“Tools of ignorance” isn’t an ironic description. Although catchers tend to possess a very high baseball IQ, there isn’t much wisdom in crouching behind the plate for nine innings of target practice. With that in mind, major league baseball has decided to eliminate violent collisions at home, a long overdue application of common sense, not to mention the rules.
Concussions have been a hot button issue throughout the sports world. And, although MLB may not have a concussion epidemic like the NFL, recent revelations about Ryan Freel’s untimely death prove it is not immune. Undoubtedly, sensitivity to this issue is driving MLB’s proactive policy against head injuries, which not only includes the proposed ban on home plate collisions, but also an option for pitchers to wear protective head gear. Many baseball observers, including current and former catchers, have bristled at these new rules, but if there’s one lesson to be learned from the NFL, when it comes to player safety, leagues should error on the side of caution.
One argument made by those who oppose banning collisions at the plate goes something like this: catchers are more prone to concussions by foul tips, so are you going to ban those as well? That’s an obvious non sequitur. After all, foul tips are not intentional actions and their occurrence can’t be avoided. What baseball can do to limit the effect of foul tips is improve catchers’ equipment, but when it comes to collisions, legislation is more effective.
Albeit logically inconsistent, the “foul tip” argument against the collision ban is interesting in that it raises the question of the inherent danger at the position. This same issue has been examined endlessly in the NFL, with some studies suggesting football players have an average life expectancy of only 55 years, while others indicate a mortality rate lower than the general population. But, what about baseball?
There have been a few studies about the mortality rate of baseball players, but, for obvious reasons, they have not been done to the same extent as those being conducted on football players. Also, the studies done on baseball player mortality have not been broken down by position. A scientific analysis of that question is best left for the more qualified, but the chart below provides an anecdotal, position-based look at the average life span of a segment of the baseball player population.
Average Life Span of MLB Players, by Position
Note: Includes all players since 1901 with at least 500 games for a hitter and 100 games for a pitcher. Players with at least 75% of their games at a position were also classified into those distinct categories. Age is calculated by year of death minus year of birth, not actual age at time of death.
Again, it’s important to stress that the chart above is nothing more than an anecdotal exercise. No scientific methods were used and the cumulative results are prone to numerous errors. However, the data presents an interesting range of life expectancy from a low of 69 for pitchers to nearly 74 for shortstops. Catchers also rank near the bottom of the scale with an average life span of 69.3, but the position would climb to 69.9 if Thurman Munson (plane crash) and Bo Diaz (broken neck caused by an accident while installing a satellite dish) are excluded. Of course, the same exceptions could apply at other positions, and, in a more scientific analysis, these adjustments would be made.
When studying mortality, it hard to separate specific activity related impacts from those resulting from lifestyle. For example, baseball’s chewing tobacco culture may be specific to the sport, but it is not a pre-requisite for playing the game. So, when it comes to understanding overall safety and implementing precautions, aggregate data can be misleading. In order to truly examine the potential impact of baseball activity on mortality, a more thorough methodology is required. Hopefully, baseball never reaches the point when such as study becomes necessary.