Mere Mortals: What I learned by comparing the mortality rates of baseball players and their Supreme Court counterparts

Bill Barnwell demonstrated what many are calling a stunning result when he showed that the mortality rate of baseball players was actually higher than that of football players who played at least five seasons during the years 1959 through 1988. How can this be explained?  Especially with all of the recent news about head injuries and player suicides in football.  Football sure seems like it should be more dangerous.  But the comparison of baseball players to football players doesn’t make any sense to me. I think a better comparison is baseball players and Supreme Court justices.  Football players are in peak physical condition during their playing days, whereas Supreme Court justices just sit and wait.  Their levels of physical activity are probably more comparable to that of a baseball player standing and waiting for something to happen.  Then, after all that waiting in the Supreme Court, a high profile case come along and raises stress levels.  Similarly, baseball players, after long periods of waiting in games, must sprint all out at certain times.  In this way, the healthcare hearings in the Supreme Court are very much like hitting a double or a triple in baseball.  These similarities make comparing baseball players to Supreme Court justices more “apples to apples” than baseball to football players.

The methodology

I’ll be using the same methodology in Barnwell et al. to compare mortality rates.

Justice/Player Pool

Since, data on baseball players has already  been collected, there is no need to collect the data again.  I will include any Justice in the pool who served at least one year between 1959 and 1988.  This includes Tom C. Clark, Earl Warren, John Marshall Harlan II, William J. Brennan, Charles Evans Whitaker, Potter Stewart, Byron White, Arthur Goldberg, Abe Fortas, Thurgood Marshall, Warren E. Burger, Harry Blackmun, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., William Rehnquist, John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, and Anthony Kennedy.

The Findings

That’s correct: Supreme court justices who served any years between 1959 and 1988 died at a much higher rate than  baseball players from the same time frame.  The difference between the two is statistically significant and allows us to reject the nul hypothesis.  Therefore, there is a meaningful difference between the mortality reates of baseball players and supreme court justices.

The 95% confidence interval for baseball players is 14.1% to 17.8% and for the Supreme court justices it is 58.6% to 96.98% and the p-value for the Fisher exact test is .000224!  Highly significant.


Football is safer than baseball, and baseball is safer than the serving on the Supreme Court.  So, why is it that Supreme Court justices from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s are dying more frequently than baseball players from the same era? Well, in the words of Barnwell:

Truthfully, as a layman, I can’t say with any certainty, and I don’t think it’s appropriate to speculate.



Posted on August 22, 2012, in Sports. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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