Keeping Score

Brain Injuries Are Now Baseball’s Worry Too

A retired MLB player, who committed suicide a year ago, is diagnosed with CTE, a disease linked to head trauma

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Kansas City Royals' Ryan Freel during the ninth inning of a baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels, July 21, 2009, in Kansas City, Mo.
Charlie Riedel / AP

Kansas City Royals' Ryan Freel during a baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels in Kansas City, Mo., on July 21, 2009

The brain doesn’t know what hits it. All it feels is the damage.

Helmet-to-helmet hits in football can help cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease that has plagued so many players in that game. But CTE isn’t just a football disease. We don’t think of baseball as a contact sport, or one prone to causing concussions. But beans to the head, and collisions with the outfield wall, do happen. And they can have a life-altering effect.

Ryan Freel, an eight-year major-league veteran who retired in 2010 and committed suicide last December, became the first major-league baseball player to be diagnosed with CTE, according to researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine. Freel had estimated he suffered 10 concussions during his major-league career. He had a reputation for playing all-out. “He was really known for running through walls,” says Dr. Robert Stern, co-founder of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University. Near the end of his life, Freel had started to experience classic symptoms of CTE-like depression, lack of impulse control and struggles with substance abuse.

Freel had a history of head trauma that predated his major-league career. At age 2, he ran into a moving car. At 4, he again hit his head after jumping off a bed. In high school, he also lost consciousness after a hit playing football, says Stern. “The big question we can’t answer,” says Stern, “is if baseball caused the CTE. The message is that any activity, that might involve many hits to the head, can result in long-term consequences.” Stern points out that CTE victims include a woman who suffered domestic abuse, military servicemen and an individual with a head-banging disorder.

Baseball is making a major rule change for safety: collisions at home plate will be disallowed. “Is baseball a contact sport?” says Stern, a professor of neurology and neurosurgery at Boston University’s School of Medicine. “No, it’s not in the same league as rugby or football. But athletes should be aware: there is potential for collisions and hits to the head. I don’t think this should be viewed as alarming. I’m not saying baseball is as bad as football.”

“Play Little League.”