I covered my first professional baseball game in 1985 as a young sportswriter for United Press International. I was excited to be covering a game played outdoors, and the smells and sounds were familiar and comforting.
My job required that I visit the dugout before and after the game, and I found out then that I had to watch my feet at all times. What I was trying to avoid was chewing tobacco that had been spit, or was in the process of being spit, by the players, managers and anybody else connected with the team.
I even knew of some sportswriters who took up the habit, perhaps to fit in.
I was also amazed to find out that players smoked cigarettes immediately after the game. I could name names (it would be former Chicago Cubs, mainly) but won’t. I had a personal history with the dangers of cigarette smoking and knew this was not my ideal perception of how professional athletes should be dealing with their bodies.
But by far the most disgusting part of the experience was the chewing tobacco. The spittle was bad, the thrown out wads of tobacco was worse, and the stains on teeth and clothing and all other objects in the dugout was reprehensible.
It was much later that reports came out regarding chewing tobacco and mouth cancer, but even in 1985, players had to know it was not good for them.
Major League Baseball has attempted to stem the use of chewing tobacco and has banned it in all minor league clubhouses and dugouts, hoping to curb the habit among young players before they become major leaguers. But this week the state of California outlawed the use of smokeless tobacco at all MLB games played in the state. That means Anaheim, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland are now going to be chaw-free.
The law does not go into effect until the start of the 2017 season (and will carry only a $250 fine), but it is already outlawed by city statutes in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Boston, one of the oldest old-school baseball cities in America, has also outlawed chewing tobacco by players.
Baseball lost one of its greats recently to cancer linked to chewing tobacco. Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, one of the best hitters the game has ever seen, died at the age of 54 in 2014 as a result of his habit. Curt Schilling, who is alive and doing very well as a baseball commentator, suffered throat cancer due to his chewing and is now an advocate for banning the habit.
So if minor leagues can’t chew, and players can’t chew in a number of cities they visit, why isn’t it a league-wide ban? Because the players don’t want a league wide ban, that’s why. They argued against that provision in the most recent collective bargaining agreement with owners.
According to a Boston Glove survey of players from the 2014 Red Sox roster, 21 of 58 players who played for the team that year were users.
Some want to make an issue of a player’s position as role model for children playing the game, but the use of tobacco in baseball is both pervasive and persuasive. There are male teenagers who chew while playing, although you have to wonder about the leadership of managers in those cases as well as the role a major leaguer might play.
Might concern is that it’s gross. I don’t understand why baseball players have to spit at all. Unless they have just hit a triple or in-the-park home run, they don’t run enough to produce enough saliva from exertion to require spitting. Luckily, I no longer cover the game, so now all I have to do is cover my eyes.
If these laws and bans can have an effect on baseball players and their chewing habits, that would be wonderful. Then perhaps we can figure out a way to get them to stop scratching themselves inappropriately.