I will never forget my first Major League baseball game. It was Yankee Stadium in 1980-something. I had my baseball cap, my glove in case of an errant foul ball, and an extra hand primed for some peanuts or Cracker Jacks. But on this summer day, I didn’t leave with a stray foul ball. Instead, like every fan in attendance, I was given a free copy of New York Yankees outfielder Bobby Murcer’s new country music single, “I’m a Skoal Dippin’ Man.” That was my initiation into the deadly and utterly normalized relationship between chewing tobacco and the National Pastime.
I was reminded of that rockabilly tune two years ago, when one of the great baseball players of my lifetime, San Diego Padre legend Tony Gwynn, died at age fifty-four. The Hall of Famer was felled by salivary gland cancer, a tragically predictable result of thirty-one years of addiction to putting tobacco between his lip and gum. Now his family is seeking justice. In a lawsuit filed against the Altria Group Inc., previously known as Philip Morris, as well as other defendants, the Gwynns argue that Tony was targeted by the tobacco industry as part of a conscious strategy to improve its market share in the African American community. They contend that big tobacco saw Gwynn as a “marketing dream come true” for their industry.
Whether or not this lawsuit is successful, it is shining a light on baseball’s long, bizarre, and devastating history of “dipping,” which still resonates today. Stunningly, about 30 percent of Major League players continue to use chewing tobacco, roughly five times as many as in the general population.
The habit continues even though the practice is banned in the Major League parks of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, and, just recently, Chicago. It is also banned in all Minor League baseball parks. These practices have certainly had an impact—twenty years ago, a majority of Major Leaguers chewed this poison. But the practice continues and the question remains: Why is a habit that causes cancer, death, and brutal withdrawal systems so uniquely entrenched in Major League baseball?
To get at the answer, we actually must go back to the mid-nineteenth century. Back then, a typical American chewed up to three pounds of tobacco a day. This was seen and sold as part of forging a new uniquely American identity, in the aftermath of the Civil War. Tobacco pipes were derided as aristocratic and snuff was “European.” Americans would chew tobacco, with spittoons lining the streets of the country.
During this same period, another marker of the new American identity—professional baseball—was being woven into the national fabric. Tobacco companies not only sponsored the new teams, but players on the field found the practice useful. Dipping, it was believed, kept the nerves razor-sharp on the field and cut against the boredom of sitting in the dugout. But even more importantly, it activated the salivary glands. Back then, baseball fields were thick with dust, and tobacco kept players’ mouths from becoming unbearably dry. In addition, the constant spitting into one’s mitt, it was believed, kept gloves from getting stiff.
By the 1920s, dipping decreased dramatically throughout the country, because of both machine-rolled cigarettes and a push by doctors who said that the constant spitting was causing a spread of tuberculosis. Yet in baseball, fastened both by tradition and addiction, king tobacco simply never left, and an untold number of players have paid for this with cancer, having their lower jaw removed, or losing their lives. But no player felled by tobacco has ever had quite the profile of Tony Gwynn. Let’s see if his family can play a part in finally breaking the chains that bond a deadly habit to a beautiful game. w
Dave Zirin is the host of the popular Edge of Sports podcast and the sports editor of The Nation. His latest book is Brazil’s Dance with the Devil.