A dangerous habit that still haunts baseball

Baseball cards in the 1950s and ’60s featured many players with lumps in their cheeks, as though they were holding marbles in their mouths.

Guys like Rocky Bridges and Nellie Fox were pictured in uniform chewing tobacco, year after year.

Tony Gwynn
Tony Gwynn

Baseball has been plagued by the smokeless stuff since well before Babe Ruth’s time. The Babe himself, a smokeless tobacco user, died of throat cancer at age 53.

So it wasn’t all that surprising when a more recent baseball legend, Tony Gwynn, died Monday of salivary gland cancer, which he attributed to years of chewing tobacco. He was 54.

The Hall of Famer’s death has brought increased attention to the problems associated with the addictive product. And it’s not just baseball players using it.

A recently released CDC-sponsored survey of high school students found that while their cigarette smoking had dropped, 8.8 percent of these teenagers were using smokeless tobacco products – a higher percentage than adults.

In Georgia, 9.5 percent of high schoolers said they currently use it.

“We’re not seeing improvement in smokeless tobacco and cigars,’’ June Deen, state director of the American Lung Association in Georgia, said Wednesday.

Smokeless tobacco products now come in flavors to appeal to kids, Deen added. “It can be very harmful and very addictive,’’ she said.

Smokeless tobacco causes cancers of the oral cavity, esophagus and pancreas, the CDC says. While current use is about half of what it was 20 years ago, a CDC report this month found that the prevalence of smokeless tobacco use among workers stayed relatively flat from 2005 (2.7 percent) to 2010 (3 percent).

Smokeless tobacco use was highest among adults aged 25 to 44, males, whites, people with no more than a high school education, and Southerners.

The Atlanta-based American Cancer Society notes that nicotine in smokeless tobacco products is absorbed from the mouth or nose along with other compounds in the tobacco. The snuff and chewing tobacco products most widely used in the United States have very high levels of cancer-causing agents, or carcinogens.

“Smokeless tobacco use has been increasing among youth,’’ said Lee Westmaas, the director of tobacco control research in the Behavioral Research Center at the Cancer Society. The tobacco companies, he said, “are creating the misperception that [smokeless tobacco] isn’t as harmful as cigarettes.”

A pitcher’s memories

In Gwynn’s case, CNN reported that there is no scientifically established link between smokeless tobacco and salivary gland cancer, according to the American Council on Science and Health. Doctors don’t know what causes salivary gland cancer, CNN said.

This week, former Atlanta Braves great Tom Glavine, a pitcher newly elected to the Hall of Fame, talked with CBS Sports about Gwynn’s great skill with the bat. Gwynn was one of the best batters of his era, hitting .338 over his career with the San Diego Padres.

Glavine added that he hopes players who chew tobacco will learn from what happened to Gwynn. He’d like to see the habit disappear from the game.

Tom Glavine

“I’ve always felt like it’s a nasty habit, particularly in those settings when you’re in a dugout and there’s tobacco spit all over the place or you’re in the clubhouse and guys are spitting into cups and cans and that stuff inevitably gets tipped over, and it’s just nasty to me,” said Glavine.

Glavine noted that professional baseball has done a good job of educating players about the dangers, especially in the minor leagues.

“I can tell you throughout the course of my career, it became a bigger and bigger issue every year in spring training,’’ Glavine told CBS. “We would be educated on it. We would be shown pictures of people that had done it who had jaws removed or half of their face removed because of cancer. You can only have so much of the scare effect and hope it takes with everybody, but inevitably you’re still going to have guys that make that decision to do it.”

“Hopefully sad situations like this with Tony maybe start to wake people up even more.”

Another former Braves player, Brett Butler, overcame oral cancer after years of chewing tobacco. Butler also successfully influenced others to quit using tobacco.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported this week that perhaps one-third to half of the players in the Chicago Cubs clubhouse use smokeless tobacco. Several acknowledged that Gwynn’s death has made them consider quitting, the article said.

Deen of the Lung Association says, “A lot of baseball players have given their time and celebrity to publicize the harm of smokeless tobacco.”

Westmaas of the Cancer Society says he think Gwynn’s death can help educate people about the dangers of smokeless tobacco.

The ballplayer’s death can help “bring attention to the topic,” Westmaas says. “It can increase awareness of the harms of smokeless tobacco.”