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Winthrop librarians' baseball book a hit

A 20-year-old man was watching an amateur baseball game in Ohio. He sat between the scorekeeper and another man.

The scorekeeper's pencil broke. He needed to sharpen it, so he asked the man two seats down for a pocket knife.

Stanton Walker, 20, who was sitting in the middle, passed the open pocket knife to the scorekeeper. Just as he did, a foul ball struck his hand and jabbed the blade into his chest.

That was in 1902. People don't often die at baseball games because of an unsharpened pencil. But they do die from fights, drunken behavior, lightning and being struck in the chest with baseballs, according to a book by two Winthrop librarians.

Robert Gorman and David Weeks spent almost three years researching fatalities at baseball games. Their research led to the 2009 book, "Death at the Ballpark: A Comprehensive Study of Game-Related Fatalities, 1862-2007," which recently won the Sporting News - Society for American Baseball Research award for baseball research in an area other than history or biography.

Gorman and Weeks, librarians at Winthrop University, first researched deaths only at Major League Baseball games for an article that they had published in a baseball journal in 2003. That article led to a book offer from a publisher.

At first they were hesitant to accept the offer.

"We thought, 'How many deaths can there be at baseball games?'" Weeks said.

When they started their research, they were looking for deaths caused by foul balls. To their surprise, only one person died from a foul ball in the major leagues, and only two people died from one in the minor leagues.

So for the book, they expanded their scope to include deaths at minor league and amateur games.

They discovered more than 800 deaths.

"We were kind of stunned that there have been so many baseball-related deaths," Weeks said.

Many years ago, no one wore a batting helmet to play the sport. Many players, especially amateurs, died from being hit by a pitch, Weeks said.

The book includes sections that put the deaths into context, such as a section about the introduction of the batting helmet in the 1950s. Another section explains how the lack of building codes led to the collapse of some wooden ballparks, killing and injuring fans.

Children who died from playing baseball often died from being hit in the area of the chest over the heart, Weeks said, causing a disruption of heart's rhythm, known as commotio cordis.

But professional players also died from the same condition, including minor leaguer Pete Mann of the Macon (Ga.) Peaches.

Weeks and Gorman started their research by searching for any story or brief about a death at a baseball game in indexes of national newspapers. If they found any mention of one, they would try to find the local newspaper story on microfilm to confirm.

"We knew we weren't going to find every death," Weeks said, "so we wanted to be as accurate as possible."

They've continued their research in preparation for a revised edition of the book in a few years. Their website,, lists more than 300 deaths they have discovered since their book was published.

The discovery of some deaths is disturbing though, Weeks said. One that stuck in his head was the story of a boy whose foul ball hit and killed his father in the stands.

"The hard part about doing this book is that you're reading about death all the time and it gets pretty depressing," he said.

Weeks said he had other inhibitions about writing the book.

"We realized that this could be a sensitive issue, especially to relatives who had family members in the book," he said. "That's one aspect we were worried about."

But the authors found that relatives only had positive things to say. One woman found her grandfather, whom she never really knew, in the book. She thanked Weeks and Gorman for providing her with details about his life.

Weeks admits the book has an obscure topic.

"Maybe that's why it's sold so well," Weeks said. "There's that curiosity. It appeals to the hard-core baseball fan, but it also appeals to people who aren't baseball fans."

Weeks grew up watching a team in Spartanburg that was an minor league affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies. So, naturally, he's a Phillies fan, he said.

He also played little league and backyard games. But writing this book gave him a different perspective on attending games.

He knows that people who sit in box seats closest to the field are more likely to get hit by foul balls. And although foul balls aren't a major cause of deaths at the ballpark, they do cause many injuries to fans, Weeks said.

When he sees parents sitting in those box seats with their children, he said he wishes he could tell them about the dangers.

"Even with my own kids now, when we're playing baseball in the yard, I'm like 'Watch!'" Weeks said. "You've got to be aware."