In a previous post we reviewed the literature on the mortality of Major League Baseball players. We have also recently contributed two papers to the peer reviewed literature on this subject. (1-2)
The first of these recent contributions is a comprehensive analysis of MLB mortality and life expectancy during the entire 20th Century. Whereas some of the previous studies of MLB mortality analyzed limited periods in the century or calculated life expectancy using cohort life tables, we analyzed data on all players who joined MLB between January 1, 1900 and December 31, 1999. To study mortality trends within the cohort we modeled the death rate from 1900 to 1999. To compare the ballplayers to the general population we calculated standardized mortality ratios (SMRs) and life expectancies using period life tables. SMRs are ratios of mortality rates in a subject population (here MLB players) to those in a standard population (here the US male general population) adjusting for age and possibly other demographic characteristics (e.g., gender, race). An SMR greater than 1 indicates that the subject population has experienced excess mortality compared to the standard population; SMRs less than 1 indicate that the subject population has experienced fewer deaths than expected; and SMRs equal to 1 indicate no difference in the death rates of the two populations.
Statistical modeling demonstrated that death rates climbed with age (as expected) and diminished with each passing decade (a secular trend) from 1900 to 1999 (though rates were essentially flat from 1950 to 1969 and data were too thin in the earliest three decades to calculate SMRs).
The SMRs indicated that MLB players experienced fewer deaths than expected in the US male general population during the 1930s and 1940s. The SMRs were not statistically significantly different from 1 in the 1950s and 1960s, indicating that the mortality rates for these athletes were essentially the same as those of the general population during those 20 years. However, MLB players again experienced fewer deaths than expected in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, with decreasing SMRs over these decades signifying that the mortality rates for the ballplayers were decreasing at a faster pace than those of the general population, which rates also decreased substantially during that period.
The trends in life expectancy naturally mirrored those of the mortality rates: life expectancies for ballplayers were greater than those of age- and gender-matched controls in the general population in the 1930s and 1940s, were the same in the 1950s and 1960s, and then got increasingly larger than the general population controls in the 1970s onward. In the 1930s and 1940s a ballplayer 20 years of age could have expected to live 2-3 years longer than a man his age in the general population. By the 1960s a 20-year old MLB player could only expect to live fewer than 2 years longer than men of the same age in the general population. However, life expectancy for ballplayers increased at a faster rate than the general population between 1970 and 1999, so that by the 1990s a 20-year old ballplayer could expect to live almost 4.5 years longer than males of the same age in the general population.
Our second recent publication compared the mortality experience of foreign-born MLB players to that of players born in the US. Here we simply calculated SMRs for players from the 6 countries outside the US that have supplied the most MLB players: Canada, Cuba, Dominican Republic (DR), Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela. The analysis used US mortality rates as the comparison group and matched players on fielding position to control for differences in athletic ability and body composition. SMRs were calculated by decade between 1950 and 1999.
The result of this study showed that ballplayers from five countries had mortality rates that were not significantly different from US players. Two countries – DR and Venezuela – had mortality rates that were significantly greater than those of US players. We speculated that this was likely due (at least in part) to the relatively high rates of violent crime in these nations. Low average ages at death in these nations supported this notion, though the data do not allow for solid conclusions. In a future post we will discuss this issue further in light of a recent tragic event involving a former MLB player from the DR.
- Reynolds R, Day S. Life expectancy and comparative mortality of major league baseball players, 1900-1999. WebmedCentral Sports Medicine 2012;3(5):WMC003380.
- Reynolds RJ, Day SM. Mortality of Major League Baseball players from Canada, Latin America, and the Caribbean. GJMEDPH 2012 Jul-Aug;1(4):38-41.