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Spit Tobacco in Baseball Culture

tony gwynn3

The baseball world is mourning the loss of Tony Gwynn, as well it should. In every respect, he was a great ambassador for the game. Gwynn was arguably the best hitter of his generation, an artisan with the bat, winning the National League batting title eight times. And, his 3,141 hits is good for 18th place in Major League history. His .338 batting average is 16th best in MLB history.  And with his prolific career at the plate, it is all too easy to forget how well rounded the 15 time All-Star was as a player.  On the base paths he had 319 steals for his career, including 56 in 1987. He was no slouch in the field either, winning five career Gold Glove awards.

Gwynn was ahead of his time in using video to improve his game. This was in an era when video study was not the most user-friendly task to accomplish. Whereas, today, baseball teams at various levels have teams of audio-visual specialists to help disseminate all sorts of traits for players to view on mobile devices, Tony’s wife acted as his de-facto AV person, lugging a large VCR to his hotel room whenever he played on the road. He spent countless hours meticulously combing through and freezing frames of video detailing minute flaws in his swing. He then expanded his studies to include the tendencies of each pitcher he might face that day. While these things are common place today, it was ground breaking stuff in the 1980s. He was already a very good hitter, but his relentless pursuit of an extra edge placed him among the all-time greats.

However, he also played with something else that some hitters claim gives them an extra edge at the plate: chewing tobacco. Although it has not been proven, Gwynn himself believed that his spit tobacco use was the cause of his oral cancer.

As a 12 year old, I watched all my friends on the Khoury League start with leaf tobacco and then later chew, finely cut tobacco in a can.  It’s a habit that’s been all too common in baseball, since well, the beginning of baseball. And sure, players have been chewing on other things like bubble gum and sunflower seeds for years, but it is chew, dip or leaf tobacco that is most associated with the game. It seems to begin at an early age, or at least it used to.

I can remember back some 40 years ago when a few of my teammates on my Khoury League team used it. At first, leaf tobacco was their choice. Then, a few years later, it seemed that the more finely cut tobacco in a can became popular. As a 12 year old, I honestly didn’t think anything of it (nor did the coaches). I guess I was lucky in that I found it repulsive, but neither did I judge those who did it. I just thought it was part of the game. To this day, I’m not sure why they did it other than to look cool. I honestly can’t remember seeing them use it other than on the diamond. Perhaps, they felt that it gave them an advantage. Or, perhaps they just wanted to act like real ball players.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while cigarette smoking is declining among high school students, there was almost no decline in smokeless tobacco use from 2012 to 2013. Males were the biggest users at 11.2%. One reason may be the misperception that smokeless tobacco is less harmful than smoking. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth; you’re merely transferring the cancer risk from your lungs to your mouth and throat.

Unfortunately, it sometimes takes the loss of a beloved hall of famer to affect a positive change. Following Gwynn’s death, fellow Hall of Famer George Brett has vowed to quit.  Many people are in shock of his passing at just 56.  Like his video study, perhaps, Tony Gwynn is continuing to make a lasting contribution to the game.


Author: Mike Zeitzmann

Mike Zeitzmann has spent 30 years in broadcasting, including working with the late sportscaster Pat Summerall. He is an avid sports junkie and gelato lover.  He currently lives in Italy.

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  1. Pingback: Big League Chew: A Little League Favorite - Kids Sports News Network

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