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Tobacco and Baseball

Attached Image: tony-gwynn.jpg
Did anyone else read Jim Caple’s recent article on ESPN.com about Tony Gwynn and chewing tobacco? In the article he advocates for the ban of on-field use of chew in MLB, noting that it is already banned in MiLB. The topic at hand certainly evokes strong opinions; somewhere along the lines of individual freedoms vs. general health and well-being, with a whole host of other considerations on the side.

I was drawn to the article because I was saddened and angered to learn that Gwynn’s passing was due to his tobacco use, but it also caused me to reflect on my own experience with chewing tobacco and baseball.

Caple raises a couple of concerns in his anti-tobacco advocacy: one, ballplayers are visible to kids and are influential; and two, ballplayers influence each other and will not cease use of tobacco on their own, making a league enforced ban necessary.

When I was a kid, and ballplayers were my heroes, I definitely was aware they used chewing tobacco. You could see the tin in their back pocket, and you could see wads of varying size in their mouths. I think to the extent that I really understood what it was, I thought it was pretty much gross, but definitely also thought it looked cool at the same time. To this day, (I’m 30) when I see a ball player with a huge plug, I have mixed thoughts: ‘Whoa, that’s a huge plug, sweet,’ and, ‘Man, that is gross and terrible for you, dude.’ I am a fan of the traditional elements of baseball. I like the unwritten rules, strange superstitions and classic stats. I hate replay review and manager challenges. Though chewing tobacco in baseball may fall under the banner of tradition, and though I may miss it- a very little bit- as an aesthetic component, I find myself leaning very heavily in the position Caple advocates.

Tobacco was not available to me as a kid, nor did I seek it. Playing ball in high school, there was no way anyone could have chewed on the field and gotten away with it. Maybe some indiscernible amount, but that would’ve defeated the point. I remember reading about Brett Butler and his cancer diagnosis and I remember figuring that chewing tobacco use was probably on its way out in the big leagues, and in general.

Then I went to college. I went to Linfield College in Oregon, home of a pretty successful D3 baseball program, which I was going out for. It seemed as if every guy on the baseball team chewed. I was totally shocked. The head coach, a life time chewer, made his no-tobacco team policy clear, assuring everyone that this season he was quitting for real. The upperclassmen giggled-- no one took it seriously. At one winter practice, we were indoors due to weather, preparing to do some conditioning sprints. Players were lined up side by side across the field house floor. A coach shouted ‘go’ and everyone took off. Two or three strides in, a tin came tumbling out the hoodie pocket of the second baseman and rolled across the floor in front of him, with him hilariously stumbling after it. I don’t remember if he got in any trouble or not. I doubt it.

I’d be surprised if any of those guys’ high school experience were much different from mine. My guess is most of them started chewing when they got to the college level. I wonder, had I stuck around baseball long enough, whether I would’ve started myself.

There are a lot of great baseball fans and former players who frequent this site. I’m interested to hear some other experiences/stories and opinions regarding this topic. Some commenters on the ESPN.com article page itself suggest Caple is using Gwynn’s passing to push an agenda on a touchy subject with political undertones. Others quickly pointed out that Gwynn himself was active in anti-tobacco campaigning. I think maintaining a dialogue on an issue a person cared about in his life is a fine way to honor him, posthumously.

Here is the link to the ESPN.com article:


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