Tony Gwynn's legacy as one of Major League Baseball's all-time finest pure hitters is secure.
The longtime star outfielder for the San Diego Padres, who died on June 16 from complications arising from salivary cancer, may also be remembered for more than his keen batting eye. Gwynn, who was only 54 when he died, publicly stated that he believed his salivary cancer resulted from years of using smokeless tobacco, although there is currently no medical research proving a link between the use of that product and Gwynn's particularly rare form of cancer.
Gwynn was not alone in using chewing tobacco or snuff -- baseball has long been a bastion for smokeless tobacco use, and it often starts well before players reach the professional ranks. I can write from personal experience here -- back in my high school days (way, way back in the late 1980s early 90s) the use of smokeless tobacco, particularly among members of the varsity baseball team, was widespread. Tobacco use wasn't permitted during games, which effectively blocked players from stuffing their cheek with a plug, but "dipping" still happened as players more discreetly tucked their spit cups under the dugout bench between innings. It's habit-forming stuff, of course, and the use of those oral tobacco products went on even more openly and often away from the field.
That's not to say that baseball is to blame, not exactly, but the sport has always seemed to turn somewhat of a blind eye to smokeless tobacco. I'm picturing a baseball card in my mind right now, a 1979 Topps of catcher Tim McCarver, then with the Philadelphia Phillies, with what appears to be a gargantuan plug of tobacco locked in his jaw. That particular card is the one I remember most vividly, but as a kid I had dozens of other similar examples. By Pee Wee baseball, I and my teammates were emulating that example with huge wads of chewing gum, Big League Chew in particular, which produced the same bulging cheek effect. Candy cigarettes were also a staple in stores then (and I still see them now, from time to time), and I can't think of a worse product to market to children than that.
Back to the present -- smokeless tobacco use has declined over the years as greater awareness about its potential deadly effects has become commonplace knowledge, but even now it persists.
Maybe, just maybe, Gwynn's death will be the tipping point for Major League Baseball. On Saturday, Arizona Diamondbacks closer Addison Reed, who played for Gwynn at San Diego State University, announced that he was giving up smokeless tobacco. On Tuesday, Washington Nationals ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg, a college teammate of Reed's who also played under Gwynn, likewise announced his decision to quit using smokeless tobacco.
Strasburg told MLB.com on Monday that he started chewing tobacco long before he met Gwynn, and didn't even realize the Baseball Hall of Famer dipped. Strasburg said that realization, plus the desire to be around for his young daughter, prompted his decision to quit.
"I think it's a disgusting habit, looking back on it," Strasburg told MLB.com. "I was pretty naïve when I started. Just doing it here and there, I didn't think it was going to be such an addiction ... Bottom line is, I want to be around for my family. This is something that can affect people the rest of your life. [Chewing tobacco is] so prevalent in this game. It's something we all kind of grew up doing."
Gwynn's death has also led to renewed calls for MLB to ban smokeless tobacco altogether, a move the league made way back in 1993 for the entire minor league system. So far, the Major League Players' Association has not been in favor of that move and that's presumably the biggest impediment to what seems like a common-sense move on baseball's part. Perhaps the untimely death of one of their own, one of the best and brightest stars of his day, will persuade the union to change its stance.
It's past time for our nation's pastime to boot smokeless tobacco from its playing fields for good.
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>