OAKLAND – Tony Gwynn’s multitude of accomplishments, career batting average of .338 and his pioneering use of video earned him the rapt attention of players whenever he talked baseball.
Major League Baseball hopes an even more important message he’s delivering posthumously sinks in as well.
Gwynn, who died of mouth cancer Monday at 54, speaks out against smokeless tobacco use in a taped segment of an informational video MLB is producing and plans to release this season. The Hall of Fame outfielder believed he developed cancer because of his years-long habit of using spit tobacco, although that was never medically confirmed.
Whether Gwynn’s untimely death and his stance against smokeless tobacco will curtail its use among players remains an open question.
Research by the Pro Baseball Athletic Trainers Society revealed the number of major leaguers who use spit tobacco has declined from about 50% to 33% in the last 20 years.
However, that’s still about 10 times the amount in the general population, according to the American Cancer Society, whose data from 2012 showed 3.5% of Americans 12 and older – or 9 million – use the highly addictive product.
“It’s definitely ingrained and something that’s part of our baseball culture, but it’s not exclusive to baseball,” said Oakland Athletics first baseman Brandon Moss, a non-user. “You would hope a figure like (Gwynn), something tragic like that happening, would be a wake-up call for everyone, not just those in baseball. … But most guys are probably going to look at it as the loss of a great man and a great baseball player and leave it at that.”
Indeed, the stance among players seems to be that they’re aware of the dangers but, like smoking, it’s up to every individual to decide whether to use what remains a legal product.
The National Cancer Institute says in its website that smokeless tobacco contains at least 28 chemicals that have been found to cause cancer – typically of the mouth, esophagus and pancreas – and may also lead to heart disease, gum disease and oral lesions.
“People understand the risks involved and still choose to do it,” Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. “We all do stupid things, whatever your vice happens to be. People may criticize these guys for dipping, and then somebody’s texting and driving.”
And while Gwynn’s passing was lamented throughout the game, it doesn’t figure to be interpreted by many players – who are usually in their 20s or early 30s, with the concomitant sense of invincibility – as a cautionary tale.
“It’s one of those things that’s scary and obviously you hope you’re not the one,” said A’s catcher Stephen Vogt, who said he dips once in a while. “I don’t think it’s good. I definitely don’t advocate it, but at the same time, it’s an adult decision.”
Baseball has taken steps to sway that decision, or at least make the practice less visible to minimize the impact on young fans.
The current collective bargaining agreement, in effect from 2012-16, bans players, managers and coaches from using smokeless tobacco during TV interviews and team appearances. And they have to keep tobacco products out of sight while fans are at the ballpark.
In addition, MLB and the players union have stepped up educational efforts, and teams – which in the past freely distributed cans of dip in the clubhouse – can no longer do so and are now required to administer oral exams as part of the spring training physicals every year.
Longtime TV announcer Joe Garagiola, who quit his smokeless tobacco habit in his 30s, made it his life’s mission to warn other baseball folks about its dangers, making presentations during spring training alongside former major league outfielder Billy Tuttle, who died of oral cancer at 69 in 1998.
“I don’t think we talk about it enough anymore,” says Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez. “I remember as a young A-ball manager, Joe Garagiola would always come around in spring training with Bill Tuttle. It was scary.
“And I still see people chewing tobacco. Not only in the big leagues, but you still see kids in junior high and high school.
For me, it’s not enough yet. It’s a shame.”
Indeed, the sight of players constantly spitting, some sporting a large wad of tobacco inside their cheek, remains one of the game’s enduring images.
“Every spring training we have a guy that comes in who’s had mouth cancer through tobacco,” Rangers utilityman Donnie Murphy said. “So you see it. But at the same time, it’s like an addiction thing. You do it for so long, you’re going to want to keep doing it.”
Players say using smokeless tobacco provides a form of relaxation and becomes part of their routine in a daily sport with lots of down time.
And with amphetamines now banned from baseball, the jolt of energy from the nicotine in the tobacco – absorbed during a longer stretch through dip or chew than by smoking – can help players navigate the season’s six-month grind.
Commissioner Bud Selig has expressed a desire to banish smokeless tobacco from the majors the same way MLB barred it from the minors starting in 1993. But the issue is subject to collective bargaining and the players association has declined, opting to protect personal freedoms and emphasize education.
“The MLBPA discourages the use of smokeless tobacco products by its members or by anyone else. These products carry serious health risks, yet remain legally and widely available,” union spokesman Greg Bouris said via e-mail. “In general terms, included in the smokeless tobacco policy negotiated in 2011 are restrictions/prohibitions on its use, increased emphasis on education and cessation programs, as well as oral examinations. At this point in time, player education continues to be a focus of ours.”
Contributing: Paul White in Washington
* This news story was resourced by the Oral Cancer Foundation, and vetted for appropriateness and accuracy.