It seems more and more baseball players are being diagnosed with oral cancer. Babe Ruth, Curt Flood, Brett Butler, and Tony Gwynn all fought with oral cancer. But why baseball? Why are baseball players suffering from oral cancer more than other athletes? Because of the prevalence of chewing tobacco in baseball culture.
I don’t know why or how it came to be, but chewing tobacco is part of the game and has been since the rules were written in the 1840s. Watch any old footage of baseball games and you will see players on the sideline spitting thick, brown juice from their mouths in the dugouts, and then walking up to bat with a wad of chew in their cheek. Athletes are exposed to it as early as high school as a stimulant to keep you calm while playing, but most players continued the habit off the field.
One baseball story stands out in particular: Bill Tuttle’s. Tuttle played center field for the Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Athletics, and the Minnesota twins in the 1950s and early 60s, and frequently used chewing tobacco during that time. In most pictures and baseball cards, you can see a bulge in his cheek full of tobacco. All these years of chewing caught up with him though, and at age 64 he was diagnosed with oral cancer. He underwent five operations to remove cancer that riddled his cheek and gums, resulting in the removal and reconstruction of major portions of his jaw, cheeks, and face. He eventually lost the ability to speak and the function of one of his arms after the nerves in it were severed while removing skin to be grafted onto his face.
The last few years of his life, Tuttle used his story to spread awareness of the dangers of chewing tobacco, especially in the context of baseball. Him and Joe Garagiola (catcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs, and the New York Giants, TV personality of The Today Show, and chairman of Oral Health America’s National Spit Tobacco Education Program) worked to have chewing tobacco banned on the field. While all college and minor league teams have bans on spit tobacco use, it is still allowed in the MLB, and continues to influence players, fans, and children and be a huge source of profit for tobacco companies.
The video in this article “Baseball’s Smokeless Tobacco Problem” does a really good job of describing why allowing this habit to continue is so dangerous to children and young fans and what is being done to stop it.