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NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture 12.1 (2003) 115-132

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Foul Play
Fan Fatalities in Twentieth-Century Organized Baseball

Bob Gorman and David Weeks


The death of teenager Brittanie Cecil at a National Hockey League game in 2002 is a shocking reminder of the dangers inherent in many spectator sports. In both sports-related listservs and the national press, this incident has generated considerable discussion concerning injuries to fans, especially from objects flying into the stands. Nowhere are these safety concerns more an issue than in baseball.

Even the most casual baseball observer is aware of the potential for harm from a screaming line drive into the seats. When a hard object flying at over 100 miles per hour strikes the human body, serious injury often results. No one knows the number of balls hit into the stands during the course of a game, but one estimate puts it at thirty-five to forty in the average Major League contest. 1 Of course not all fouls are line drives, but the potential for serious injury and death, especially for those sitting close to the field, is always present.

What is the historical record concerning fan fatalities in organized baseball in the twentieth century? How many fans have died, and in what ways? Is the ball itself the only potential danger, or are other factors at play? This study explores these issues and discusses some of the safety improvements that have been instituted as a result. 2

The authors confirmed at least thirty-five fatalities since 1900 in Major and Minor League ballparks. Interestingly only five are ball related, and only two of these are from being struck by a foul ball (table 1). The remaining thirty deaths are due to either fan behavior (table 2) or stadium infrastructure (table 3).

If thirty-five to forty foul balls enter the stands during a Major League game, how many result in serious injury? The plaintiff's attorney in a foul ball injury suit currently pending against the Detroit Tigers estimates "one significant injury per ball game." 3 Whether accurate or not, no one knows for sure because organized ball either doesn't keep or isn't releasing injury statistics. But it is safe to say that a foul ball injury is not an uncommon occurrence at any level of play. [End Page 115]

Many celebrated incidences of foul ball injuries exist. Two of the most widely known events involved Bob Feller in 1939 and Richie Ashburn in 1957. In the earlier case Feller's mother was struck over the eye while she watched him pitch on Mother's Day. 4 This injury occurred in the third inning while Feller was pitching to White Sox third baseman Marv Owen. Ashburn is notorious for striking the same woman twice in the same at bat. During a game on August 17, 1957, Ashburn's foul ball broke Alice Roth's nose. As the unfortunate Ms.Roth was being carried from the stands on a stretcher, Ashburn struck her a second time. Thankfully neither incident resulted in a fatality.

Given that so many fouls enter the stands, it is truly remarkable that only two fan fatalities have been caused by being struck by a ball off a bat. As can be seen in table 1, thrown balls have resulted in as many fatalities even though errant throws into the stands occur much less frequently. 5 And considering how many fans lunge and leap for foul balls, it is interesting to note that the death of Daniel McCarthy is the only known incident in which a fan died pursuing a ball. Finally, the authors did not uncover a single incident in organized ball in which the bat itself resulted in fatal injury to either fans or players.

With all these balls and bats flying into the stands, what is the legal liability of stadium owners and teams? Even in the early days of the game, lawsuits were common. In most cases the courts have decided...