Former Phillies Are Getting Brain Cancer At An Unusually High Rate, And Nobody Knows Why

By Tully Corcoran

The form of brain cancer that killed Darren Daulton earlier this month, glioblastoma, is the most frequently diagnosed form of brain cancer, and yet seems to come after one kind of person more than the rest: Major League Baseball players from the 80s and early 90s, especially those who played for the Philadelphia Phillies.

The New York Times explains:

" Daulton and several prominent contemporaries in baseball — including at least three other Phillies who played at Veterans Stadium, the team’s home from 1971 to 2003 — have died of glioblastoma, according to news media accounts. It is considered the most aggressive and frequently diagnosed form of malignant brain tumor. Researchers who have examined the baseball cases for years say there is insufficient evidence to determine whether they represent anything more than coincidence. Possible cancer clusters are notoriously hard to prove. Most of the time, upon rigorous examination, no cause can be identified and the cases are considered random. "

But in 2013 the Philadephia Inquirer analyzed 533 former Phillies who played at Veterans Stadium during its 33-year run and found instances of glioblastoma at three times the rate of the general male population. That study had its limitations, but a brain doctor quoted in the Times said these deaths rise to a level, “beyond a coincidence.”

Former Phillies who played alongside Daulton are trying not to wonder if they might be next.

" It was impossible not to think about what had caused Daulton’s death and whether there was some unexplained correlation with baseball. But John Kruk, a Phillies television commentator who was Daulton’s teammate from 1989 to ’94, said he tried not to let his mind wander in that direction. “If I thought about it, I’d go crazy,” he said. "

There really isn’t even anything resembling a working theory on this. The Phillies in those years played at Veteran’s Stadium which like a lot of stadiums from that era used an Astroturf playing surface. There’s some speculation that chemicals in that early Astroturf or somewhere else in the construction of Veterans’ Stadium might have something to do with it.

Yet there don’t seem to have been any such issues among Philadelphia Eagles of the same period. They would have played in the same building and on the same surface.

The trouble with establishing a link between this form of brain cancer and playing professional baseball — or, most specifically, playing it at Veterans Stadium — is the tiny sample size combined with media accounts that may have attributed some deaths to glioblastoma when other forms of brain cancer were the real culprit. Further, the ex-ballplayers who have died from it have fit the profile of a typical glioblastoma victim — men ages 45-70.

"There is simply not enough data “by a long shot,” Dr. Friedman said, to make any observation other than that “there is seemingly a large number of brain tumors in patients who have played professional baseball. Beyond that, nobody really knows if there is a connection. And nobody would have an easy means of proving a connection.”"

It doesn’t sound like we’re likely ever to get to the bottom of this. If it’s any solace, Veterans Stadium was demolished in 2004.