CHAPEL HILL - Thirteen boys died playing Little League baseball between 1987 and 1996, a new University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study shows. During that decade, officials recorded 29,038 injuries and 1.69 injuries per 1,000 participants per season -- an injury rate revealing the sport is safe, researchers say.
Ball-related mishaps totaled 15,266, and batters suffered most of those, the researchers found. Face and teeth injuries, mostly to fielders, accounted for 12,306 incidents. Sliding was associated with 60 percent of accidents among base runners, and about 25 percent of injuries were considered serious such as broken arms or legs.
"Contrary to some recent reports, youth baseball appears to be a very safe sport, but there are areas where injury prevention is possible," said Dr. Frederick Mueller, professor and chair of exercise and sport science at UNC. "Information and additional attention are needed concerning face mask use for players in the field, batter chest protectors, modified balls for minimizing contact injuries, education on sliding technique and use of safety bases for runners."
He and colleagues undertook the study, the first in-depth analysis of its kind, because little research had been done on youth baseball safety, and some people have made unsubstantiated claims about excessive injuries, Mueller said.
The UNC work involved reviewing insurance claims statistics from Little League Baseball Inc. about injuries and deaths among players ages 5 to 12. During the 10 years examined, an average of 1,722,121 children participated each year. Insurance data were available on more than 17 million player-years.
A report on the findings appears in the current issue of the Physician and Sports Medicine, a professional journal. Besides Mueller, authors are Dr. Stephen W. Marshall, research assistant professor of epidemiology at the UNC School of Public Health, and Daniel P. Kirby, director of risk management for Little League Baseball Inc.
Mueller directs the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injuries, based at UNC, and also chairs the American Football Coaches' Committee on Football Injuries. Each year, the center issues reports on deaths and severe injuries from amateur and professional sports.
Reports are based partly on newspaper stories from around the United States, along with information from the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the National Federation of State High School Associations and about 150 volunteers who monitor sports accidents.
He also serves on USA Baseball's medical and safety advisory committee.
"Given the declining levels of physical activity in the general population and the ever-increasing proportion of sedentary adolescents, we would do well to continue to promote baseball as America's national pastime," Mueller said. "We agree that injury prevention is important for baseball and support any intervention that has proven effectiveness."
If breakaway safety bases had been used, the authors estimated that about 3,000 sliding injuries could have been prevented among Little League players from 1987 to 1996, he said. They based their estimate on an earlier two-year study by D. H. Janda showing an 80 percent reduction in sliding injuries among college and minor league players.
Modified baseballs designed to generate lower-impact forces potentially might have prevented or reduced the severity of the 15,000 ball-related injuries seen among Little League players, Mueller said.
With about 8.6 million players from 6 to 17 years old each year, baseball is the second most commonly played team sport in the United States after basketball. The researchers confined their study to Little League participants since the organization has the only good data on player injuries.
Of the 15,266 ball injuries, batted balls accounted for 5,882, pitched balls resulted in 5,609 and thrown balls led to 3,775, researchers found. Batters experienced the most ball-related injuries, followed in order by infielders, outfielders, catchers, pitchers and base runners.
"As would be expected, pitched balls caused 95 percent of ball injuries to batters," Mueller said. "Batters most frequently injured their hands or fingers, followed by the face; arm, wrist or elbow; knee or ankle; head or neck; chest; and leg. The three leading injury types for batters were contusions at 46 percent, fractures at 29.7 percent and sprains at 6.4 percent."
Infielders and outfielders received a majority of ball-related facial injuries, he said. Collisions and falls were common sources of injuries to fielders and runners, and catchers were most likely to be hit by bats and runners.
"The potential benefits of safety bases, reduced impact balls and face masks are large and need more study," Mueller said. "However, the benefits of chest protectors for batters appear to be of lesser importance."
Note: Mueller can be reached at 919-962-5171 (w) or 910-579-1318 over the weekend (Ocean Isle Motel, 7/27 - 7/30), Marshall at 919-966-1320 (w).
News Services Contact: David Williamson, 962-8596. UNC School of Public Health Contact: Lisa Katz, 966-7467.