Baseball and Chewing Tobacco: A Strange History
It's quite deeply weird, when you think about it.
Baseball -- that most wholesome and American of sports -- has long been associated with one of the most hazardous and rather disgusting habits known to mankind: chewing tobacco.
How did this come to pass? Why is it that, for more than a century now, so many heroes of America's Pastime spit toxic waste and look like they have a small mammal stuffed in their cheek?
Tobacco was used by Native Americans long before Europeans came to the New World. Once the settlers caught wind, as it were, tobacco became a popular trade commodity. In the early days of the colonial period, tobacco was the driving force of the economies in the southern territories.
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In the late 19th and early 20th century, chewing tobacco was by far the most popular form of tobacco consumption in the United States. Other forms of smokeless tobacco -- dip, snuff and the Swedish import "snus" -- were also widely used.
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At the turn of the century, there was no particular connection between baseball and chew. Players used smokeless tobacco at about the same rate as everyone else. It wasn't a baseball thing yet, just an American thing. Automated technologies for tobacco processing -- cigarette rolling in particular -- eventually pushed smoking past chewing tobacco in popularity.
But baseball players at that time were wary of cigarettes. It was believed to cause fatigue and even bad luck. So as the rest of the country transitioned to cigarettes, baseball stuck with chew. (Mostly -- in the 1900s you would occasionally see an outfielder chasing a fly ball with a cigarette in his mouth.)
Chewing tobacco also had some practical utility for ballplayers. Infielders would use the stuff to keep their mouths moist on the dusty base paths and tobacco spit was used to soften gloves and keep them sticky. And, of course, pitchers liked to use the infamous tobacco-stained "spitball," which was totally legal in the big leagues up through until 1920. No one ever said baseball was pretty.
Baseball and chewing tobacco became closely affiliated in the minds of both fans and marketers. Retail tobacco packages often included promotional cards of famous players, like this Turkey Red Tobacco card of Chicago's Johnny Evers. These cards were the precursor of modern day bubblegum baseball cards.
Believed to be the single most valuable baseball card in the world, the T206 Honus Wagner card was issued by the American Tobacco Company in 1909. In 2007, a mint condition copy of the card was sold to a private collector for $2.35 million. Ironically, Wagner was one of the few baseball stars of the era to object to having his image used to promote tobacco.
Tobacco is even embedded in the very etymology of baseball. The baseball term "bullpen" -- the area where relief pitchers warm up -- is thought to have originated in Durham, N.C. At that old ballpark, relievers warmed up beneath an ad on the outfield fence for Bull Durham brand tobacco. (That's one of many theories.)
Before the dangers of smokeless tobacco became known to science, many players were tragically afflicted after years of using. Journeyman infielder Bill Tuttle, shown here sliding into home against Yogi Berra, developed mouth cancer as a result of chewing tobacco. It would eventually cost him his teeth, his jawbone and his right cheekbone. Tuttle spent his final years educating young people against the habit.
By the 1950s, chewing tobacco was firmly entrenched in the rituals and lore of the game. Here, a young Don Zimmer goes cheek to distended cheek with Nelson Fox of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
After a short period of decline, the use of smokeless tobacco in baseball spiked again in the 1970s as the dangers of cigarette smoking became more widely acknowledged. Tobacco manufacturers supplied major league, minor league and even college teams with free samples of chewing and dipping tobacco in the clubhouse. Clubs would later ban such free samples in the 1980s.
In 1993, Major League Baseball finally took official steps to eradicate the use of tobacco in the game. A new rule prohibited players and coaches in the minor leagues from using smokeless tobacco in the dugout or on the field. The intent was to discourage current players as well as up-and-coming high school players.
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Big league baseball took another step toward discouraging the use of tobacco in 2011, when the new labor deal prohibited the use of smokeless tobacco during pre- and post-game interviews. Still, many players still continue to chew tobacco on the field of play.