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MLB Dead Weight: Fatness, Mortality Up

Mocking the fat physiques of baseball players is a time-honored tradition.

In 1925, Babe Ruth's penchant for devouring hot dogs was blamed for the slugger's ailment, which became known as the "bellyache heard 'round the world." In 1985, portly pitcher Terry Forster was called a "fat tub of goo" by David Letterman on national television. And in 1990, Kevin Mitchell (5-11, 210 pounds) allegedly needed a root canal after chipping his tooth on a microwaved donut.

But a not-so-funny study warns that not only are baseball players getting fatter, but their risk of death is expanding with their waist lines.

A survey of more than 15,000 major league baseball players shows that the number of overweight players has increased by more than 23 percent from 1876 to 2007. More alarming is the survey's assertion that obese players doubled their risk of death.

"Even modestly overweight players were more likely to die sooner," said the study's author Eric Ding of the Harvard School of Public Health.

The survey also found a correlation between power numbers and portly physique: Great home-run hitters were twice as likely to be overweight. Furthermore, overweight home-run hitters had a 19 percent higher risk of death (no elevated risk was seen in power hitters who kept their weight in check).

Ding and his Harvard cohorts sifted through more than a century's worth of baseball archives, historical records and obituaries. Other than a handful of players whose height and weight data were unavailable, every single major league player since 1876 was analyzed based on body mass index (BMI).

Derived from a person's weight and height, BMI is used to screen for weight categories that may lead to health problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Ding says that BMI, while a recognized health risk indicator in the general population, has long been ignored when it comes to athletes.

"A lot of people dismiss BMI among athletes and say 'oh it's just reflecting more muscle mass; it's harmless,'" he said.

But the numbers prove otherwise - even among baseball's "small ball" players. In fact, higher BMI predicted premature death just as frequently for players with high stolen base numbers - "the super athletic players," as Ding calls them.

According to the study, BMI has gradually risen in the big leagues. Thirty-two percent of players were overweight prior to 1880; 46.5 percent were overweight from 1940-1950; and 55.5 percent were overweight from 2000-2006.

Ding declined to speculate as to whether steroids were a driving force behind the recent spike in BMI but acknowledged a notable increase in past few years and a "strong uptick" after 2005.

The study concludes that the source of the higher BMI - whether it be hot dogs, weight lifting or human growth hormone - had no impact on death rate. However, Ding notes the statistical jury is still out on the relatively recent "steroid era" since most of those players are still alive.

The researchers chose to study baseball because it was the only professional sport that offered so many years of data to mine. The NFL and NBA haven't been around long enough to get a large enough sample of deaths. By contrast, of the 15,361 major league baseball players the researchers studied, nearly half have died.

Ding says the research can be applied to sports in general. He is slated to present his findings to the American Heart Association and hopes that his findings will put more scrutiny on athletes' higher BMI.

Perhaps some players are taking notice. Pitcher David Wells, a modern-day poster boy for bulging guts and swilling beer, appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2000 with the headline "The David Wells Diet: Chips, Beer, and American League Batters." The now-retired Wells revealed in 2007 that he has diabetes - and vowed to make changes.

"No more starches and sugar. No more rice, pasta, potatoes and white bread. No more fast food," he told The San Diego Union Tribune. "I've cut out alcohol."