Ex-Phillies wonder if stadium is to blame for players’ brain cancer
He gets sick to his stomach thinking about Darren Daulton, yet another former Phillies player battling brain cancer.
Pitcher Ken Brett died in 2003. Tug McGraw, a star reliever and 1980 World Series hero, and catcher Johnny Oates lost their battles in 2004. Third baseman and longtime coach John Vukovich died in 2007.
Now Daulton, star catcher on the Phillies’ beloved 1993 World Series team, is in a fight for his life at age 51. He was diagnosed this month with glioblastoma, the most aggressive form of brain cancer.
“Yeah, it’s very scary,” said Bowa, who spent 24 seasons with the Phillies as a player, coach and manager. “I know cancer is a big illness in our society, but to have that many (Phillies) guys get brain cancer …”
A lot of people, former Phillies included, want to know if the illnesses are just bad luck or if there is some sort of connection — perhaps to Veterans Stadium, the multipurpose sports venue that was home to the franchise from 1971 to 2003 and demolished in 2004.
“Once it happened to Tug, we were all in shock,” said Dickie Noles, a pitcher on the Phillies’ 1980 World Series team. “Then once it happened to Vuk (Vukovich), the other ballplayers kind of had the feeling like, ‘Wow.’ Then when it happened to Daulton, every ballplayer I’ve seen talked about it.
“There seems to be some correlation with this and baseball. What was the Vet built on? Was it something in the building? The asbestos?”
Bowa said the same questions came up during recent conversations he had with former Phillies Dave Hollins, Greg Luzinski and Marty Bystrom.
“I know there were a lot of pipes that were exposed when we played there and we had AstroTurf,” recalled Bowa, now an in-studio analyst for the MLB Network.
“I’m not trying to blame anybody. It’s just sort of strange that that can happen to one team playing at the Vet.”
Five Phillies victims in such a short span is apparently a lot. National studies have indicated males have a 0.7 percent chance of being diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, with women at 0.6 percent. Local figures seem to indicate that 3.14 percent of the Phillies’ 159 players from 1973 (Brett’s only year on the team) to 1983 (Daulton’s first season with the club) were diagnosed with brain cancer.
“It is sort of wild, but probably complete coincidence,” said Dr. Richard Osenbach, a brain surgeon in Fayetteville, N.C., who grew up in Philadelphia and is a lifelong Phillies fan.
“Jeez, Louise, I can’t imagine it would have anything to do with baseball.”
So far, there’s no proof the Phillies players’ cancer cases are anything but a string of misfortunes.
“There is not a known cause for brain tumors,” according to Deneen Hesser, chief mission officer for the American Brain Tumor Association.
Other than the five Phillies, just four other major leaguers were diagnosed with brain cancers and died over the last 15 years: Hall of Famer Gary Carter, Dan Quisenberry, Bobby Murcer and Dick Howser. All of them played games at the Vet, but so did hundreds of others who have never had issues.
The Eagles also played home games at the Vet for decades and it’s believed they never had a brain cancer victim.
“Can I say definitively that it’s a fluke? No,” said Jill Barnholtz-Sloan, a Cleveland-based brain-tumor epidemiologist who does research at Case Western Reserve University.
“They all played for the Phillies, but not in the same year. One played for a year, one for 10 years. So it’s really difficult to say, ‘Oh, it’s because they played for the Phillies that this has happened.’
“Unfortunately, I think what you may end up with is just a very bizarre circumstance.”
From 1989 to 1999, Amoco, an American oil giant that later merged with British Petroleum to form BP, spent millions of dollars on a investigation after a cluster of employees at an Illinois plant were diagnosed with brain tumors and several of them died.
The Amoco Research Center building was demolished and the victims’ families won a financial settlement from the company.
But the investigation proved nothing.
“I can tell you that I know of multiple other clusters of people living in the same area who have been diagnosed with the same cancer that have been studied,” Barnholtz-Sloan said. “They’ve been investigated by state health and local health departments and, in most, they’ve not been able to find anything.
“As a brain tumor epidemiologist — and there aren’t very many of us worldwide — one of the most difficult things to prove is causation. There are so many things going on. You have to account for the way an individual lived, things that they ate, whether they smoke or drank, whether or not they had a family history of cancer, how old they were.”
The Phillies’ brain cancer cluster has not yet yielded a case study, which would be headed by the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
“I know the department of health is aware of the situation and is not currently conducting an investigation,” Kait Gillis, the organization’s deputy press secretary, wrote in an email. “I will let you know if that changes.”
Bowa wishes somebody would do something.
“I think for guys that are still alive, it would ease some of their questions.”
If Barnholtz-Sloan were to lead an investigation, the first thing she’d do is take a detailed look into each Phillies’ case and compare them to national figures.
“The reason cancer is called a complex disease is because it’s a combination of lots of different things happening all at the same time that cause a normal cell to convert to a cancer cell,” she explained.
Meantime, Daulton is fighting his battle against long odds. According to the American Brain Tumor Association, median survival for patients with glioblastoma is 12 to 14 months and the two-year survival rate is just 30 percent.
“It is a challenging disease, a very aggressive type of tumor, but more and more we’re learning that there are some biologic differences in these tumors,” Hesser noted. “There are long-term survivors.”
Noles and former Phillies player Glenn Wilson, both born-again Christians, are praying for their former teammate.
“I’m still kind of numb,” said Wilson, a Phillies outfielder from 1984 to 1987 who now lives in Houston. “First and foremost, God has his reasons and his ways are not our ways. I want to rejoice the lives of the ones who have passed and pray for those that are struggling with that disease.”
Noles, now working for the Phillies as an employee assistance professional, admits losing baseball friends makes him think of his mortality.
“Ain’t this crazy?” he asked. “Vukovich was one of the biggest mentors in my life and I loved Vuk dearly. Tug, I don’t think I’ve met a better person in my life. And Dutch, he’s just a great human being.
“Life is difficult and there’s bumps in the road all over the place. Cancer happens to be one of the major ones. When you hear about it, it hits home.
“I think we should be doing what we can when we’re healthy to live our life.”
Bowa is among the few with connections to all five of the cancer-stricken Phillies. He coached Daulton and was a teammate to the others.
He wants answers that aren’t there.
“It’s hard to believe that there’s no documentation. It’s very ironic that four or five of our guys have gotten brain cancer.
“It seems very, very rare.”