Can a hard-hit baseball crush your skull (revisited)?

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Dear Cecil: I’ve heard of the occasional car in a baseball stadium parking lot being damaged by an out-of-the-park home run. I wonder: Have there ever been any skulls or other body parts crushed? Who would be liable for the hapless victim’s misfortune? Victor, Santa Cruz


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

I first tackled this question in 1978. Things were different then. I pounded out columns on a mechanical device called a typewriter. My telephone was the size of a shoebox. When I wanted to ascertain a fact, I didn’t Google it or e-mail people in Adelaide but rather called them one at a time. This had a deleterious impact on the quality of information I was able to amass.

Today research is easier, so I revisited the subject. I was, I’m happy to report, directionally correct: flying baseballs can be lethally dangerous. However — and I’m sorry if this has had any unfortunate consequences over the past 34 years — I underestimated the risk by a factor of ten.

From 1900 through 2002 there were 35 confirmed spectator fatalities in major- or minor-league ballparks. Only five of those were ball-related: two from foul balls, two from wild throws into the stands, and one during spring training where a fan chasing a foul ball got hit by a car. None was due to home runs, no doubt owing to the relative rarity of homers, the distance involved, and the comparatively small number of people seated in fair territory in most parks.

Foul balls, as anyone who has watched a game from the stands likely suspects, are more of a problem. In 1960 Dominic LaSala (reported spellings vary) was killed by a foul ball off the bat of Johnny Powers of the minor-league Columbus Jets, and in 1970 14-year-old Alan Fish was killed by a line-drive foul from Manny Mota of the Dodgers.

Not only can batted balls be dangerous, so can the bats. Baseball bats used to be sturdy cudgels made of formidable wood species such as hickory, but over time hitters adopted lighter ash bats with spindly handles to improve their home run power. As it became apparent ash bats break much more easily than hickory, batters switched to maple. This led to another problem: when maple bats break they’re three times as likely as ash to shatter into large pieces, which can become dangerous projectiles. Nearly 25 bats get broken per game day.

Some serious nonfatal spectator injuries have occurred from both errant balls and pieces of bats, including broken cheekbones and jaws, concussions, and in one case the loss of an eye. Players can be at serious risk too. On September 19, 2010, Chicago Cubs outfielder Tyler Colvin was heading home from third on Wellington Castillo’s broken-bat double when a flying shard of wood speared him like a cocktail shrimp. Colvin needed a chest tube and emergency surgery and was done for the season. He did, however, score.

One comprehensive medical study found 291 injuries from foul balls during baseball games attended by 7.7 million spectators — a rate of roughly one injury per 26,000 attendees. That’s an order of magnitude worse than the figure I came up with for injuries during the 1977 season based on an informal phone survey — 1 in 298,000. My apologies to any injured parties or their heirs and estates.

With so many balls ending up in the stands (on average a few dozen per game, judging from several small-scale counts), it’s remarkable deaths and injuries aren’t more frequent. As it is there have been some bizarre incidents. On August 17, 1957, center fielder Richie Ashburn of the Philadelphia Phillies hit fan Alice Roth twice with foul balls during a single at-bat: the first foul broke her nose, and then Ashburn lined a second ball into her as she was being carried off on a stretcher.

Given the risks, you’d think MLB clubs would have been sued back to the sandlot by now. However, the courts have generally held, even recently, that spectators at baseball games don’t have to be protected from common and expected risks. Case law from before World War I absolves park owners from liability for foul balls and broken bats. That’s not to say the clubs are immune to lawsuits. Patrons have successfully sued after being hit by foul balls that passed through protective netting, stumbling over loose bats, falling into holes, or tripping and falling down stairs. The common thread seems to be that the hazards involved couldn’t reasonably have been anticipated.

Generally speaking, though, the law considers that when you go out to the old ball game you’re willingly assuming the risk of injury or death. In 1991 Illinois was briefly an exception, with plaintiffs winning lawsuits against both the White Sox and Cubs for foul ball injuries. That was nipped in the bud the following year by the Illinois Baseball Facility Liability Act. This shielded the clubs from most foul ball litigation, the legislature evidently taking the view that from long, sad experience Chicago baseball fans should know to expect the worst.

Cecil Adams

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