A handful of players on both the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies have played this year’s World Series with a wad of tobacco in their mouths. Have baseball players always used smokeless tobacco?
Yes. In the mid-19th century—baseball’s formative years—chewing tobacco was enormously popular in the United States. Early ballplayers likely chewed tobacco for the same reasons as other American men, but they soon discovered baseball-specific benefits. It spurs saliva production and lubricates the mouth in the dusty infield environment. When fielding gloves came into vogue in the 1870s and 1880s, players moistened the leather with spit. Pitchers used the juice from a chaw to prepare the notorious spitball, which was widely permitted until 1920.
It’s not surprising that chewing tobacco has become identified with baseball. Both pastimes came of age when America was trying to separate itself, politically and culturally, from mother England. Pipe smoking was the preferred tobacco delivery method in both regions until the 18th century, when sophisticated Englishmen became enamored of snuff—finely ground tobacco powder that they inhaled through the nose. Americans rejected the pretentious culture of dainty boxes and started chewing tobacco instead. Charles Dickens, who visited the United States in 1842, referred to Washington as “the headquarters of tobacco tinctured saliva” and described a trial at which the judge, defendant, jury, and spectators all had their own spittoons. He also observed signs at a medical college requesting that students expectorate into designated boxes so as not to “discolour the stairs.” In the same year as Dickens’ visit, Americans played what was likely the first-ever game of baseball, in Manhattan.
The chewing habit hit its high-water mark in 1890, when the average American gnawed through more than 3 pounds of tobacco. At that point, baseball already had two professional leagues and a players’ union. But tobacco chewing faded quickly among the general population over the next decade, after German microbiologist Robert Koch showed that spitting contributed to the spread of tuberculosis. Major cities passed anti-spitting laws and removed spittoons from public places just before the turn of the century. Cigarettes, whose retail price was halved by the 1880 invention of an automated rolling machine, surpassed chewing tobacco in popularity in 1918.
Ballplayers lagged behind in making the switch. Besides the utility of a little extra spit, many players were suspicious of smoking. Several trainers blamed fatigue and hitting slumps on cigarettes. The sudden decline of former batting champion and career .308 hitter Michael “King” Kelly—he hit just .189 in 1892 and was only able to play 78 games—was attributed to his longtime habit of smoking while patrolling the outfield. The rate of smokeless tobacco use among ballplayers did start to decline in the early 20th century, but change was slow. There was even a resurgence of the practice starting in the late-1960s, after the federal government began touting the dangers of cigarettes. Smokeless-tobacco makers jumped on the opportunity by placing free tins of dip—a more refined product that doesn’t require chewing—in major league clubhouses. A 1999 study found that 31 percent of the league’s rookies used smokeless tobacco, compared with 6.5 percent of American males.
Professional baseball has made some efforts to curtail the use of chewing tobacco. The Minor Leagues banned it from ballparks in 1993, with fines ranging from $100 to $1,000. There’s no ban in the majors, however. Any such measure would require alteration of the collective bargaining agreement between players and owners. The union has so far resisted the move.
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