Baseball players historically have made light about their weight. Colorful Phillies first baseman John Kruk famously griped of his girth, "I'm not an athlete, I'm a baseball player." Babe Ruth's rotundity helped cement his brand as the Sultan of Swat.
But a new survey of more than 15,000 players since 1876 finds an alarming rise in corpulence among Major League Baseball players. And the survey links players' ever-expanding waistlines to a higher risk of death, which doubles for those considered obese, even if that weight comprises mostly muscle, not fat.
"Even a little bit of overweight increases their mortality, and this is when they're playing, not when they're retired," said the study's author, Eric Ding of the Harvard School of Public Health's Department of Epidemiology and Nutrition.
Mining decades' worth of statistics from baseball almanacs and death certificates, and using the body mass index as its gauge, the study discovered that nearly twice as many modern players are overweight as their predecessors a century ago.
Body mass index is calculated from a person's weight and height. A body mass index higher than 25 is considered overweight, and anything over 30 is considered obese.
According to BMI, baseball players were rarely svelte, even in the game's leaner early years. The survey reports that 32 percent were overweight prior to 1880. In the period of 1940-1950, that number ballooned to 46.5 percent. And the years measured in this past decade, 2000-2006, showed an unprecedented era of bulkiness, with more than 55 percent of players wedging themselves into the overweight category.
Not surprisingly, the study also found that baseball's heaviest hitters -- its home run specialists -- were more than twice as likely as other players to be overweight, increasing their risk of mortality.
"Having higher BMI was the main driver of increased risk of mortality, regardless of the position played," said Ding.
Whether Muscle or Fat, Heavier Players Fare Worse
Ding and his researchers found little difference in mortality between players whose BMI was high from lifting weights or from sucking down milkshakes, or beer, for that matter.
When David "Boomer" Wells threw his 1998 perfect game, he was technically obese and claimed he was painfully hung over.
Ding's study did not specify causes of death but he said "the combination of obesity -- of fat -- as well as metabolic demand of a much larger body mass," heaps stress on the cardiovascular system, causing heart problems.
But obesity seems to have had little impact on players' skills. Babe Ruth, who was listed at 6'2" and 215 pounds but whose weight eventually swelled to more than 250 pounds, would have been considered obese throughout much of his career.