Baseball is an all-American sport, and that wad of tobacco inside the cheek seems as memorable as the players themselves. It is not uncommon to see today’s players like the St. Louis Cardinals Ryan Ludwick, and New York Yankees Nick Swisher, packing a dirty mouth. Harvard researchers even studied the Red Sox dip habit during the 2004 World Series and came to the conclusion that they were three times more likely to use smokeless tobacco than the Cardinals. Tobacco put into the mouth, such as dip and chew, isn’t a safe alternative to cigarettes. It delivers a potent amount of nicotine, as well as more than a pinch of cancer-causing ingredients.
Chewing tobacco is one of the oldest ways to use tobacco leaves. Native Americans in both North and South America chewed tobacco, and southern farmers grew it for personal use and for trade. Chewing tobacco was widespread and it wasn’t uncommon in the 1800s to see both boys and girls, as well as men and women, chew. When baseball rules were written in 1845, players were already users. The chew tobacco in the mouth helped saliva production and lubricated the mouth on the dusty fields. Baseball gloves and fastballs were greased with spit from tobacco. And baseball terms like “bullpen” were adopted from the Bull Durham brand tobacco released in 1860.
As the popularity of smokeless tobacco grew in the late 1800s, spittoons began showing up in trains, hotels, stores and even the White House. Chewers, needing a place to spit their juices inside, would aim towards the spittoon, often missing. When a doctor showed a link between tuberculosis and the unsanitary spitting of tobacco juices, the use of chewing tobacco decreased among the general population, but not among ball players. When cigarettes became popular in the 1950s, some players switched one habit for another. The 1960s health warnings on cigarettes caused many players to take up smokeless tobacco, and makers provided free tins of dip in major league clubhouses.
As you stick that pinch between your lip and gum, what exactly are you putting in your mouth, besides tobacco? The first ingredient is nicotine, and many smokeless products contain the highest amounts of nicotine that can be absorbed by the body. Nicotine increases the heart rate and blood pressure, making the heart work harder during your practice and game. Levels of cancer-causing nitrosamines in smokeless tobacco are very high. Polonium 210, formaldehyde, cadmium (used in batteries), cyanide, arsenic, benzene and lead have all been found in smokeless tobacco.
Cancers of the lip, tongue, cheek, and throat have been reported. Babe Ruth, a dipper and chewer, died of throat cancer. Bill Tuttle, his baseball card showing his cheek packed with tobacco, lost his cancer battle and much of his face, after years of chewing. After his diagnosis he spent the rest of his life trying to keep young people and grown athletes away from smokeless tobacco. More recently in 2010, Tony Gwynn was diagnosed with cancer of a salivary gland which he attributed to dipping tobacco. Leukoplakia, pre-cancerous white patches on gums, inside of cheeks and tongue, can form from irritation from tobacco juice. Sweeteners in the tobacco cause cavities and mouth sores. Stained teeth, receding gums and bad breath are all part of smokeless tobacco.
The health hazards of chewing tobacco were unknown in 1845, but it’s 2011 and the facts are in. One-third of Major League players are sporting a deadly habit and too many young players are emulating their favorite players. Smokeless tobacco use has increased among high school aged boys, even though many are under the legal age to purchase these products. It’s time the Major League players break with tradition and end their dirty addiction. Help the young players to play clean.