclaimer would stand up in court, but so far it's worked pretty well: no lawsuits have been filed in anyone's memory, and so none of the clubs bothers to keep tabs on the people who pass through their first-aid stations.

And so, faced with shocking lack of documentation, I am forced to invent some of my own. It does happen: in an informal survey of major league clubs, I came up with a ballpark figure (grin) of three or four serious injuries to fans caused by batted balls per club, per year. Now, let us assume the absolute worst: that the fates decide to frown upon America's national sport, pushing the annual number of fan injuries up to a nice, round, easily managed figure of five. In 1977, there were 12 teams in the National League, 14 in the American. (Why 1977, you ask? Because that's the last time I figured this out, and no way am I doing this twice.) With the help of some simple multiplication, we come up with a total, nationwide figure of 130 injuries each year. The combined attendance in 1977 for all National and American League games was 38,703,975, which makes your odds for survival look fairly good: you'd have once chance in 297,723 of being beaned.

All in all, it looks like you'd be facing more of a threat by taking a shower, but getting hit by a ball is no picnic. A well-hit ball can easily achieve a speed of over 100 m.p.h., and that adds up to a lot of impact. By way of illustration, I am reminded of the sad story of Joe Sprinz. In 1939, the one-time Cleveland Indians catcher participated in a publicity stunt set up by the San Francisco Seals, a minor league team, in which he was supposed to catch a ball dropped from an airplane flying at an altitude of 1,000 feet. Joe did his damnedest, but the first four balls fell wide of the mark. Finally, on the fifth ball, Joe succeeded. Unfortunately, he apparently caught the ball with his teeth, four of which got knocked out. But Joe did, however, earn himself immortality in the Guinness Book of World Records for "World's Highest Catch."

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