The national pastime's shocking death toll.
Lightning is another improbably frequent killer (though perhaps it's less improbable when you consider that baseball is played in summer, typically on flat fields surrounded by metal bleachers and fences). During a 1949 amateur game in Florida, the third baseman, shortstop, and second baseman were all killed by a single lightning bolt, which struck the backstop, then shot around the infield as though completing a double play.
The grim catalog rolls on. A semipro pitcher in Cincinnati is "struck simultaneously on the head by both a thrown and batted ball while warming up before a game." Pickup games played on improvised fields lead to outfielders chasing balls into the paths of cars, buses, trains, and, in one case, a hearse. At Ebbets Field in 1950, a man slumps over in his seat, shot through the back of his head by—it only becomes clear after days of police work—a teenager who was fooling around with a rifle on the roof of his apartment building several hundred yards away and with no clear line of sight.
Then there's a story Gorman and Weeks had both heard versions of but always assumed was apocryphal until they ran down a local newspaper account confirming it: In Morristown, Ohio, in 1902, one man asks another if he can borrow his penknife so he can sharpen the pencil he's using to keep score. The second man hands his penknife to the guy seated between them, named Stanton Walker, and asks Walker to pass it on. At that exact moment, a foul ball whaps Walker on the wrist, and he stabs himself.
Still, in the end, you could choose to see something slightly uplifting about the sheer volume of these freak and incomprehensible accidents. Take it as an indicator of just how much time Americans have spent on and around baseball fields over the last century and a half—of what baseball means to us. We've managed to die on the diamond in so many crazy ways only because it's one of the places we've done the most living. We've all been shagging flies in that minefield together.
Gorman told me that, while working on the book, he himself got smacked square in the forehead by a foul ball at a Triple A Game in Charlotte, N.C. "And my wife, she got hit in an odd way!" he added, almost as an afterthought. Then he launched into another story, about another game, on another night.
Correction, May 26, 2009: This piece originally and incorrectly stated that John McSherry collapsed while umpiring a game in St. Louis. It was in Cincinnati. (Return to the corrected sentence.)