So, why do baseball players chew?
By Gerry Fraley
SPECIAL TO THE POST-DISPATCH
Cardinals outfielder Chris Duncan and Texas Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler stood on opposite sides of the baseball team at Canyon de Oro High School in Tucson, Ariz.
Duncan used smokeless tobacco. Kinsler gave it up after an ill-fated, stomach-turning experience.
Kinsler cannot recall seeing Duncan without the omnipresent dip in his mouth. Kinsler understands why Duncan is part of a lineage that dates back to spitballs and Babe Ruth.
"I guess dipping is tradition,'' Kinsler said. "Some guys need it to perform. Some guys obviously hide it better than other guys.''
Duncan declined to discuss his choice. Duncan might be the Cardinals' most conspicuous consumer of tobacco, but he is hardly alone on this team. Or in his sport.
The dippers and chewers and even a few holdout smokers are out there. Their presence illustrates how deeply tobacco is ingrained in the culture of baseball.
Estimates say about one in three major-league players use tobacco products, all legal, during the season. In the general population, about one in 10 males are users.
There are users in other sports. Former Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman was an avid dipper until late in his career, when a family cancer scare changed his thinking.
The difference is that baseball players are visible in their use. There are no known instances of an NBA or NHL player partaking in tobacco during competition. Sherrill Headrick, a center and linebacker in the AFL from 1960-68, is believed to be the last pro football player to use tobacco during games.
"We know it's part of the history,'' said Cincinnati Reds first baseman Scott Hatteberg, who quit tobacco after having a Kinsler-like episode in high school. "Growing up, the stereotypical ball player was a dirty guy with a chaw.''
With tobacco comes a health risk that dwarfs the dangers of the current hot-button topics in baseball: steroids, human growth hormones and amphetamines.
According to the National Cancer Institute, smokeless-tobacco users develop oral cancer at about 50 times the rate of the general population. The legendary Ruth died, in 1948, from oral cancer.
The NCI is studying data on the relationship between smokeless tobacco and heart disease. There is anecdotal evidence that suggests a link.
Doctors told San Diego reliever Doug Brocail that using dip tobacco for more than 20 years probably contributed to a 99 percent blockage in a left coronary artery branch. Brocail had an angioplasty in 2006.
A sticky issue
MLB would like to rid the game of tobacco's stain.
Clubs cannot provide tobacco to players, a radical change from the days when clubhouses brimmed with cartons of cigarettes, pouches of tobacco and tins of snuff.
In 1993, MLB banned the use of tobacco by all minor-leaguers not on 40-man major-league rosters and therefore not represented by the Major League Baseball Players Association. MLB hoped the bottom-up approach would wean players from tobacco before they reached the majors.
MLB offers educational programs and oral screening for players, but it is powerless to ban tobacco at the major-league level. As an issue for the basic agreement, that requires the union's approval.
Rob Manfred, MLB's executive vice president for labor relations and human resources, said the issue of banning tobacco has come up during negotiations on the basic agreement. It did not get traction because the issues of performance-enhancing substances such as steroids and illegal drugs took precedence.
"It's a tough issue,'' Manfred said. "It's an issue of personal choice, and the union has been clear of where it stands on that.''
Officials with the Major League Baseball Players Association did not respond to requests for comment. The union has recognized that tobacco is a health issue but believes personal choice is more important than establishing a ban and penalties.
"It's a far cry to say that because it's bad for you, you should participate in a structure which allows your employer to punish you for doing something you shouldn't be doing,'' union chief executive officer Gene Orza said in 2004 during a panel discussion.
A long history
Tobacco has been interwoven with the game's appeal for more than a century.
Baseball cards started as a promotion by tobacco companies. By 1910, advertising for American Tobacco's Bull Durham brand at ballparks was common.
Hall of Famer Ty Cobb treated his bats with juice from Nerve navy cut, a slow-burning, rope-like tobacco that was often steeped in rum. The introduction of the spitball in 1902 encouraged pitchers to chew so they could have a ready supply of juice to put on the baseball.
The advent of televised games increased tobacco's presence. Cigarette makers advertised on the telecasts, and their brands became identified with teams.
Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan said that when he broke into the majors with the New York Mets in 1968, more than half the team smoked.
About a decade later, as the health risks of cigarettes became better known, players returned to the old habits of chewing tobacco and dipping snuff. All the while, tobacco companies provided free products to teams and included players in advertising programs.
"We do know that young players starting in the game admire the leaders and look up to them,'' said Dr. Herbert Severson, a psychologist at the University of Oregon and a scientist at the Oregon Research Institute. "They see them chew and develop the perception that to be successful, you have to chew."
Severson served as the senior research scientist on a study of the use of smokeless tobacco by major-league players from 1998-2003. Severson found smokeless tobacco is far more prevalent in baseball than in the overall population.
According to Severson, the rate of usage in baseball ranged from 30-36 percent during the study. According to the most recent data, about 10 percent of all males use smokeless tobacco.
The study said that about 40 percent of the users considered themselves addicted to smokeless tobacco. Others said they used it as means of relaxation or to sharpen focus and therefore improve performance.
In a survey of major-leaguers from 1988-90, the University of Washington's School of Dentistry found no relationship between tobacco use and performance. Users did not produce as a better rate than players who abstain. Severson's study showed the same pattern.
"There's this mythology that it somehow makes you a better player,'' Severson said. "There are a lot of myths that players buy into, but we can find no evidence to support them.
"One thing about baseball is that a lot of rituals and myths are passed down from generation to generation. That's pretty strong.''
During spring training, Red Sox team president Larry Lucchino offered to make a $20,000 donation to Boston's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute if manager Terry Francona quit his tobacco habit. If Francona fails, he will give $20,000 to the institute.
Francona said this week that he is struggling with the change.
"I'm hanging by a thread,'' Francona said. "I'm going to keep trying, but it's hard.''