Another Case of Brain Cancer In Baseball. What’s Going On?

A seeming epidemic is probably just an illusion—albeit a tragic one

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Hunter Martin / Getty Images

Former Philadelphia Phillies catcher Darren Daulton takes part in the Alumni Night celebration before a game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, on August 7, 2010.

Retired Philadelphia Phillies catcher Darren Daulton revealed he was diagnosed with glioblastoma. That makes seven Major League Baseball (MLB) players or managers to succumb to the disease in recent years. Is there a cancer cluster in baseball?

Baseball fans were jolted by the sad news that Daulton, 51, has been diagnosed with the aggressive form of brain cancer, which has a median survival rate of just 15 months and a five-year survival rate of 4%. Some people do defy those odds, and Daulton’s family and his legion of fans are rooting for him to be one of them.

But the news also raised a deeper kind of worry. Glioblastoma is a rare cancer, but it does seem to turn up with disturbing frequency in the MLB. The disease has claimed the lives of a near-All Star roster of names that includes Gary Carter, Dick Howser, Johnny Oates, Ken Brett, Tug McGraw, Johnny Vukovich and more in the past decade or so. This, not surprisingly, has led people to look for  a connection between the cancer and the sport. Is there something about baseball—which involves nowhere near the ferocious contact that football does but does have its share of collisions—that is causing the trauma that leads to the disease? Daulton, Oates and Carter all played catcher, which is the most physical of all of the positions in the diamond. Is there something about a particular team or the geographic in which it plays? Brett, Oates, Vukovich and McGraw, like Daulton, spent at least part of their careers in Philadelphia.

MORE: Even Football Players Without Concussions Show Signs of Brain Injury

Many of these questions were raised in 2011, when Carter’s diagnosis was announced. Doctors understand the human need to look for patterns and causes in the incidence of disease—indeed, that’s what the science of epidemiology is about. But in Daulton’s case, as in Carter’s and all of the others, there’s simply no plausible link. In 2011, Henry Friedman, one of Carter’s doctors and one of the deputy co-directors of Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center, associated with Duke University addressed the head trauma link first: “There is no data that relates concussions to brain tumors in any way shape or form,” he said bluntly, a conclusion that has continued to hold.

The much greater threat, as the National Football League is painfully learning, is brain damage that can lead to early-onset dementia, sometimes culminating in suicide. Chewing tobacco, which is still commonly used in baseball, is also a potential culprit, but again, there’s little plausible link. “Yes, it leads to cancer of the mouth and jaw,” said Friedman in 2011. “But even with some getting into the stomach and then into the bloodstream, it wouldn’t be in sufficient quantities to affect brain tissue.” Then, there’s the issue of steroids, which have been baseball’s long disgrace and still taint the sport. As I wrote when the Carter story broke:

Steroids…have long been linked with brain cancer in the public mind, at least since the death of NFL defensive lineman Lyle Alzado, who died of the disease in 1992 after a career of anabolic steroid use. He went to his grave blaming his doping for his illness. But while Alzado was a tragic authority on the multiple deadly effects of steroids, he wasn’t a doctor.

“Alzado had a brain lymphoma, he did not have a glioblastoma,” says Dr. Gary Green, medical director of Major League Baseball. What’s more, Carter and the other baseball figures who have contracted the disease played the game in the pre-steroid era, and they all got sick long after they retired from playing. Neurosurgeon Alex Valadka, Major League Baseball’s medical consultant on brain trauma, even points out that in some cases steroids are actually used to treat brain tumors. “When the brain is injured, it swells,” he says, “and steroids help bring that down.”

All of this suggests that Daulton, like Carter, Oates and the others, may simply be a victim of demographics, age and gender and nothing more. Glioblastoma strikes about 18,000 Americans per year, or .00006 of the 300 million U.S. population. About 1,600 men play in the MLB in any one season; over the course of 25 years that adds up only to about 5,200 individuals, since some play for years and years and others play for just a single season or less. Against that, the incidence of glioblastoma within baseball matches up pretty neatly with that in the overall population. And men, as a rule, have a higher incidence of the disease than women.

MORE: Is Brain Cancer Stalking Major League Baseball?

None of this is comfort for Daulton and his family, who are facing a challenging time. But it’s a reminder that disease clustering is often far more complicated than it looks, and that other players can safely hold Daulton in their prayers without worrying unduly that they’ll be the ones being prayed for next.

11 comments
galaxykid2000
galaxykid2000

CANNABIS OIL CURES ALL FORMS OF CANCER AND THE GOVERNMENT HAS KNOWN IT FOR OVER 50+

rainsong2
rainsong2

 My husband does not play ball, has never chewed tobacco, has never been on artificial turf, never lived in Philly and has never done steroids. He does, however, have GBM and was diagnosed 17 months ago.


Anyone facing this disease is facing a monster of a challenge. While there are numerous new chemotherapy drugs and surgical techniques, the basic treatment has not changed since the 1940s. It's still "slash, burn and kill" and hope for the best. Funding for more research is not profitable given the few number who are diagnosed each year. This doesn't mean there haven't been breakthroughs recently. Genetic research is promising, but not likely to help those recently diagnosed. As my husband says, he doesn't want to be the last man on a sinking ship when the rescue boats are still too far away. 

EllieKroichickMarks
EllieKroichickMarks

The rise in brain tumors in baseball players is indicative of the rise in the general population. GBM's are on the rise in the frontal and temporal lobes. It is no coincidence that this is the area of the brain closest to which the cell phone is held. Baseball players (even retired) probably use their cell phones often as they are on the road often. The World Health Organization classified cell phone radiation a possible human carcinogen based on the increased risk of brain tumors associated with mobile phone use. So many are dead or dying from this yet the industry is trying to hide it from the public and most keep holding that thing directly to the head. Cell phones are a valuable technology but let's listen to the expert independent science- they are causing brain tumors which are far more inconvenient than a wired headset.My heart goes out to Darren and his family.  

MichelleValentineBurgess
MichelleValentineBurgess

My 8 year old son Ethan died of Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma, a rare aggressive form of brain cancer that is also comprised of the same glial cells as those found in glioblastoma, only the tumor Ethan had was located in his brainstem and therefore was inoperable.  DIPG has a life expectancy of only 9-12 months after diagnosis and there is no cure or effective treatment.  Ethan was a huge Phillies fan and loved baseball.  I was incredibly saddened to hear about Darren Daulton's diagnosis.  I have been a Phillies fan since I was a child having grown up in Delaware. 


I really believe if it was something environmental you would be seeing many many more cases.  It is a shame that brain cancer remains such a death sentence while so many other types of cancers are survivable now and are still getting the attention and the funding.  Spreading the wealth among all the types of cancer research is so important and people need to realize pink isn't the only color ribbon that needs attention.  


My thoughts and prayers go out to Darren and his family.  He has a long road ahead of him but I am sure that my angel Ethan is up there cheering him on in this battle!

DEgal
DEgal

5 from Philly and they don't think this is a cancer cluster?  Come on.  If certain types of plastics are a source/cause, then one might go back to the old stadium and check pipes, hoses and what type of plastic was used in the water coolers/water bottles.  My best guess is that it more than likely came from their water source(s) if not the steroids/dip.  You would also have to look into their FL or other training facilities.  I don't think they want it to be determined as a cancer cluster b/c then the question of liability comes into play.  Hopefully, Darren will beat this and if it is a cluster, it will honestly be identified in time.  Then there is cell phone use.  How excessively did any of these players talk on cell phones, as the verdict is still out on whether radiation from cell phones causes tumors and brain cancer.  That is not baseball related at all.  Some experts say absolutely and others say no.  Unless, it can be identified from the water source or plastics/pipes, it would be hard to prove (even if a cluster) what the true source is.

LK

eric212
eric212

artificial turf...enough said

briguy1
briguy1

could it be possible since most of those players played there entire careers and some doing coaching  on artificial turf during the hot steamy summer months that maybe the chemicals/compounds in the turf created a toxic environment?, that maybe wouldnt have affected nfl players who would have played on the same stadium turf during the cooler months?.... 

EllieKroichickMarks
EllieKroichickMarks

@briguy1 

I have a long list of notable persons with primary brain tumors. There are many athletes- not just baseball players. Wish I could figure out how to post it here.