Tony Gwynn's death renews concern about danger of chewing tobacco

Head coach and MLB Hall of Famer Tony

Head coach and MLB Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn of the San Diego State Aztecs looks on from the dugout against the UC Davis Aggies during their game on April 3, 2009 at Petco Park in San Diego, California. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Donald Miralle

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Where does it leave baseball that its exemplary star, Tony Gwynn, attributed the oral cancer that eventually caused his death last week to the quintessential baseball habit of chewing tobacco? Gwynn, one of the game's most admired and loved figures, was only 54. The punishment did not seem to fit the crime.

Over time, the sport -- and society in general -- have become more enlightened on this topic. It has been more than a century since the chewing ritual was brought to baseball by an influx of farm boys because smoking -- also considered harmless for so long -- interfered with doing chores.

In 1993, chewing tobacco was banned throughout the minor leagues, after decades of preaching by former big-league catcher Joe Garagiola Sr. about the evils of the practice. Though a 2011 attempt to prohibit it at the major-league level was blocked by the players' union as unreasonably restricting a legal product, Major League Baseball has continued to subject all players to mandatory spring-training videos on chewing tobacco's health risks.

But it hardly is clear, after the gut punch of losing Gwynn, whether officials and players will take another step away from a fairly gross and unwholesome custom. (Steve Hamilton, whose major-league career included a tour with the Yankees, once swallowed his chaw while standing on the mound in Kansas City. And threw up.)

"I think you express concerns with all the health things," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "But, you know, these are grown men, and I have to be careful what I talk about and what I don't talk about. I did talk to my son about it, and what Tony felt caused the oral cancer, and I encouraged him to never do it. Because it's dangerous."

Upon Gywnn's death Monday, Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Addison Reed, who Gywnn coached at San Diego State, immediately threw out the seven cans of tobacco he was keeping in his clubhouse locker. But Dodgers pitcher Josh Beckett -- like so many ballplayers, Beckett began chewing tobacco as a young teenager -- told the Los Angeles Times that "it would be a straight lie" to say he expected widespread reform.

In an emotional blog post, former outfielder Eric Byrnes acknowledged that Major League Baseball's efforts to warn of chewing tobacco's perils never had been sufficient to end his addiction. (That only happened, he wrote, after his baseball retirement, when his father died.)

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"It's not good for you," said Yankees pitcher Matt Thornton, a can of chewing tobacco in his locker. "That comes with the territory. But, personal choice, you know? I would discourage anyone from ever starting. As I've gotten older, kind of backed off and tried to quit. I haven't gotten to that point yet."

Several studies indicate that roughly a third of big-leaguers acknowledge the vice -- a far greater percentage than the young male population in general. Thornton is fairly typical in having started chewing with the start of his baseball career. "I don't know why I started, honestly," he said. "Can't tell you."

At least much of the lore surrounding the baseball habit has begun to fade. Veteran baseball author Dan Schlossberg, in his "The Baseball Catalog" first published in the early 1990s, included a short section on "The Art of Chewing." And there were old tales that walked the line between humorous and revolting: Don Zimmer's attempt at wrapping bubble gum around his chaw to keep it intact caused the gum to stick to his false teeth, and after angrily flinging the wad to the ground during an argument, Zimmer had to sheepishly retrieve his dentures from a dusty glob.

Still, the specter of a nanny state -- too much legislation, even for our own good, against such products as large sugary drinks -- persists. During 2010 congressional hearings citing the health hazards and bad influence on youth of the big leagues' tobacco chewers, a players' union counsel argued against government restriction of personal freedoms.

Congressman Henry Waxman countered that "we don't let baseball players go stand in the field and drink beer. The MLB Association won't let them stand out there and smoke cigarettes."

Waxman lost that argument. Which hardly was as tragic as Gwynn losing his life. But what to do about the possible connection?

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