WASHINGTON — Always a hidebound sport, baseball has accepted interleague play, the wild card and even video replay in the last 20 years.
Now a campaign backed by members of Congress and Commissioner Bud Selig is taking on something that’s been a part of the game’s culture for well over 150 years — chewing tobacco on the field.
Public health groups have gained traction with a classic argument: When ballplayers are seen chewing a wad of tobacco or using dip — products collectively known as smokeless tobacco — they set a bad health example for kids who look up to the athletes as role models.
To which Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Mark Kotsay replies: “I’ve seen the president drink a beer, right? I don’t know. I don’t get all the rules and regulations.”
The problem, anti-tobacco advocates say, is the increasing use of smokeless products by young people and the health risks that go with the habit.
The Centers for Disease Control says that smokeless tobacco can cause cancer, oral health problems and nicotine addiction, and stresses it is not a safe alternative to smoking. Despite the risks, the CDC’s most recent survey found that in 2009, 15 percent of high school boys used smokeless tobacco — a more than one-third increase over 2003, when 11 percent did.
The sport’s current collective bargaining agreement expires in December, and Selig, who endorsed the ban in March, has said he will propose it in the new contract. Union head Michael Weiner said in June that “a sincere effort” will be made to address the issue. Neither side would comment on the status of a tobacco ban in negotiations.
“I believe that’ll be a really tough sell,” said Kotsay, a tobacco user.
Nonetheless, Major League Baseball is so keen on scrubbing tobacco from the sport that it asked Sony Pictures to remove scenes depicting its use in the movie “Moneyball,” though the studio declined to do so. In the new film, Brad Pitt plays Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, and incorporates several of his habits, including dipping.
“That came pretty easily,” Pitt told reporters this week. “I grew up with a little dip.”
Baseball spokesman Pat Courtney said the studio agreed to many of MLB’s suggestions in the film, but decided to keep Beane’s tobacco use as a matter of authenticity, because he used the product at the time the movie is set (Beane has since quit dipping).
Health groups are urging a ban on players using the product any time they’re on camera, including the field and dugout. Several members of Congress have also urged a prohibition, such as Democratic Sens. Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey and Dick Durbin of Illinois, and Democratic Reps. Henry Waxman of California and Frank Pallone of New Jersey. Smokeless tobacco already is prohibited in the non-unionized minor leagues.
But some players see the commissioner’s proposal as an infringement on their freedom.
“We’re all adults here,” said White Sox pitcher Jake Peavy. “We should get to make our own decisions. I’m a grown man. I’ve got a mortgage. I can make my own decisions.”
“What’s next?” asked his teammate, Adam Dunn, who dips. “They’re going to have a sugar ban? I think it’s personal choice. I’m not promoting it and I understand kids look up to us. I think we’re grown-ups.”
The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, one of the groups leading the effort for the ban, counters that baseball players have a responsibility beyond themselves.
“What we’re talking about here is baseball players as role models for young adolescents who don’t appreciate the risk, and don’t understand the power of addiction,” said the group’s president, Matthew Myers. “Baseball players are free to do what they want when they’re not at the ballpark, when they’re not on television. Our concern is that their behavior is affecting another generatio n of children.” Other health groups pushing a ban include the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Cancer Society and the American Medical Association.
“This is one of the most important places where youth are exposed to seeing people use smokeless tobacco,” said Myers, adding that supporters will make a big push for the ban around the playoffs and World Series.
Not all players are closed to the idea. Washington Nationals closer Drew Storen, the team’s player representative, said he hasn’t made up his mind on the question.
“We are role models for kids,” said Storen, who does not use tobacco. “At the same time, I think as long as it’s not blatant … I can see both sides of it.”
Baseball players have been chewing tobacco since the formative days of the sport in the mid-1800s, when munching on the leaves was something of a national pastime itself. By one estimate, the average American chewed three pounds of tobacco a year, and spittoons were commonplace.
English novelist Charles Dickens, writing about his 1842 tour of the United States, mocked Washington as the “the head-quarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva.” He lamented that “chewing and expectorating” were common all over America: “In the courts of law, the judge has his spittoon, the crier his, the witness his, and the prisoner his; while the jurymen and spectators are provided f or, as so many men who in the course of nature must desire to spit incessantly.”
Roberta Newman, a professor with New York University’s Liberal Studies program who has studied baseball’s history with tobacco, said that players soon discovered benefits to chewing: tobacco juice softened gloves, and could be used to doctor baseballs. Indeed, tobacco juice was part of the spitballer’s arsenal until baseball banned the spitter in 1920.
“Tobacco’s a stimulant, it helps you stay alert, it helps keep your mouth wet,” Newman added.
Even when chewing tobacco fell out of favor among Americans around 1890, it persisted in baseball, she said: “Baseball’s incredibly conservative, and unwilling to give stuff up.”
Kenneth Garcia, spokesman for Richmond, Va.-based Altria Group Inc., whose U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co. subsidiary holds the largest share of the U.S. retail market with brands like Copenhagen and Skoal, said the issue was one for baseball and the players to decide. But he added: “There are organizations and people out there whose perspective is that they’re concerned, and we are too, abo ut the impact that baseball players’ use of smokeless tobacco may have on kids who watch these games.”
Baseball banned smokeless tobacco in the minor leagues in 1993. Recent call-ups from the minors spoke of “Dip Police” who would come through clubhouses and cite players if they saw tobacco at their lockers, subjecting violators to fines.
Washington Nationals pitcher Brad Peacock, who jokingly shuffled a can of tobacco out of site when approached by a reporter, said the minor league ban was effective. “It made me want to stop because I didn’t want to pay that fine,” said Peacock, who was recalled from the minors this month. He said a major league ban on players using tobacco on the field would be fair.
“I definitely don’t do it in front of kids at all,” he said. “It’s a bad habit. I hate it.”