A federal safety agency Tuesday recommended that youth baseball leagues begin using softer balls and new kinds of batting helmets and bases, saying that they could significantly reduce the more than 100,000 injuries American children suffer in games every year.
The step by the Consumer Product Safety Commission focuses attention on a growing nationwide debate over an annual American rite of spring: the Little League game.
The commission, which regulates the safety of 15,000 consumer products, recommended that children’s baseball teams use softer-than-standard balls, batting helmets with face guards, and bases with safety-release features that do not leave holes in the ground or parts of the base protruding.
The controversy has pitted some parents and pediatricians, worried about safety, against traditionalists seeking to preserve the standard baseball, bat and other equipment.
“It’s part of growing up. You can’t soften things for kids,” reacted Donna Doudna, whose 11-year-old son Dustin, a player for the Woodland Hills Orioles, was knocked unconscious by a ball earlier this spring and taken away in an ambulance.
“I never thought of it as a danger,” she said at the ball diamond, where Dustin was again suited up Tuesday, ready to play.
But Dale Gant, vice president of the Northridge Baseball Association, which sponsors T-Ball and Little League teams, said he became concerned about the danger of using hard balls around children when his own son began to play.
“I always used a tennis ball when he was small,” Gant said. At his urging, the Northridge association began to use soft balls for T-ball, a version of baseball played by children aged 5 to 7.
“I think there’s a balance point in all this,” Gant said. “The coaches have to evaluate the abilities of each child and determine whether they have the skills to protect themselves or not.”
Many believe that using the new equipment will be more expensive and raise costs. But at least one children’s league that experimented with the safer products said it led to fewer injuries and reductions in its insurance premiums.
The commission’s recommendation came in part as a result of heightened attention in recent years on safety in youth sports, not only on the part of parents and pediatricians but from the insurance industry and new-technology companies that design and produce some of these products.
Baseball and T-ball are among the most popular sports in the United States, with an estimated 6 million children ages 5 to 14 participating in organized leagues and an additional 13 million in nonleague play.
Last year, hospital emergency rooms treated 162,100 children for baseball-related injuries caused by thrown balls, sliding and accidents involving bats, the commission said.
Many of the accidents resulted in eye damage, including blindness, and dental injuries from thrown balls, as well as fractures, strains, sprains and lacerations caused by sliding into immovable bases.
Even though baseball is not considered a contact sport, it leads other team sports in children’s deaths, with three or four each year, mostly when players are hit in the head or chest by thrown balls, according to the commission.
The safety commission does not have the authority to require leagues to use the safety equipment--which is available and sold nationwide--but it does have the power to mandate product standards. New standards for baseballs, for example, would, in effect, amount to a ban on the old balls.
But the commission is not expected to do that. The agency, whose staff and resources have been severely depleted by Congress in recent years, has not put forth any new standards for products since the early 1980s.
Nevertheless, it urged leagues voluntarily to adopt the safer protective equipment, saying that it could reduce the number and severity of 58,000--or nearly 36%--of these annual injuries.
Lance Van Auken, a spokesman for Little League Baseball in Williamsport, Pa., said the equipment is included in the list of items recommended by the organization to its affiliates but that it is not required.
The organization, which has 3 million children participating, requires batters to wear helmets (without face guards) and catchers to wear helmets with face masks, full chest protectors and shin guards.
Asked whether Little League would require the new equipment, Van Auken said: “We’d have to study it. It’s something we’ll be looking at.”
But Nick Senter, executive director of the Dixie Baseball League, which oversees more than 400,000 youth baseball and softball players in 11 Southern states, said his league required the use of face guards and softer balls in 1994 and “we’ve seen a drop in both injury rates and insurance rates.”
The cost of accident insurance for the league’s players who are 12 and younger dropped 23% between 1994 and 1996, and 6% for its 13- to 18-year-old group, he said.
Ed Bates, who supervises 91 Little League teams in Woodland Hills, said the worst injury he can recall this season was when a young player was hit in the arm by a swung bat.
“But you can’t make softer bats,” he said.
“You’re more manly if the ball hits you,” said Kyle Cotler, a 10-year-old catcher for the Woodland Hills Cincinnati Reds.
His team experimented with batting helmets that have face guards like those recommended by the commission, but abandoned them after their coach, Joe Canul--a chiropractor--said they could cause neck strain.
“It’s unwieldy,” Canul said. “The problem with it is that it makes the helmet so heavy.”
The commission collected and analyzed data on baseball, softball and T-ball-related deaths and injuries to children 5 to 14 to determine how they were hurt and what equipment could have prevented the injuries. Of the 162,100 injuries treated in hospital emergency rooms in 1995, almost 75% occurred to children 10 to 14, an age group that represents half of the total number of children playing baseball, the safety commission said.
Of the total number of injuries, the safety commission regarded about 33% as severe. They included fractures, concussions, internal injuries and dental injuries. The remaining 67% were for abrasions, strains and sprains.
The commission said that softer-than-standard baseballs and softballs, which have a spongier core than standard baseballs and softballs, can reduce ball-impact injuries and that face guards that attach to batting helmets can protect the face and decrease injuries to batters.
There are at least two different versions of the “safer” baseballs. One is softer and will not fly as far as a regular baseball. It usually is used by younger children. The other is an experimental new ball whose developers claim that it has the properties of a regular baseball but is less harmful when it strikes a player.
The commission said bases that release from their anchors can reduce sliding injuries and that “safety-release bases [which] are based on age, gender and skill levels of the players provide the best protection.”
Correspondent Nicholas Riccardi contributed to this story.