A Dangerous 'Ritual': Chewing Tobacco In Baseball

Baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn's death has revived conversations about the use of smokeless tobacco in the sport. Tobacco and baseball researcher Ted Eaves discusses why so many players use it.

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We turn now to sad news from baseball. Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn died this week. He was known as one of the best hitters to ever grace the game and most certainly the San Diego Padres clubhouse. Here is former New York Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera on what Gwynn meant to the league.

MARIANO RIVERA: He was a tremendous hitter, you know. And a guy that was involved in the community, you know, trying to teach the game of baseball. And that's what it is, you know, about being a role model but just giving back. And he was one of them, man. So sorry that we miss - that we lost one of the good ones.

CORNISH: The Padres held a special ceremony in memory of Gwynn this week. And the team will wear patches with his number - number 19 - for the rest of the season. Along with the remembrances and honors for Gwynn, there are also questions about the cancer that killed him. Several sources reported that he connected the disease with his long-time use of chewing tobacco. Smokeless tobacco sales around the country are growing faster than cigarette sales. And joining us to talk about smokeless tobacco in baseball is Ted Eaves. He's an adjunct instructor of exercise science at High Point University in North Carolina. He also researches the use of tobacco in baseball. Welcome to the program.

TED EAVES: Thank you.

CORNISH: During his time, Tony Gwynn was known to be one of the nicest guys in the league. And his death has reminded people about how widespread - how popular smokeless tobacco use is amongst players. But you say that coaches are a big part of the problem.

EAVES: Yes. What we see with the research - a lot of players obviously use it. But we're seeing similar numbers in coaches at all levels - high school, college and in the pros. If you look at it, especially with the younger ages - is a question of role modeling. How good of a role model are they for these athletes? And are they helping to sort of entice or lead them into the habit?

CORNISH: So given that, how big a deal is it that the league itself - major league baseball - did try to make some rules to at least keep the habit out of sight. How big a difference did that make?

EAVES: I think we're going to see a pretty good difference. They're not allowing the players in the major leagues to use the spit tobacco or dip during interviews. They're not allowed to carry the tins onto the playing field. They still allow use in the dugouts and locker rooms and field. But they aren't supposed to have it as out there and obvious. They didn't go as far as people that are in the tobacco-elimination area would prefer. But they did make some significant change. And that's going to trickle down to the younger ages because the high school athletes and the younger athletes aren't going to be shown it as prevalently as they have in the past.

CORNISH: Now, you've spend a lot of time researching smokeless tobacco use on the high school level. What have you learned?

EAVES: There've been a lot of studies done on high school athletes. And you see anywhere from about 35 to 50 percent use at even the JV and varsity level. And coaches, where I 'd spent most of my time researching - it's anywhere from 15 to 20 percent up to 35 percent use.

CORNISH: Give us a sense of the tobacco culture on some of these teams.

EAVES: It's a strong thing. It's become a ritual almost. You see players just doing it because that's what they feel is part of baseball. It's the same thing to them as wearing batting gloves or wearing your hat a certain way or your socks a certain way. It's just - they feel a part of the game. And so when you see that it becomes really difficult to try and get it to be removed from the game because it's just something that's there. It's ingrained. And that's the hardest part of trying to break the habit - is break that culture.

CORNISH: Remind us of the history here - the connection between smokeless tobacco and baseball.

EAVES: Oh, yes. It goes back to the 1800s when they first started baseball. There was dry dusty fields. You had your glove to keep moist - your mouth to keep moist. And so they started using tobacco then for that purpose. Use it a little bit with the spitball. That was banned early in the '20s. But before that it give you little bit more control and made the ball move more. And then it tapered down a little bit. Between then and the '70s and '80s, smoking became a little more prevalent. And then when you see the up-rise again is when we started getting the research that smoking was bad for you. And the public starting decreasing their use. Athletes did the same thing. And that's when the spit tobacco increased back up to what it is now.

CORNISH: So Ted Eaves, what kind of rules would you like to see?

EAVES: I think the best rule would be a no-use policy at the major-league level, similar to what the NCAA or minor leagues have implemented. Because even with not carrying the tins onto the field and not using them during interviews, you still see close-ups of the batters' faces and the outfielders' and infielders' faces while they're there. And you see that pocket of dip. And so players know what it is even if you're not going to carry the cans of tobacco onto the field. They know it's there. And they're going to want to be just like their favorite athletes.

CORNISH: Is there any chance that the death of Tony Gwynn will revive this debate?

EAVES: I would hope that seeing something as traumatic as what he went through will help. But I'm not sure that one player will be enough. Unfortunately, I think it's going to have to be more or just a tide-turn in general for the players to realize that it is a safety hazard for them and then for players even at younger ages.

CORNISH: That's Ted Eaves. He's an adjunct instructor at High Point University in North Carolina. He studies the use of tobacco in baseball. And he joined us from member station WUNC in Durham. Ted Eaves, thanks so much.

EAVES: Thank you.

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