Mehno: Tobacco use is hot issue again after Gwynn death

PITTSBURGH – Fair warning if you’re reading this with your morning bowl of Cocoa Puffs: The subject matter is disgusting.

It’s chewing tobacco, and its relationship to baseball, which goes back a long time.

Those of us who collected baseball cards in a bygone age recall when the photos were posed rather than action shots. There were always players who smiled for the camera with a cheek bulging from a plug of tobacco.

It seemed like it was part of the game. Bill Mazeroski would come to the plate, working on a chew. Jim Bouton helped invent Big League Chew, shredded bubble gum in a foil pouch that led kids re-create the look of chewing tobacco.

Later players started to use smokeless tobacco. Sparky Lyle did TV commercials for one brand (“just a pinch between my cheek and gum” was the tag line). Players loved their “dip.”

Even clean-cut Jay Bell would put the stuff in his mouth. It was addictive. No chewing, but still plenty of spitting. A lot of players would have the can visible in their back pockets. It was part of baseball cool, just like pants over the shoe tops are now.

Somewhere along the way, medical research confirmed the obvious: It isn’t healthy to have tobacco in the mouth for long periods of time. No matter how much they flavored the stuff with mint and other distractions, it was still corrosive.

The major league trainers fought to have tobacco banned from the clubhouse. They got that, but it meant little. Instead of depending on the clubhouse man to supply them, players simply peeled off a couple of bills and bought their own. Jason Kendall had his locker stacked tall with cartons of smokeless stuff.

Former player and broadcaster Joe Garagiola was one of the vocal critics of tobacco use. He would tour spring training camps every year to warn about the dangers. Sometimes he was accompanied by Bill Tuttle, a former major league outfielder who had endured several surgeries that were necessitated by his long-term use of mouth tobacco.

Tuttle was left without a big portion of his jaw. It was tough to look at him. The players listened politely. Then a lot of them reached into their back pockets and resumed their habit as soon as they took the field.

Tobacco has been banned in the minor leagues. It’s been tougher to do that in the major leagues, because the union has to sign off on any restriction.

It’s a hot-button issue again following the death of Tony Gwynn from salivary cancer. Gwynn and his family and believed that his long-term use of dip led to the illness that claimed his life at age 54.

Gwynn was no Bill Tuttle, a long-forgotten player. He was a Hall of Famer, a batting champion. Everyone knew him. His death at a relatively young age came as a terrible shock.

His legacy, beyond the batting titles, could be a movement to ban tobacco from baseball. If that happens, it will be a greater contribution than the significant ones Gwynn made on the field over his long and distinguished career.

Mehno can be reached at