Early deaths of former pro athletes: What’s going on?

With the death two days ago of Bob Forsch, something strange seems to be happening.  Former professional athletes are dying off this year at alarming early ages.

Forsch, the great St. Louis Cardinals pitcher, died unexpectedly at his home near Tampa, FL.  He was only 61.

Eight of the 10 youngest on my selective list of “famous” deaths for 2011 were former pros, none of whom reached the average lifespan for American males of 75.6 years:  (Later deaths appear in blue).

Harmon Killebrew (74),  baseball star with Minnesota Twins, cancer of the esophagus, May 17.

Matty Alou (72),   NL batting champion in 1966 with Pittsburgh Pirates, complications of diabetes, November 3.

John Mackey (69), NFL Hall of Famer with Baltimore Colts, possibly caused by complications of dementia, July 6.

(Walt Hazzard (69), NBA and UCLA basketbal player, complications of heart surgery, November 18.)

( Joe Franzier (67), former heavyweight boxing champion, November 7, of liver cancer.)

Bubba Smith (66), Baltimore Colts, diet-drug overdose, August 3.

Bob Forsch (61), St. Louis Cardinals baseball, cause not immediately known, November 3.

Lee Roy Selmon (56), NFL Tampa Bay, stroke, September 4.

Seve Ballesteros (54), PGA golfer, brain cancer, May 7.

Armen Gilliam (47), Phoenix Suns, heart attack, July 5.

Only Mackey’s death seems to carry a direct link to sports participation.  Many believe Mackey’s dementia was brought on by concussions during his playing days.

None of the 10 longest-living people on my list was a pro athlete.  Duke Snider, the former Brooklyn Dodgers star outfielder, died at 84 on February 27.  He was the oldest of the former pros on my list to die.  Former baseball manager Dick Williams was 82, the same age as former Oakland Raiders managing general partner, Al Davis.

But why did so many former elite athletes die long before their time?  Old injuries?  Happenstance?  Steroid use or other performance-enhancing drugs?  Or was it lifestyle, making a fortune early and not wanting  to spend a healthful life afterward?   My guess is this.  It’s just been a strange year.

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