There are no coincidences in life, they say, but for baseball's sake, let's hope they're wrong. When former Phillies star Darren Daulton succumbed to brain cancer on August 6, the tributes were effusive, but behind the glowing words there was a niggling sense that not everything was right.
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.
According to an investigation by the New York Times 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. It is considered the most aggressive and frequently diagnosed form of malignant brain tumor.
While researchers are quick to say that there is insufficient evidence to determine whether they represent anything more than coincidence, they acknowledge that cancer clusters are exceedingly difficult to prove.
“There is almost never an explanation for them,” Timothy R. Rebbeck, a cancer epidemiologist at Harvard and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute who has studied the Phillies cases, told the NYT.
Other former Phillies who also reportedly died of glioblastoma since 2003 were reliever Tug McGraw at age 59, infielder John Vukovich at 59 and catcher Johnny Oates at 58. Ken Brett, a pitcher who played in Veterans Stadium for one season, died at 55 of a brain cancer that has been identified in some news accounts as glioblastoma, NYT reported.
Glioblastoma is reported to have claimed the lives of other major league players, as well as a manager, from the same era: the Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter at 57, outfielder Bobby Murcer at 62, reliever Dan Quisenberry at 45 and manager Dick Howser at 51.
While most of the players plied their trade at the Phillies' Veterans Stadium, Brett, Quisenberry and Howser spent part of their careers in Kansas City. The only common link between the two stadiums is that they both had artificial turf.
According to NYT, some former Phillies wonder whether chemicals in those early versions of synthetic turf could have increased the risk of brain cancer, but scientists say they know of no research that supports that theory.
In 2013, when Daulton learned he had glioblastoma, The Philadelphia Inquirer did an analysis of 533 players who wore a Phillies uniform during the 33 seasons the team played at Veterans Stadium.
The brain cancers of Daulton, McGraw, Vukovich and Oates appeared to represent an occurrence that was about three times the rate of the general male population, the analysis concluded.
In an interview after Daulton’s death, Professor Rebbeck said scientists still did not know much more. “It’s either just random chance bad luck or there is something there, but we just don’t have the science to pick it out yet,” he said.
Glioblastomas (GBM) are tumors that arise from astrocytes—the star-shaped cells that make up the “glue-like,” or supportive tissue of the brain. These tumors are usually highly malignant (cancerous) because the cells reproduce quickly and they are supported by a large network of blood vessels, according to the American Brain Tumor Association.
“Can I tell you definitely there is no relationship between baseball and brain tumor formation? No, nobody can do that,” Dr Henry S. Friedman, a neuro-oncologist at Duke University who treated McGraw and Carter, told the NYT.
“But,” he added, “can I tell you definitively that there is a relationship, that there is something about baseball and the formation in their players of brain tumors? No.”
“I think Darren’s passing has created a conversation,” Jennifer Brusstar, the president and chief executive of the Tug McGraw Foundation, told NYT. Her husband, Warren, pitched for the Phillies from 1977 to 1982.
“Let’s look into this and see if there is anything” connecting baseball and cancer, she said. “If there’s not, let’s move on.”