Is there a link between brain cancer and major league baseball?

Is there a link between brain cancer and major league baseball? Some people are wondering, as Jere’ Longman’s recent article in the New York Times pointed out.

The Philadelphia Phillies played at Veterans Stadium from 1971 to 2003.

A number of Phillies who played at Veterans during those years have died of glioblastoma, a particularly deadly type of brain cancer. Since 2003, the following players died of glioblastoma:

-Tug McGraw, a reliever for the Phillies[age 59];

-Infielder John Vukovich[age 59];

-Catcher Johnny Oates[age 58].

Ken Brett, a pitcher, played at Veterans for only one season. He died at age 55. Some news accounts attributed his death to glioblastoma as well. And just a few weeks ago, Darren Daulton[pictured above] who led the Phillies to the World Series in 1993 passed away due to glioblastoma. He was 55.

When Daulton learned he had the disease in 2013, the Philadelphia Inquirer did an analysis of the 533 players who played for the Phillies while they played at Veterans. The analysis suggested that the cancer rate amongst those players was THREE TIMES the rate of the male population. Timothy Rebbeck, a Harvard cancer epidemiologist assisted with the study. He felt the elevated risk could have simply been chance. But he also noted that “It’s either random chance, bad luck or there is something there, but we just don’t have the science to pick it out yet.”

Longman’s article pointed out that researchers have been studying the cases for years – but at present say there isn’t sufficient evidence to state whether the string of deaths suggest some link to the stadium, or simply a tragic coincidence. Cancer clusters are very difficult to prove. “There is almost never an explanation for them,” noted Professor Rebbeck. But other players from that era are aware of the questions – and unnerved by them. Larry Bowa, who spent much of his career playing for the Phillies at Veterans noted that “I’m concerned about it. It raises your eyebrows, no question. It’s sort of scary.”

Larry Andersen, who pitched for the Phillies for several years during that ear noted that “You can’t help but think about it. It would be nice if there were some answers, if nothing else, for going forward. But nobody knows anything.”

In addition to the players noted above, number of other MLB players have succumbed to glioblastoma, all at relatively young ages. They include Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter[57]; Bobby Murcer[62]; and Dan Quisenberry[45] . Manager Dick Howser[51] also died of the disease. Brett, Quisenberry and Howser all spent some time in Kansas City, where the ballpark had artificial turf, like the turf at Veterans. Some players have wondered whether the chemicals contained in they synthetic turf might be carcinogenic – but scientists say there is no data to support that claim.

It should also be noted that the NFL Philadelphia Eagles often practiced and played at Veterans on the same surface – but there is no data suggesting a high rate of brain cancer amongst those players.

Dr. Henry Friedman, a neuro-oncologist at Duke treated both McGraw and Carter. Friedman feels there simply isn’t enough data to draw any connection between the brain tumors and baseball. Melissa L. Bondy, a brain tumor epidemiologist at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston feels the high rate of brain cancer amongst Phillies players seems to be more than a coincidence but more research needs to be done.

Mickey Morandini, the Phillies’ first base coach played on the 1993 World Series team. He too wonders about the connection between cancer and baseball. But he noted that if it did turn out that the elevated cancer risk is more than mere coincidence – “I don’t know if I’d rather know or not.”