Historical Fatalities at Major League Baseball Stadiums: The Risk of Being a Fan

2011 has been an unusually dangerous year for major league baseball fans, beginning with the beating of Giants fan Bryan Stow outside Dodger Stadium on opening day and continuing to the late April tornado that ripped through St. Louis and forced an evacuation of Busch Stadium, and the deaths of a Texas Rangers fan and a Colorado Rockies fan at those two ballparks. The apparently standard warning on the back of every ticket to an MLB game says “WARNING: The Holder voluntarily assumes all risk incident to attending a game of Baseball, whether occurring before, during or after the game, including specifically (but not exclusively) the danger of being injured by bats, balls or other objects leaving the field, or by others in attendance.” A further notice disclaims any liability by the stadium, the team and its opponent, and MLB itself for any injury or expense resulting from said risk.

This is the kind of legal language that hardly anyone pays attention to, but in fact, there are substantial risks involved with going to an MLB game. Sporadic cases of fans falling out of the stands, sometimes to their deaths, have happened for years. And, Baker Bowl in Philadelphia, the sort of oldtime bandbox stadium that evokes a vague sense of warm nostalgia among some fans, was a literal death trap on two occasions. In 2003, the Philadelphia Inquirer told the story of “the day the Phils’ ballpark crumbled” in 1903, saying:

On the evening of Aug. 8, 1903, a grocery store along 15th Street turned its display window into a lost-and-found, filled with hundreds of hats – straw boaters, derbies, the soft caps worn by young boys.

A few hours earlier, the grocer had scooped them off the bloody street separating his North Philadelphia store from the third-base wall of the National League Park, the Phillies’ ballpark that years later would be renamed Baker Bowl after the man who bought the club in 1913.

The hats had fallen from the heads of the several hundred spectators who dropped 30 feet into a deadly heap when a wooden balcony collapsed during the second game of a doubleheader between the Phillies and the Boston Braves.

“The balcony tore itself away from the wall and the crowd hurled headlong to the pavement,” read the following day’s Inquirer. “In the twinkling of an eye the street was piled four deep with bleeding, injured, shrieking humanity struggling amid the piling debris.”

What followed was chaos. Rescuers worked frantically to remove the dead and injured, commandeering wagons and even some newfangled motorcars to haul them to St. Luke’s, Samaritan and Jewish Hospitals. Neighbors opened their homes. Pickpockets plucked wallets and watches from the helpless victims.

The collapse killed 12 fans, ranging in age from 24 to 63, and injured 232. Even today, exactly 100 years later, it remains one of the greatest tragedies in the history of American sports. . . .

In subsequent weeks, lawsuits were filed against the Phillies and their former owners. Investigations were begun, and inquests held. Ultimately, the disaster led to the end of wood as a major building material in ballparks. . . .

[On August 8, 1903] a large number of fans along the third-base line became interested in something happening off the field.

Below them on 15th Street, several neighborhood children had been teasing two drunks as they staggered from a neighborhood tavern toward Lehigh Avenue. Suddenly, one of the men reacted angrily, turning and grabbing the hair of a 13-year-old girl, later identified in newspaper accounts as Maggie Barry.

Her high-pitched squeals drew the attention of fans. An estimated total of 300 of them rushed to a wooden balcony that jutted out several feet from the grandstands above the corner of 15th and Lehigh.

The weight was too much for the makeshift structure. The wooden supports gave way, and wave after wave of spectators plummeted to the street below.

“There must have been one hundred men and boys, and every one of them was covered with blood,” a police officer told The Inquirer. “Some of them had their clothing almost torn from their bodies, while others were so bespattered with blood and mud as to be almost unrecognizable.”

The game was halted and eventually canceled. The remaining fans, fearful that the rest of the ballpark might tumble down, rushed onto the field.

“Some players armed themselves with bats to keep from being overwhelmed by the wild stampede,” Warrington said.

The Phillies ordered the debris removed immediately. The following day, Phils business manager Bill Shettsline attempted to absolve his club, which had been sold to a group headed by James Potter in 1902. Shettsline blamed the calamity on the “overanxiety” of the fans.

“The accident was in no way due to any lack of proper precautions or neglect on the part of officials of the club,” Shettsline said. “When the present management assumed control of the grounds, the pavilion and stands were in perfect condition, and, for the purposes intended, were safe and reliable, but the simultaneous rush of several hundred persons to one concentrated point weakened the structure and precipitated several hundred unfortunate persons to the street below.” . . .

A panel of six builders ruled after several days of hearings that rotting hemlock timbers were to blame and that the former owners, Reach and Rogers, were responsible. The courts determined that it was the rush of spectators, and not the faulty timber, that caused the collapse.

The Phillies wanted to rope off the affected area of the grandstands and resume their season. The city said no, and the team was forced to share Columbia Park, at 29th Street and Columbia Avenue, with the American League Athletics until repairs were made. . . .

The ballpark was repaired, but in 1927 a section of the first-base stands collapsed. This time, only one person died, but 50 were hurt. Eleven years later, the Phillies finally abandoned their rickety ballpark for good. Once again, they moved in with the A’s, this time at Shibe Park, six blocks farther up Lehigh Avenue.

Back in 1985, the Inquirer had noted the death of “HARRY ICKLER, 86, AVID PHILLIES FAN”: he was “believed to be the last survivor of the collapse at the Baker Bowl” in 1903. A 4-year-old when the disaster happened, Harry was attending his first game. It is a strange note of either irony or coincidence or something else that the Inquirer added: “Ickler became a Phillies fan, played third base in the sandlot leagues and worked with Phillies groundskeepers. He seldom missed a game, except during service in World War I.”

You’re tempted to dismiss the two Baker Bowl accidents as outdated signs of how things used to be at the old, dangerous, rickety stadiums. But, on April 13, 1998, the Orange County Register reported that:

The most storied stadium in baseball began to molder Monday, forcing the game between the Angels and the New York Yankees to be postponed and perhaps finally giving owner George Steinbrenner the leverage he needs to get a new home for his team.

A 500-pound, cubic-foot piece of steel fell from the loge level ceiling in the left-field stands of Yankee Stadium on Monday afternoon, about five hours before the teams were to play. The stadium, which turns 75 years old Saturday, was empty.

About two hours before the scheduled first pitch, an announcement was made that the city, the Yankees’ landlord, had ordered the stadium closed to the public until it was determined there were no further structural defects. The Angels-Yankees game today was also postponed, and Wednesday’s game will likely be played at Shea Stadium in the afternoon, before the New York Mets play the Chicago Cubs there.

The Angels continued to take batting practice as New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani held an impromptu news conference on the grass behind home plate.

“We have no reason to believe there’s anything else in that position,” the mayor said. “Then again, we don’t have any idea if there is. It will be closed for two days, possibly three, so they can make a complete inspection. “

It is not known exactly why the beam, an expansion joint designed to offset structural expansion, fell. It was determined the joint was part of the stadium’s original construction in 1923.

“Its purpose is to move,” stadium superintendent Bob Wilkinson said. “It’s like a shock absorber for a car. It’s similar to what they do in buildings in California for earthquakes. This is one of the earliest forms of that principal.”

The other expansion joint in the stadium was part of the ballpark’s remodeling in 1974 and 1975. It was examined Monday night and determined to be safe.

The only person to witness the incident was Angels muscle therapist Bill LeSuer, a New York native, who was returning from the outfield around 2 p.m.

“I went out to pay my respects, as usual,” said LeSuer, a lifelong Yankees fan. “As I was coming back, I heard this tremendous bang, and there was a real big puff of smoke. I saw something falling down. I looked around to see if anyone else saw what I saw, and I realized I was alone. I thought the stadium was falling down. “

The seat on which the beam fell was crushed, and there was a 6-inch crater in the concrete. The beam looked like a large, rusted car battery.

“If somebody had been there at the time the beam came down that person would now be dead,” Giuliani said.

The Register also noted several other cases of structural damage at baseball stadiums in the ‘90s:

Sept. 13, 1991, Olympic Stadium — A 55-ton concrete beam fell off the side and crashed onto a walkway below, forcing the Montreal Expos to play their last 13 regular-season home games on the road.

Jan. 17, 1994, Anaheim Stadium — Northridge quake caused Sony Jumbotron, advertising panels and a portion of the stadium roof, including the “Little A,” to collapse into empty stands.

July 19, 1994, Kingdome — Four acoustic tiles fell from ceiling into empty seats hours before Seattle’s game against Baltimore. The Mariners had to spend the final 22 days on the road. The Seahawks played their first three home games at the University of Washington.

June 22, 1995, SkyDome — At least seven spectators were injured when two wood tiles fell from the upper deck during Toronto’s game against Milwaukee.

And on July 2, 2003, the sudden acceleration of an escalator at Coors Field caused dozens of injuries to Colorado Rockies fans.

Finally, Bob Gorman and David Weeks wrote an article called “Foul Play: Fan Fatalities in Twentieth-Century Organized Baseball,” for the baseball journal Nine in 2003. They noted three fatalities at Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds. The AP said that “at a 1929 game at Yankee Stadium, two people died and 62 were injured when a heavy rainstorm caused the right field bleacher crowd of about 9,000 to stampede the exit.” And, “at a 1950 game at New York’s defunct Polo Grounds, Bernard Doyle was shot in the head by a .45-caliber bullet while sitting in the upper left field stands. A few days later, a teenage boy confessed to randomly firing the pistol from his nearby apartment rooftop.”

Still, Gorman argued: “You’ve got to keep this in context. In terms of American sports, it’s much safer than sports played in other countries. At soccer games in Europe or in Latin America, there’s hundreds of people who sometimes die.”

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Published in: Uncategorized on December 20, 2011 at 12:03 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. That’s a hell of an interesting read. Never realized so much tragedy has been associated with attending ball games. I used to see guys beat each other up at Shea lots of times back in the ’70’s, but nothing worse than that.
    Nice work, Bill

  2. Wonderful site. Plenty of helpful info here. I am sending it to some buddies ans also sharing in delicious. And of course, thanks for your effort!


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