History of Tobacco in Sports
The use of tobacco products by professional athletes has been a controversial issue, especially in Major League Baseball. Chewing tobacco has been associated with the game ever since it became America's most popular sport in the 20th century. A large percentage of baseball use smokeless tobacco products such as dip or chew.
Many baseball players saw it as a safe alternative to smoking, and believed that the nicotine from the smokeless tobacco would improve their performance. However, in the past thirty years, smokeless tobacco has been found to be associated with increased risks in cancer, especially oral cancer. In 2014, Curt Schilling announced he had squamous cell carcinoma in his mouth, a cancer highly associated with smokeless tobacco use. Also in 2014, baseball player Tony Gwynn died of salivary gland cancer, another oral cancer associated with smokeless tobacco use.
Tradition of Tobacco in Baseball
Tobacco companies were some of the first advertisers in baseball. At the turn of the century, the Blackwell Tobacco company advertised it's Bull Durham Tobacco on billboards over the outfield fences near where the relief pitchers would warm up. Many baseball historians speculate why that area today is known as the "bullpen".
At the time, cigarettes were becoming the more popular tobacco product. Chewing tobacco had been much more popular at the beginning of the 20th century, but heavy advertising of cigarettes led the cigarette to become the dominant tobacco product by the mid 20th century. As part of this advertising push, tobacco companies began adding images of baseball players to their cigarette packs. These images ended up becoming the first baseball cards: kids began collecting the images from their father's cigarette packs, and the baseball card was born.
Most baseball players had no qualms endorsing cigarettes, but baseball great Honus Wagner wanted no part of it: in 1909, he requested his image not be included in the promotions.
From Chew to Cigs to Dip
By the 1960s, chewing tobacco had fallen out of favor with baseball players, and smoking became the most common form of tobacco use. By in the 1970s, moist snuff (commonly known as dip), which a person parks in the lower lip to absorb nicotine from the tobacco juices, became trendy to use, and by the end of the decade became synonymous with dipping.
At the time smokeless tobacco products such as dip and chew were seen as safer than smoking, but by the 1980s, as more stories of smokeless tobacco users dying of oral cancer (including a teenage athlete named Sean Marsee), people began associating chew and dip with cancer, and people started calling for its ban in professional baseball.
Setting An Example For The Children
The public was and still is concerned with the health of baseball players who chew or dip, but the main concern has been the fear that baseball glamorizes smokeless tobacco use, encouraging children (especially teenage baseball players) to pick up the habit.
Since the beginning of the 21st century, Major League Baseball has begun restricting the use of smokeless tobacco. Since 2011, baseball players cannot use chew or dip during pre game interview or post game interviews. They are not allowed to be seen on camera putting in a dip or spitting out tobacco juices. In many stadiums across the country, the use of smokeless tobacco has been banned (however, given how many smokeless tobacco products can be used discreetly this ban may not be effective).
Players have begun to kick the addiction, and take on chewing gum or sunflower seeds as a replacement for the habit. Some even have dug around to find the best vape pens for athletes. But despite the well documented connection between smokeless tobacco use and cancer, as many as a third of all MLB players still use smokeless tobacco. This is still a decrease from two decades ago, when about half of professional baseball players used smokeless tobacco, but it still shows more work has to be done to end smokeless tobacco in baseball.In the future, as the MLB takes a stronger stand against dipping and chewing, and more stadium bans the use of smokeless tobacco, the connection between baseball and chew/dip may come to an end. But with current trends showing that a core amount of players refuse to give up the tradition, we unfortunately may see more horrible health problems like we have seen with many players in the MLB.