America at Large: Battle on to rid baseball of tobacco-chewing scourge

American municipalities now starting to outlaw the vile habit from sports venues

Curt Schilling of the Boston Red Sox: “There’s no grey area. If you do it and you don’t stop, you are going to eventually get cancer of the mouth.” Photo:  Nick Laham/Getty Images)

Curt Schilling of the Boston Red Sox: “There’s no grey area. If you do it and you don’t stop, you are going to eventually get cancer of the mouth.” Photo: Nick Laham/Getty Images)

 

In the evocative and charming coming of age movie The Sandlot, a group of Little Leaguers are determined to emulate their baseball heroes in every way possible. To this end, one of their number snaffles a pouch of chewing tobacco. When a less streetwise kid confesses to not knowing what it is, he’s soon put to rights.

“All the pros do it,” assures his friend.

The boys dig in and stuff the leaves in their mouths just as they are about to board a roller-coaster. Moments later they are expelling the contents of their nauseated stomachs over the side.

The film was set in the 1960s and all the pros no longer do it. By some accounts, the number of players dipping, as the practice is known, has dropped to almost 33 per cent over the past two decades. More and more have realised the inherent health dangers, especially following the death of Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn from salivary gland cancer in 2014, and the minor leagues have long since banned it.

Yet, it remains such an integral part of the culture that fighting any attempt to prohibit it was part of the last union collective bargaining negotiations with Major League Baseball.

Aracane ritual

If that’s always a delightful moment when caught on camera, many American municipalities are now starting to outlaw chewing tobacco from sports venues in an attempt to eradicate it altogether.

New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Boston have already instituted bans, Chicago is about to do the same, and, when California introduces a state-wide embargo sometime next year, the practice will be illegal in one third of all baseball venues.

This is only the start of it as anti-tobacco campaigners hope other cities will see the wisdom of this type of legislation as a way of curing the sport of its longest-standing and most disgusting habit.

That may be easier said than done. When the San Francisco Giants’ pitcher Madison Bumgarner was asked about the fact he can no longer chew in his home stadium, he admitted that he’d been using smokeless tobacco since he was a nine year old boy in rural North Carolina. Jake Peavy, another Giant, confessed to having started at a similar stage of his childhood in Alabama and also wondered aloud whether the authorities would even be able to properly enforce the statute.

“It’ll have to be a lofty fine,” said Peavy. “Just because of the money guys are making. Or they’re not going to stop.”

That the initial penalty in Boston is going to be a $250 ticket written up by police officers at Fenway Park backs up his point. That’s chump change in a league where the average salary is $4m (Peavy and Bumgarner earn three times that) and the daily meal allowance is $100. Not much of a financial deterrent there.

Baseball and tobacco have been intertwined since the beginning of the sport. By one account, the bullpen where pitchers warm up is so-called because Bull Durham tobacco used to advertise on the outfield fence in that part of stadia. Cards portraying the images of players, now some of the most sought-after collectibles on the sports market, were placed in cigarette packets as both a sales gimmick and a protective layer as far back as the 1880s.

Long before the menace of tobacco was exposed, Honus Wagner, a chewer himself, asked that his card be removed from circulation in 1909 because he didn’t want to influence kids to emulate his habit. Over a century later, Senator Dick Durbin, an outspoken critic of the tobacco industry, pointed out in a recent op-ed for the Chicago Tribune that half a million American teenagers start chewing for the first time each year and the number of 13- year-olds using has gone up since 2013.

Mouth cancer

Curt Schilling

After reading about a former Minnesota Twin named Bill Tuttle undergoing several facial surgeries in a battle with cancer in 1993, Joe Garagiola, a former player turned broadcaster, began a personal campaign to educate players. Aside from distributing literature, he even brought Tuttle to major league training camps so the next generation could glimpse up close the physical damage chewing tobacco had wrought. Garagiola died last month just as the rest of the world is finally starting to heed his clarion call.

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