Tony Gwynn’s death from oral cancer — the San Diego Padres Hall of Famer chewed tobacco leaves throughout his career — forces us to ask a question we keep asking: If ballplayers know smokeless tobacco is addictive and dangerous, why do they keep using it? But the unsatisfying answer continues to be: Because it’s baseball, and the peer pressure is impossible to resist.
I experienced this firsthand.
In 1974, I began my first job in professional sports as a batboy for a Triple A minor league baseball team in my hometown of Sacramento. We were affiliated with the Milwaukee Brewers, who at the time were owned by Bud Selig, the current Major League Baseball commissioner. The manager was Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Lemon, future manager of the New York Yankees.
As a batboy, I got to put on the uniform. I was in the dugout during games, participated in batting practice, hung out in the bullpen and played pass-the-time games like “pepper” and “flip” with the players. “Bull Durham” wasn’t a movie to me; that was my childhood. I was 13 and living a dream.
In my deluded 13-year-old mind, I was one of the guys. And I wanted to do what the other guys did — including using smokeless tobacco. They dipped or chewed: either a pinch of “snuff” between your lower lip and gum, or a wad of tobacco leaves stuffed into your cheek.
So I tried it. Skoal and RedMan were the products I got off players. When I put a Skoal tin in the back pocket of my uniform pants, it felt like a badge of honor. And when the fad of wrapping a giant wad of bubble gum around a wad of RedMan tobacco leaves began, I did that, too.
I learned how to be discreet (I was a 13-year-old using tobacco, after all). Being discreet felt cool, too.
In the bullpen, I learned how to spit the tobacco juice accurately. Tobacco juice is gross. Accurate spitting somehow made it feel less gross. Accuracy took some time—a spit stain on the front of your uniform was a sure indicator that you didn’t know what you were doing.
Chewing and dipping also gave me a buzz, something I hadn’t anticipated. A baseball game can move slowly, so the high helped pass the time. Chewing tobacco, wearing the uniform, the smell of wood bats and leather gloves … well, it was all very baseball.
Bob Lemon soon noticed my chewing. He called me into his office — a summons that was generally unwelcome for any player, let alone a lowly batboy. We really didn’t have a conversation. He mumbled a couple of expletives that somehow came off in kindly tones, and when I walked out of his office, I had no choice but to leave chewing and dipping behind.
I thank Lemon to this day. It’s a gross habit; it’s addictive; and it makes you high. Most of all, it could have killed me. But ballplayers continue to do it for the same reasons I did– it helps you assimilate into baseball culture. It’s part of fitting in. You want to be one of the guys. If everyone is spitting at a target in the bullpen, you don’t want to be left out.
You want to feel like a ballplayer, and this is what a ballplayer does: He takes a strike, steps out of the box, spits and steps back into the box. You want to pass the time, because a game is long and slow, and the buzz feels good. As Red Sox David Ortiz recently told the Boston Globe “[i]t keeps me smooth and puts me in a good mood.”
As a result, almost every ballplayer I knew had some oral fixation. It was either bubble gum, candy, cigarettes, dip, chew or sunflower seeds. Something had to be in their mouth. As former Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona recently told the Boston Globe, “[I]t’s only when I’m in uniform…[i]t’s the same every off-season. I take the uniform off in October and I never think about [smokeless tobacco]. But as soon as I get to spring training and get in uniform, I’m asking myself, ‘where’s the chew?’”
But an oral fixation is not reason enough for ballplayers to expose themselves to what Tony Gwynn went through. Dip and chew should be completely eradicated from Major League Baseball. Doing so, however, won’t be easy. Because it’s baseball.