The Major League Baseball season starts Monday, with many a pinch of tobacco between many a cheek and gum. Not everyone is happy about this (about the chewing tobacco, that is). The San Francisco board of supervisors is considering a measure to put chew off-limits at every ball field in the city, including AT&T Park, where the world-champion Giants play.
A bill introduced February in the California Assembly would do the same in pro and league venues across the whole state. Major League Baseball supports this approach, since it cannot get the powerful players union on board with a chewing-tobacco ban. No word on how the laws would be enforced, but the sponsor of the state bill says don’t expect chew cops in dugouts or snuff-sniffing dogs in stands.
Until relatively recently, tobacco around baseball clubhouses wasn’t considered much to worry about. As a young fan in the 1950s, I was used to players like Nellie Fox and Bill Tuttle, who stuffed so much chaw in their cheeks that they appeared to be trying to swallow a softball. One of my favorite players of the day, Rocky Bridges, looked like a chipmunk with a buzzcut. Baseball cards, an obsession with preteen boys for the better part of the last century, first came with packs of cigarettes, only later with bubble gum.
Back in the day, sportswriters weren’t quick to link tobacco and the early deaths of former ballplayers. It was obvious in the case of Bill Tuttle, who died of mouth cancer at 69 after disfiguring surgery. But not clear was whether all those years of Nellie Fox’s chewing had anything to do with his death at 47 from lymphatic cancer.
Nor was a connection made in 1948 when the superstar of superstars, Babe Ruth, died at 53 of throat cancer. The Bambino smoked and admitted to taking up chewing at age 5. But he also drank heavily and generally pursued whatever life-shortening activity amused him. So we are left to wonder.
But the risk these days is clearer. A couple of examples from the contemporary scene: Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, one of the game’s classiest hitters and by all accounts a fine man, dead last year at 54 from salivary-gland cancer. More fortunate is former All-Star pitcher Curt Schilling, 48, whose mouth cancer is in remission. Tobacco is no airy or debatable health threat like cholesterol. We have everything but a signed confession from the weed.
With all this carnage, you’d think it would be easy to put an end to a ritual that damages players and tempts young fans. But Major League Baseball has moved slowly on this one. Smoking on the field or in the dugout has been verboten for a good while, and smokeless tobacco has been prohibited in the minor leagues since 1993, though many players say this ban is laxly enforced. In the bigs, where players have a pit-bull union, smokeless tobacco can still be used, though players are prohibited from chewing during postgame interviews. So in the nation’s most traditional sport, the toxic habit endures.
The normal impulse of the red-blooded Americano is to groan whenever government attempts to micromanage the lives of consenting adults. It is a little harder to protest the drive against chewing tobacco in baseball, an effort that will likely prevail in due course. That said, it sure would be nice if these guys would give up the chew of their own volition—and recognize that anyone who doesn’t is either self-destructive or dumb as a bag of hammers.
What might doom chew in the end is simply its aesthetics. I never understood the charm—the slobbering, the expectorating, the unspeakable spit cups. For years I played in local amateur leagues, fine organizations that got husbands out from under their wives’ feet on Sunday afternoons. Some of my teammates considered a pouch of Red Man as much a part of their gear as their glove or their cleats. I was partial to bubble gum, convinced that when sliding into a 230-pound catcher, whether safe or out, I wouldn’t find swallowing a soggy clump of tobacco a highlight of my day.
The introduction of sunflower seeds in big-league dugouts was definitely one of the modern game’s more civilizing innovations.
Mr. Thornberry is a writer in Tampa, Fla.
*This news story was resourced by the Oral Cancer Foundation, and vetted for appropriateness and accuracy.