Chewing tobacco made its way into baseball in the mid-1800s when it was widely popular among all American men—and when we knew nothing of the health risks. For baseball players, it helped keep their mouths from drying up from infield dust and also let them use the spit to moisten their gloves. But as the rest of the country eventually moved away from chewing tobacco, it’s remained in baseball culture to this day.
In The New York Times, Valentine wrote:
Everyone in baseball knows someone who chews—it’s estimated that a third of players use some form of smokeless tobacco. Even I chewed during games when I was really bored. For many of us, it is simply part of the sport. It wasn’t until I had chewed for years that I realized what a bad example I was setting and quit.
I also gave it up for my health: smokeless tobacco causes oral cancer, mouth lesions, gum disease, and tooth decay; it has been linked to heart attacks and pancreatic cancer. Smokeless tobacco use by young people may also encourage them to try cigarette smoking, the nation’s leading cause of preventable deaths.
Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn is fighting cancer, which he believes came from years of using chewing tobacco. Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals and Bruce Bochy, manager of the San Francisco Giants, have also talked about their struggles with quitting chewing tobacco.
Valentine cites the rising number of high school students using chewing tobacco, saying that tobacco use in the major leagues creates a self-sustaining cycle. Younger players chew to imitate their idols, some of them become then professionals, and they are then intimidated by the next generation of younger players.
As of 1999, 31 percent of rookies were using chewing tobacco.
While chewing tobacco is legal, Valentine thinks—as the NHL, NCAA, and minor league baseball have done—MLB should ban its use, saying that professional baseball players “are public figures and need to recognize the added responsibility that the limelight brings.”
Really, when you think about it, it’s kind of ridiculous that guys chew tobacco while they’re playing a sport. It doesn’t affect performance at all. But that’s how baseball is. It has all these traditions—why the hell are players still wearing belts?—that make no sense. That they’ve lasted for so long in the face of many better alternatives is what’s made them into traditions.
The argument of keeping chewing tobacco for the sake of tradition is a selfish one, though, especially when you see what’s happened to guys like Tony Gwynn.
If a young kid sees one of his favorite players chewing tobacco while hitting a home run or throwing a no-hitter, it sends a confusing message. If he can be good at baseball while he’s chewing, why can’t I chew when I’m riding my bike or doing my homework?
But it’s up to the players what kind of examples they want to set and, really, if they even want to be conscious of that.
Major League Baseball needs to be conscious of this, though. There has been government pressure to ban chewing tobacco in the majors. For now, the player’s union has resisted. But even if the MLB can’t ban its use—and I’m not saying they should—they should be doing more to make the health risks of chewing tobacco obvious to the (shrinking) generations of younger players who see guys with packed lips whenever they turn on a game.