As more former major leaguers struggle with or die from cancer caused by smokeless tobacco, MLB needs to step up and prohibit its use.
Curt Schilling has mouth cancer, and he’s convinced it was caused by chewing tobacco. Schilling announced in February that he had been diagnosed with cancer, but he didn’t reveal the type of cancer until Wednesday morning, when he appeared on Boston’s WEEI/NESN Telethon to benefit the Jimmy Fund, the Boston-based cancer charity that has been closely associated with Boston sports since its founding in 1948. Schilling’s announcement comes two months after Tony Gwynn’s death from salivary gland cancer, a disease Gwynn was also convinced stemmed from his chewing tobacco use.
"I do believe, without a doubt, unquestionably, that chewing was what gave me cancer," Schilling said Wednesday morning while describing his battle with squamous cell carcinoma, which has seen him shed 75 pounds due to the difficulty he has swallowing. "I [dipped] for about 30 years. It was an addictive habit. I can think of so many times in my life when it was so relaxing to just sit back and have a dip and do whatever, and I lost my sense of smell, my taste buds for the most part. I had gum issues, they bled, all this other stuff. None of it was enough to ever make me quit. The pain that I was in going through this treatment, the second or third day, it was the only thing in my life that had that I wish I could go back and never have dipped. Not once. It was so painful."
Schilling and Gwynn are only the most recent major leaguers to develop oral cancers following extensive smokeless tobacco use. Marlins third-base coach Brett Butler was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma in 1996, while he was still playing centerfield for the Dodgers. Bill Tuttle, an outfielder for the Tigers and Athletics in the 1950s, had parts of his face removed in the 1990s due to cancer likely stemming from his tobacco use. Jim Thorpe, the legendary all-around athlete who played parts of six seasons in the major leagues in the 1910s, developed lip cancer before his death from a heart attack in the early '50s.
Other players have had less serious side effects from tobacco use. Lenny Dykstra, a notorious dipper in the 1980s and ‘90s famous for his tobacco-stained uniforms, has had to replace all but a few of his original teeth. In 2012, Josh Hamilton cited his struggle to quit chewing tobacco, and the resulting withdrawal symptoms, as a reason for one of his many slumps, drawing attention to the substance’s addictive properties.
Baseball banned smokeless tobacco in the minor leagues in 1993, but due to resistance from the Major League Baseball Players Association, has only been able to enact half-measures in the majors. The most recent collective bargaining agreement contains the following prohibition on smokeless tobacco:
The use of smokeless tobacco by Players, manager and coaches during televised interviews or Paragraph 3(b) appearances [promotional appearances] on behalf of the Club is prohibited. At any time when fans are permitted into the ballpark, Players, managers, coaches and other on-field personnel will conceal tobacco products (including tobacco tins or packages) and may not carry tobacco products (including tobacco tins or packages) in their uniform or on their body.
That clause has eliminated the formerly familiar sight of round tins in back pockets, but it does not ban dipping during major league games. Players can’t carry a tin in front of a trickle of fans during batting practice, but they can chew in front of millions.
Major League Baseball reportedly pushed very hard for a smokeless tobacco ban during the negotiations for the last CBA but was met with equally firm resistance from the union, which cited civil liberties and the lack of harmful second-hand smoke, which is the factor that has enabled such extensive limitations on smoking in public places. I’m a firm believer in civil liberties, but I also believe that an employer has a right to ban certain objectionable behaviors in the workplace and feel that goes double for behaviors that are exhibited in public while on the job.
With that in mind, there are several additional measures MLB could consider. A simple one would be to permit players to dip during games but prohibit them from spitting tobacco juice on stadium grounds. That would effectively limit chewing to dugouts and clubhouses, where players would have access to a receptacle for their expectorations. From there, MLB could impose fines on players caught dipping on camera or go as far as to say that players cannot chew tobacco while in uniform. In both cases, the players are acting as public representatives of their teams and MLB, just as they are at the promotional functions at which tobacco is already banned. I have difficulty understanding how the union manages to draw a line between the two.
MLB will surely be met with further resistance from the union on those matters, but one thing it can do is something it actually agreed to do in 2011: Launch an active and visible anti-tobacco campaign. The current CBA, which went into effect in 2012, says that the league and the players will create:
[J]oint educational programs and materials . . . for the public regarding the dangers of smokeless tobacco . . . [including] a public service announcement, including Players . . . that will be available for distribution . . . [and] download on . . . MLB.com and MLBPlayers.com, and will be played . . . during broadcasts of the All-Star Game; all Wild Card, Division Series, League Championship Series and World Series games; and any other game broadcast on FOX, ESPN, TBS or the MLB Network.
I have no recollection of any such public service announcement. More significantly, my attempts to find a video of the PSA on MLB.com, MLBPlayers.com, DrugFree.org or via Google search have proven fruitless. If MLB did create an anti-tobacco PSA, they buried it, much in the same way that FOX made no mention of the tobacco-related passing of Gwynn during the broadcast of the All-Star Game just one month after his death.
For a sport that has a long, troubling relationship with tobacco, Gwynn’s death and Schilling’s admission should serve as a wake-up call that both MLB and its players need to be more active in reducing use within the game (current estimates are that roughly a third of major league players chew tobacco) and discouraging use by those who watch it. Gwynn himself provided baseball with the perfect summation in a statement to be included in the game’s internal educational video shown to players in the majors and minors: "My advice to anyone would be that if you aren’t using spit tobacco, please don’t start. And if you are using, try to quit. If not for yourself, then do it for the people you love."
Stephen Strasburg and Addison Russell, two pitchers who played for Gwynn at San Diego State University, have already heeded Gwynn’s message and quit tobacco in honor of their late coach. Now it’s time for MLB to take Gwynn’s message to the public.