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A Baseball Player’s Life Linked to His Stats

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Times Staff Writer

What do a low earned-run average and a high batting average have in common? What do infielders have that catchers most decidedly lack?

In a word, according to a new study that represents one of the first pieces of structured research into the life span of professional athletes: Longevity.

Before you go looking to ace pitcher Dwight Gooden of the New York Mets, slugger Wade Boggs of the Boston Red Sox and infield acrobat Ozzie Smith of the St. Louis Cardinals for an introduction to Ponce de Leon, however, and before you send condolences to Dodger catcher Mike Scioscia, there are some questions about how much all of this should mean. That’s because the study focused on some of baseball’s most intriguing legends--men who played in the richly colorful period just before World War I.

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Managers, in particular, might not care much for the findings because they show that longer life is associated with fewer complete games for pitchers and comparatively few runs batted in for hitters.

In an article published today in the New England Journal of Medicine, a team of epidemiologists in Alabama and North Carolina conclude that professional baseball players appear to live significantly longer than their non-playing contemporaries--men of the same generation selected from the population at large.

Odds Best for Infielders

The big leaguers who live the longest appear to be long-term veterans in general, pitchers with consistently low ERAs, batters with high lifetime batting averages and--most of all--infielders, regardless of what they hit.

By contrast, catchers--whose physical debilitation during their active playing careers has been chronicled at length--suffer the indignity of being the player group with the highest average mortality rate, even worse than the general population.

The researchers, most of whom also happen to be avid baseball fans, came from the University of Alabama School of Public Health and a private research center in North Carolina and were led by Dr. John Waterbor of the Alabama university.

They selected 985 players active at the major league level between 1911 and 1915 who died between 1925 and 1985, including legends like Babe Ruth (who died of throat cancer at 53) and Casey Stengel (dead of cancer at 85). Also in the study group were Detroit Tiger outfielder Harry Heilmann (lung cancer, 56), Yankee pitcher Herb Pennock (stroke, 53), Boston Braves shortstop Rabbit Maranville (heart disease, 62), pitcher Eppa Rixey (heart disease, 71) and Yankee first baseman Wally Pipp (heart disease, 71).

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The study found that:

--The players as a group had a life span of 70.7 years, 6% longer than a control group of about 1,000 white men of similar ages who were not professional players.

--Long life for a pitcher was clearly linked to a low ERA, a high number of saves and a low number of complete games pitched. For non-pitchers, the formula includes a high number of runs scored, a high total of career at-bats and comparatively few RBIs per game. Being thin also helped.

--Infielders had the best longevity of all, with an average life span 14% longer than the control group. Outfielders in general were also above average, even though they seemed to suffer ulcers more than the control group. Catchers as a class fared poorly, with a mortality rate worse than the control group.

Many Questions Remain

Waterbor conceded that the study not only raises a variety of questions but could not resolve a large number of unknowns. For instance, it could not be determined how physically active the players had been after they retired from the big leagues.

“There could be and probably are a number of differences from today’s athlete to long ago,” Waterbor said, “but, nevertheless, the conclusion of the study is that there is a slight, but, I think, real protective effect of being athletic.”

Waterbor, who termed the study the first to look at length of life and cause of death among professional athletes, said he was puzzled that modern exercise research had not paid more attention to professional athletes. Only one other study--of baseball players, published in a medical journal in 1975--could be located. There has been no study of the longevity of football, basketball or hockey players, groups Waterbor said he hopes to develop comparisons with in future studies.

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‘Selection Bias’

The longevity advantage of baseball players might be explained, Waterbor said, by what health experts call “selection bias.” In other words, players, being unusually good physical specimens to start with, may have innate traits that imply they will live longer than their contemporaries. That greater athletic success is apparently associated with longer life, he said, seems to support this possibility.

Steven Blair, research director at the Cooper Institute and Aerobics Center in Dallas, said word of the new study of big league baseball players had been circulating among exercise researchers for several weeks.

However, he said, “I have a little trouble believing that athletic participation three or four or five decades ago is likely to have much effect, per se, on the risk of dying in later years. I think the risk is much more likely to be related to the more recent health habits, including exercise.”

Blair said new studies in progress at his center in Dallas show that, among about 400 former patients at the Cooper clinic, there is a relationship between a sound physical activity program and longer life. Another ongoing study of 550 Cooper patients who died is seeking to assess the relationship between physical activity and causes of death, he said.

Today’s Athletes Different

Dr. Ralph Paffenbarger, a prominent Stanford University exercise science expert, said he wasn’t sure what the mortality rates of players who were active so long ago really mean to contemporary athletes.

“I think of athletes as having changed considerably,” he said. “They are educated more broadly than the athletes of the teens and 1920s.

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“The fact that good hitters and the low-ERA pitchers lived longer suggests to me that they were people who, constitutionally, psychologically and physically, were superior. It suggests it could have been innate. But, on the other hand, we can’t rule out other things.

“It’s fun to read. It’s of interest; but the fact that (the researchers) have not considered (so many things) that could contribute to the longevity is hazardous. I don’t know if (the players) were fat or thin, alcoholic or not.

“It’s more of a curiosity. I think that’s the proper word.”

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