40 years ago today: A death at Dodger Stadium, and still the only one of its kind at an MLB game

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I remember my dad taking me to a Dodgers game, had to be in the very early ’70s, putting me at about 9 years old. We’re sitting in box seats behind home plate, tickets he got from his boss at work. An amazing experience for a kid to see a game.

A foul ball was hit into the stands, and there was a hush over the crowd as ushers came down to tend to the person who might have been injured. Everything seemed OK.

“Did you know that a kid was killed recently by a foul ball?” someone leaned over to tell my dad.

I heard it, but I couldn’t believe that was true. It was something that I couldn’t get out of my mind.

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Consider that in the course of a typical major-league baseball game, about 40 balls are hit into the stands — foul balls, mostly. Fans with or without gloves try to catch them. Most bounce off something before landing in the hands of a lucky spectator.

Added up over the weeks, months and years of games, the millions of balls hit into the stands has resulted in only one fatality at big-league contest.

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Yet, it was 40 years ago today — on May 16, 1970, a Saturday night — in the bottom of the third inning of a Dodgers-Giants game at Dodger Stadium.

Maury Wills led off with a double. Manny Mota followed. He sprayed a foul ball off into the crowd along the first-base line, near the visitor’s dugout, off Giants pitcher Gaylord Perry.

Sitting in the second row was Alan Fish, a 14-year-old from L.A.

David Schur was an assistant playground director at the Poinsettia Park Rec Center, near Santa Monica and La Brea, close to West Hollywood and just a couple of blocks from the famed Formosa Cafe. He took seven boys from the neighborhood to the game, including Alan and his 10-year-old brother, Stuart.

Alan, who pitched for the Poinsettia Little Major League team, was a straight-A student at Bancroft Junior High.

But he didn’t see the ball that Mota hit foul. Almost no one did. It hit Alan Fish in the left temple on the side of his head.

“The ball came out of nowhere very fast,” Schur told the Los Angeles Times.

Alan said he was fine at first. His coach took him to the Dodgers’ first-aid station. They gave him two asprins. The group went back to their seats.

Schur drove the boys home — Alan and Stuart lived on Fountain Avenue in L.A., just a couple blocks south of Sunset Blvd. But Alan’s step-father, Frank Scialo, noticed that Alan’s condition didn’t seem to get any better. Alan got disoriented and started walking in circles. It was worse than what a typical concussion looked like.

Francine Scialo took her son to the emergency room at Citizens Hospital, and then to Children’s Hospital that night. He stayed overnight. And another night. And another.

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Alan Fish died four days later, on a Wednesday afternoon, of a head injury that was deemed inoperable.

According to the records in the last 150 years, Alan Fish is still the only fan to ever be struck by a ball hit into the stands at a major-league park and die.

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The game that Saturday night went on without much incident (linked here). Mota grounded out moments later after his foul ball. He made the last out, striking out against Frank Reberger to end the Dodgers’ 5-4 loss.

The day that Alan Fish died, the Dodgers played a night game in San Diego, a 10-4 loss. The team issued a statement: “The entire Dodger organziation joins in the members of the family of Alan Fish in their sorrow. Our thoughts and prayers are with them.”

Mota didn’t seem to really recovered from it. His batting average fell. He sat out a few games, on Walter Alston’s orders.

Today, Mota may talk about it, but not very much. He still feels heavy guilt. He tried to visit Alan Fish in the hospital, but he was barred from entering the room.

Fish’s parents — including his father, Marvin Fish – brought a lawsuit against the team and the doctor. A jury absolved the team of blame three years after the incident.

According to research by Sports Illustrated’s S.L. Price last year, for a story and book he did on the 2007 death of Arkansas Travelers third base coach Mike Coolbaugh, who was hit by a foul ball during a minor-league game, 52 spectators are known to have been killed by foul balls since 1887. But only two occured in professional games.

In 1960, Dominic LaSala, 68, died after he was hit by a foul ball at a Triple-A game in Miami.

Ten years later, it was Alan Fish, at Dodger Stadium.

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In the 2008 book, “Death at the Ballpark: A Comprehensive Study of Game-Related Fatalities, 1862-2007″ (McFarland publishing, 264 pages, official website linked here) by Robert Gorman and David Weeks, there’s mention of another MLB-game-related death. On September. 30, 1943, 32-year-old Clarence Stagemyer was killed at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., sitting in the stands behind first base when a wild throw by Washington Senators third baseman Serry Robertson hit him during a night game against the Cleveland Indians.

The Mota-Fish story is included in the book. Also there: Mota’s own teenage nephew, Adriano Martinez, would be killed on the field 14 years later, while playing shortstop in New York, after he was struck by lightning.

Estimates are that more than 300 people are injured every year after being hit with a foul ball enough to get medical help. This doesn’t even take into account the latest peril to a fan — a sharred maple bat flying into the stands.

Gorman said in a recent email that since the book’s publishing, he and Weeks have uncovered about 350 additional game-related fatalities — mostly players.

“Surprisingly, none if these newly-discovered incidents involved fans dying from foul balls,” Gorman said.

Who’s responsible?

Read the 145-word warning on the back of each ticket. Fans assume “the danger of being injured by thrown bats, fragments thereof, and thrown or batted balls.”

Does that make a death 40 years ago any easier to understand?

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