Like cigarettes, smokeless tobacco (snuff and chewing tobacco), cause mouth cancer, gum disease, and heart disease. Yet many think that chewing tobacco is harmless or less so than smoking. This is not true!
In 1986, the Surgeon General concluded that the use of smokeless tobacco “is not a safe substitute for smoking cigarettes. It can cause cancer and a number of noncancerous conditions and can lead to nicotine addiction and dependence.” Since 1991, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) has officially recommended that the public avoid and discontinue the use of all tobacco products, including smokeless tobacco. NCI also recognizes that nitrosamines, found in tobacco products, are not safe at any level.
Chewing tobacco and baseball have a long tight affiliation, rooted in the cultural belief among players and fans that baseball players chew tobacco and it is just part of the grand old game. This mystique is slowing changing with campaigns by ballplayers who have had or have seen friends with mouth cancer caused by chewing tobacco use.
Jeff Bagwell, retired first baseman with the Houston Astros and Joe Garagiola, a former baseball player and commentator, campaign against tobacco use among children and addicted adults. In 1993, when Bagwell was 25-years-old, his dentist discovered leukoplakia, a whitish pre-cancerous sore in his mouth where he continually placed chewing tobacco. About 5% of leukoplakias develop into cancer. Fortunately this did not happen to Jeff Bagwell due to the early detection by his dentist.
Rick Bender, The Man Without a Face
In 1988 Rick Bender, a 25 year old minor league baseball player developed a large sore on the side of his tongue that would not go away for months. He began using ‘spitting tobacco’ when he was 12. After seeing his dentist and then a biopsy by a specialist, he was diagnosed with mouth cancer.
Surgeons successfully removed the cancerous cells from Bender’s mouth and throat, taking a chunk of his tongue and the lymph nodes on the right side Pipe tobacco brands of his neck in the process. But removing the cancer also caused nerve damage that limited the use of his right arm, his throwing arm, which ended his baseball career. Later an infection occurred to the right side of Bender’s jaw after radiation therapy. As a result, it deteriorated and doctors had to remove his right jaw.
As a result Rick Bender calls himself “the man without a face” and lectures on the dangers of ‘spitting tobacco’ throughout the nation. Bender visits schools and colleges across the country to dispel what he sees as the myths about chewing tobacco. He also addresses major and minor league baseball players each year at spring training.
Sonoma County has it own tragic baseball related, smokeless tobacco, and mouth cancer story. In June of 1998, Robert Leslie died at the young age of 31 from mouth cancer after years of chewing smokeless tobacco. He had been diagnosed four years prior and had bravely counseled youths against the use of smokeless tobacco after that point. Leslie, who was a star pitcher at Rancho Cotate High School, turned to coaching after a brief attempt at playing professional baseball. He was a beloved coach at Casa Grande High School. He believed, rightly so, that the cancer had resulted from years of stuffing wads of smokeless tobacco between his gums and lower lip. He advocated against the use of chewing tobacco prior to his death. He is missed.
History Of Tobacco Use and Baseball
Tobacco has a long relationship with baseball. From the earlier beginnings of baseball in the late 1800’s, baseball players chewed tobacco to keep their mouths moist in dusty dirt parks of that era. Drinking water was thought to make one feel too heavy. Players also used tobacco spit to soften leather gloves and to give the spitball its wild gyrations.
Chewing tobacco’s popularity among baseball players rose and fell with the times, most often trading places with cigarettes and cigars. The wrongful belief that chewing tobacco caused the spread of tuberculosis lead to its reduction in use during the end of the nineteenth century. During the beginning of the twentieth century, it again rose to major use until after WWII when cigarettes became more popular in the U.S.
During the 1950s, cigarettes reached their greatest prominence when teams actually had sponsored brands. For example, Giant’s fans (New York Giants that is) smoked only Chesterfield Cigarettes to show their team loyalty. During this era, baseball cards were often packaged with cigarettes. As a kid, I remember having my Dad buy Lucky Strikes so I could get the baseball cards.
In 1962, the Surgeon General’s report highlighted the cause and effect between smoking and heart disease and smoking and cancer. Thinking that chewing tobacco was a safer product, baseball players took up smokeless tobacco again. Since then, smokeless tobacco has dominated the sport of baseball, from the major leagues down to the high school level. And similar to the targeted cigarette marketing of the 1950s, smokeless tobacco producers have promoted tobacco chewing through baseball players, even providing free samples in major and minor league clubhouses.