Chew and America’s Favorite Pastime: Rethinking Tradition

It’s a quintessential part of the game: a player glances around the field, punches his mitt, and gruffly sends a spurt of juice off over his shoulder while gearing up for the next play. Smokeless tobacco has been the habit of choice for ball players since the Major Leagues were first formed. Times are changing, though, and today’s players and coaches are stepping up to the plate and away from the tin.

America’s Two Favorite Pastimes

Chewing is the earliest method of ingesting tobacco. Long before European settlers came to these shores, Native Americans were creating the chewing culture. These inventors were chewing dried leaves, often mixing them with lime to produce a pleasurable mix of flavors. Until the mid-20th century, chewing was the most popular form of tobacco use. When the rules of professional baseball were first compiled in 1845, many players participated in the habit of chewing tobacco. The health risks were unknown at the time, and players used chew as a way to keep their mouths and mitts moist while playing for long hours out in the dust. Tobacco juice was a key ingredient to the “spitball,” which was banned in 1920. Even the term “bullpen,” coined in 1860, came from the enormously popular Bull Durham brand of chew offered by the Blackwell Tobacco Company.

After World War II, cigarettes overtook chewing tobacco in popularity, and baseball players followed the trend until the 1970s, when the Surgeon General of the United States and other health authorities began to discuss the dangers of smoking. As a result, Major and Minor Leaguers alike went back to chewing during their games.

Players and Legislators

Unfortunately, smokeless chew has its own set of risks like smoking does, and various legislative and governing bodies have taken steps to ban its continued use at baseball games. In 1993, the Minor Leagues prohibited players, coaches, and staff from using chew during games. The National Collegiate Athletic Association followed suit shortly afterward. Part of a Major League union contract signed in 2011 forbids any use of smokeless tobacco during interviews before and after games. Although chewing is permitted during games, the leniency only stands if the pouch or tin is out of sight.

In 2011, four U.S. Senators—Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, and Dick Durbin of Illinois—petitioned Major League Baseball (MLB) to ban all use of smokeless tobacco. The MLB Commissioner Bud Selig approached the players’ union with the ban, but it was ultimately rejected. However, the union has plans for a program to help players quit their own nicotine use.

Players and officials in the minor and college leagues freely admit that the ban is not entirely enforced, but there seems at least to be a concerted effort to hide the use from fans. Beyond the health risks to tobacco users, the impetus behind the bans and projected national legislation is to avoid glamorizing smokeless tobacco on television and at games.

What’s New with Chew

Many players say that having something in their mouth helps them focus on the game, and a few claim that they only use chew during the active baseball season. But tobacco isn’t the only thing found in the mouths of baseball icons throughout the sport. Many players have replaced this long-standing habit on the field with chewing gum, sunflower seeds, and tobacco-free herbal chew. In more recent times, these alternative options have become more prevalent in the dugout and during game play. Many users find that the nicotine-free chew alternatives help them fight the cravings or reduce their overall tobacco consumption.

The long relationship between baseball and chewing isn’t over, but the future looks like it will include less tobacco, at least as far as the public eye is concerned. Players themselves are divided on the issue of whether or not to keep it out of the game. Some prefer to maintain a tobacco-free image, while others feel that their decisions as adults are nobody’s business but their own. What role the MLB and federal legislators will take to further curtail tobacco use remains to be seen, but whatever happens, baseball will weather this change, and the game will remain an important icon of the American summer.