Smokeless Tobacco and Baseball: A Short History

When the rules of baseball were first laid down in 1847, chewing tobacco was the most popular form of tobacco used. But when it was found that spitting spread TB, the leading cause of death at the time, tobacco chewing dropped. Many chewers switched to machine-rolled cigarettes, thinking they were "safer." But smokeless tobacco stayed on in the ballpark. The players chewed tobacco to keep their mouths from getting dry in the dusty parks. Peer pressure played an important role too. Here's how former Dodger pitcher Rex Barney remembers it:

"When I First broke into the Dodgers' system, I was just a kid, 18 years old. And we had a coach, an old guy named Barney De Forge, or something like that.... I was sitting in the bullpen one night, and DeForge said to me: 'Kid, you want to get into the Major Leagues?'
"I said, 'Sure, that's what it's all about.'
"He says, You don't chew tobacco, do you?'
"I said, 'No.'
"He said, 'Well, you'll never get there unless you chew tobacco.'

"In those days, if you had 25 players, 24 chewed tobacco. Very naive, I said 'OK.' I tried it. The only thing I remember is chomping down a couple of times and getting deathly ill. I was supposed to start the next night, and I was still so sick I couldn't even leave the hotel. I said to myself, 'If that's what it takes to make the Major Leagues, I'll never make it.'" (From "Chaws," R. Blount,Jr., Sports Illustrated, July 4, 1977)

Smoking caught up with the game starting in the 1950's. When baseball games first went on TV, cigarette ads became prime features. In New York, team loyalties could be told by the brand of cigarette a fan smoked. Willie Mays recalled that when he started with the Giants, chewing had pretty much died out, and most players smoked the "team brand," Chesterfields.

But, in the 1970's, when the dangers of smoking became clear, many players went back to chewing--thinking it was safer than cigarettes. Snuff dipping entered the scene for the first time. Nolan Ryan described the change this way:

"When I first broke into the big leagues, 30-40% of the Mets smoked, and only three of the remaining players on the 25 man roster chewed. No one dipped. Chewing peaked in the 1970's, and dipping took over. The switch began with free samples of dip coming into the clubhouse."

Supplying free samples to major league, minor league, and college teams and recruiting players to appear in ads for dip were part of the tobacco companies' all-out ad campaign. During this time, the use of moist snuff increased fifteenfold among boys ages 17-19.

Now the word is out--smokeless tobacco is NOT a safe alternative to cigarettes. It can cause addiction, serious mouth problems, and mouth cancer. In 1987, warning labels went on the cans and pouches. In 1988, many clubs banned free samples from the clubhouse. In 1990, Major League Baseball issued a report on the hazards of smokeless tobacco and announced new efforts to help today's players beat the habit and to help prevent the next generation from getting hooked.