With the death last week of a fan who fell over a railing trying to catch a ball tossed to him by a player, I’ve had a number of questions concerning how common this sort of fatality is. Based on what David Weeks and I found while researching our book, Death at the Ballpark, there have been 22 fall-related fatalities at major league parks since 1969. Only one of these (other than the recent death) was due to a fan pursuing a ball in the stands. On April 25, 2010, at Miller Park in Milwaukee, fan Stuart Springstube, 51, fell over a railing trying to catch a batted ball during batting practice before a Brewers-Cubs game. He fell some 15 feet to the field below, which resulted in his death from a brain hemorrhage three weeks later.
The remaining 20 deaths were due to a variety of reasons. Three were suicides, three were fans jumping from exit ramp to exit ramp, seven from sliding down or sitting on railings or escalator handrails, three by leaning over or running into railings, one by climbing over a wall, one was by doing a handstand in the upper deck, one by tripping and falling down exit stairs, and one by falling through an opening for the scoreboard. As one can see, most of these deaths were due to risky behavior on the part of the fan and thus were thoroughly avoidable. And in many of the cases, alcohol was involved.
Clearly the type of fatality that happen last week is very rare indeed. I would hate for MLB to overreact by prohibiting players from giving balls to fans. It has engendered considerable goodwill among fans and many have now come to expect it. If MLB feels it needs to do something, tell players to hand the balls to fans, but don’t restrict the practice entirely.