Baseball: Is a bean ball to the head likely to kill?

In 1920, Ray Chapman was killed when he was beaned in the head with a pitch:

In the above incident, it seems that Ray simply didn’t see the ball or was unable to get out of the way for some reason; the ball was not maliciously pitched.

I’m sure fast balls today are much faster than in 1920. Is a standard ML fastball really likely to kill you if you took it square in the forehead, or was Chapman’s death rather a fluke?


Well, the page you linked to does include the addendum:

*Although there have been several serious beanings in the major leagues, some of which led to the curtailment of careers, Ray Chapman remains the only player to have been killed by a pitch. Batting helmets, invented in the 50’s, may well have helped to prevent deaths. *

In the 50 years before the Chapman incident, no one was killed by a beanball. In the 35? years after the Chapman incident(with no helmet}, no one was killed.

My WAG is that it had to hit you in just the right spot. Sorry to not have a cite.

IANAD, but I have to imagine that if you took a standard, major-league fastball directly in the forehead without a helmet, such a blow has the serious potential to be fatal; I base this on the obvious fact that stoning was at one time used as an effective form of capital punishment. One the other hand, advances in emergency care since 1920 have dramatically increased the chances of successfully treating this type of injury.

Turning to baseball, Chapman was hit square above the ear in an age when players did not even wear the hat liner, much less the batting helmet (standard only afer the 1956 season). All witnesses agree that–for whatever reason–he made no attempt to move out of the way of the pitch. Death was caused by excessive swelling on two sides of the brain; attempts to relieve the pressure of the bleeding were unsucessful.

Now, let’s compare that to other near-misses (and one related, recent fatality) to try and answer this question:
[li]In 1937, Detroit catcher Mickey Cochrane was hit by a pitch above his right eye that cracked his skull in three places. It is unclear whether or not the pitch was intentional (Cochrane had hit a home run earlier in the game, but pitcher Bump Hadley did not have the reputation of a headhunter).[/li][li]White Sox third baseman Cass Michaels was beaned so badly in a 1954 game against the A’s that he had to be carried from the field, and was admitted to the Philadelphia hospital in critical condition. Newspapers say he was administered the last rites, but that could be an embellishment; in any event, he never played pro ball again.[/li][li]Boston fans will remember well the beaning of Tony Conigliaro by Angels pitcher Jack Hamilton. The Red Sox phenom took a ball to the cheek which fractured his cheekbone, dislocated his jaw, and left him with a damaged retina; there is a famous photo of him with a black eye the size of a baseball that I think every Boston fan has burned on their brain. The Red Sox certainly took notice; the team soon began wearing the ear-flap batting helmet, which later became mandatory for all players who entered the majors after 1982. Conigliano managed to come back from the beaning for a few seasons, but was never the same; he died in 1990 at age 45. Interestingly, Hamilton has since opened a restaurant in Branson Mo.; there was a recent feature in the Sporting News about it.[/li][li] In 1979, Mike Jorgensen of the Texas Rangers nearly joined Ray Chapman on the list of baseball’s casualties. Red Sox hurler Andy Hassler beaned Jorgensen on the temple, and although a ballpark examination indicated he was OK, persistent headaches sent Jorgensen to the hospital, where X-rays showed a small blood clot lodged in the brain. Jorgensen later had a seizure while in the hospital when the clot infarcted, but he survived. IMO, if Jorgensen has received this kind of beaning and was admitted to the type of ER prevalent in the '20s (an era with no clubhouse physician as well), he probably would have died.[/li][li]I personally recall the beaning of Andre Dawson by Eric Show in the late '80s, where a pitch to Dawson’s face put him motionless on the ground for several minutes while the rest of the Cubs got into a brawl with the Padres. And there is of course the shot in 1995 from Dennis Marinez that broke Kirby Puckett’s jaw. [/li][li]In 1999 NCAA play, Wichita State pitcher Ben Christiansen beaned Evansville catcher Anthony Molina while he stood in the on-deck circle, supposedly timing pitches. Molina was left with a shattered face, blurred vision, and despite being on the MLB draft list his potential pro career was ended. Why this wasn’t prosecuted as a criminal act I’ll never know (civil charges were filed, and I believe Christiansen settled out of court). [/li][li]Finally, although not from a pitched ball, Tulsa Drillers 1B coach Mike Coolbaugh was killed just this summer when he was struck in the head by a foul line drive. He was apparently knocked unconscious, alive when placed in an ambulance, but stopped breathing en route to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. As is customary for 1B coaches, he was not wearing a helmet.[/li][/ul]
Joe Garagiola often remarked (hazy recollection of early-'80s game-of-the-week broadcasts here) that when opposing teams saw how players on his early-'50s Pirates teams–one of the first to wear batting helmets–would pop up unhurt after taking a beanball that would normally put a non-helmeted player out of the game, they quickly stopped making fun of the “p*ssies” who wore them. It’s pretty clear to me the batting helmet has saved lives, and I personally would recommend extending such head protection at least to pitchers, if not to the entire infield (didn’t John Olerud wear a helmet while playing 1B?).

Here’s a listing of fatalities in baseball, from high school level and up, including non-players.

Yes. After he suffered a brain aneurysm, he was told to wear the helmet at all times in the field. That’s a special case, since for him, even a blow that wouldn’t have been a problem for others could have been life-threatening.

IIRC, there has been more than one case of little leaguers getting killed by having a pitch hit them in the chest.

Yes, I was in attendance at a game in Cuba when this happened. It was all over the news there for a while, the final finding was that the ball had hit at the precise time in the heart beat that caused some sort of muscle arhytmia and stopped the heart. Very uncommon.

“(Nolan) Ryan is the only guy who puts fear in me. Not because he can get you out, but because he can kill you.” - Reggie Jackson

It’s known as Commotio cordis.

It’s most often seen in the UK with cricket matches, and while not an everyday occurance you tend to get one or two cases a year.

[li]Finally, although not from a pitched ball, Tulsa Drillers 1B coach Mike Coolbaugh was killed just this summer when he was struck in the head by a foul line drive. He was apparently knocked unconscious, alive when placed in an ambulance, but stopped breathing en route to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. As is customary for 1B coaches, he was not wearing a helmet.[/li][/QUOTE]

Glenallen Hill, the Rockies(?) first base coach has taken to wearing a helmet at his post. Which, considering how often base coaches get zinged or hit with line drive, should be more widespread than it is.

A blow to the side of the head with a baseball is much more likely to produce fatal internal bleeding than is a blow “square in the forehead.” The temporoparietal region of the skull is much more easily fractured, and there are some blood vessel branches (middle meningeal artery, e.g.) under there that can get torn and produce fatal bleeding. I haven’t seen any formal studies but I’d guess a perfectly square hit with reasonably fast baseball–50 mph?–in exactly the right spot could easily be fatal. 95 mph? No problem killing (an untreated person) with a direct blow to the side of the head.

On the other hand, a glancing blow is highly unlikely to be fatal. Given the natural reflex to turn away so that your skull is not absolutely perfectly broadside, it doesn’t surprise me that fatal injuries from pitches to the head are rare.

It can also happen in hockey if a player lays out to block a slapshot and gets hit in the upper chest. I don’t think that it’s ever happened at the upper levels of the sport, however, probably because the real professionals are young and have very strong hearts and the real professionals know how to block a shot properly, which means getting your legs in front of the shot. Occasionally even the professionals get it wrong, though – NHLer Trent McCleary had his career ended after a slapshot crushed his larynx. Only the quick actions of the Montreal team doctor, who performed an emergency tracheotomy, prevented McCleary from suffocating.

I wouldn’t be so sure. Walter Johnson was generally recognized as the fastest pitcher in history until the days of Nolan Ryan and J.R. Richard. Bob Feller had a recorded pitch of 98+ in the 1940s, and even that was said to be a bit slower than he usually threw.

Mechanics have improved and generally increased overall the average speed, but there have always been flamethrowers way above the norm.

That reminds me of what happened to Chris Pronger a couple of years ago. He was still with the Blues and took a puck to the chest in a game against the Wings. He wobbled around and then collapsed on the ice. I don’t remember what the exact injury was, but it was really scary at the time.