Author: Filip Bondy

Derek Jeter steps to the plate again, his jaw churning ferociously on some foreign, sticky substance. It’s just gum, and Jeter will prove that to the world now and then by blowing a giant bubble. But until the silly pink ball emerges, who knows?

It might be gum, yet it also could be a pouch of smokeless or dip tobacco — that stubborn, traditional chew of choice for baseball players throughout history. And this is exactly what drives Jimmie Lee Solomon crazy, because sometimes he just can’t win. There are enough bad examples in his world. The executive VP of baseball operations for MLB worries that kids will get the wrong idea, and that baseball will be hurled back into the Nicotine Age.

“It’s gum a lot of the time, not tobacco,”says Solomon, who has worked for 16 years to eliminate chewing tobacco and dip from the big-league culture. “Unfortunately, it can have the same, impressionable effect.”

You know the most dangerous of all drugs in baseball? It isn’t steroids, and it isn’t human growth hormone. Those performance enhancers are health terrors in their own right, impacting the very bones of the game. But legal, smokeless tobacco in its multiple chewable forms still provides the addictive poisons linked most conclusively to illness and fatal disease.

The Mayo Clinic identifies an assortment of horrors associated with chewing tobacco, whether it is packaged in the form of leaves, paste or twists: Tooth decay, gum disease, high blood pressure, oral and non-oral cancers.

There are countless, tragic tales of ex-ballplayers who suffered unkind, tobacco-related fates. The most famous of all is probably Babe Ruth, a frequent tobacco chewer, who died at age 52 from complications caused by a cancerous tumor in his throat.

Each year, about 30,000 Americans are diagnosed with throat and mouth cancer, many tobacco-related. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 20% of high school-aged boys admit to having tried chewing tobacco, in one form or another. Gum that is shredded and packaged like chaw likely only contributes to the trouble.

It is a major national health problem, linked fairly or unfairly to baseball by long-term association. When the sport sprouted in the mid-1800s, chewing tobacco was more popular than smoking. Player preference merely reflected that of society. The general public moved to smoking en masse when tobacco spit was linked to the spread of tuberculosis, but ballplayers kept chewing and spitting to keep their mouths moist and their gloves greased.