Thursday, November 15, 2012

Polio scare exposed needle-shy Yankees

Uncommon commons: In more than 30 years in sportscards publishing I have thrown hundreds of notes into files about the players – usually non-star players – who made up the majority of the baseball and football cards I collected as a kid. Today, I keep adding to those files as I peruse microfilms of The Sporting News from the 1880s through the 1960s. I found these tidbits brought some life to the player pictures on those cards. I figure that if I enjoyed them, you might too.

In the 1950s, before anybody had ever heard of AIDS or bird flu, the health threat that struck the greatest fear into the hearts of Americans was polio.

And with good cause. By the late 1940s, epidemics of polio had become an annual scourge in the U.S., peaking in 1952 when 57,628 cases were reported in the U.S. Having migrated from a prevalence among infants, more teens and young adults were being stricken. That was doubly bad, because death or paralysis were more likely when polio was contracted by that age group.

Of the 57,628 new polio victims in 1952, 3,145 died and 21,269 were left with mild to disabling paralysis. (As late as 1977 in the U.S., 254,000 polio survivors were living with paralysis brought on by the disease.)

On April 12, 1955, Dr. Jonas Salk of the University of Pittsburgh announced that a vaccine had been created to prevent polio infection. The course of immunization required three shots. Following the initial injection, follow-up vaccinations were given at six weeks and six months.

With most of its players in the most at-risk age range for severe complications, the N.Y. Yankees (and other teams) offered the polio shots at spring training in 1957. 

A writer following the team reported that Andy Carey and Billy Martin declined the shots. Whether they were needle-shy or just feeling lucky was not reported.

While I don't recall any major league ballplayers having been diagnosed with polio, it is certainly possible that there were victims among professional baseball ranks. 

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