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Tony Gwynn's last days: Cancer, tobacco and the death of a legend

San Diego Padres legend Tony Gwynn, who died of cancer in 2014 at age 54, saw his final years marked by an inability to kick his addiction to smokeless tobacco.

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Tony Gwynn was diagnosed with cancer in the summer of 2010, after a lump sprouted from a tiny space inside his right cheek called the parotid gland. Most of that lump, a malignant tumor, was excised along with Gwynn’s lymph nodes in a surgery from which the face of San Diego emerged unable to smile or close his right eye. (To sleep, he taped the eye shut.) Chemotherapy left him dry-mouthed. Radiation treatments littered his face with open sores. But by the end of the treatment, the cancer appeared to be gone.

Then in the winter of 2012, the cancer returned, to the exact same spot. It took surgeons almost 14 hours to remove Gwynn’s latest lump, which sat on a nerve that controls facial expression. To replace the bits of the nerve that had to be cut away—and to prevent half his face from turning to stone—doctors grafted a nerve from Gwynn’s neck. After another round of chemo and radiation, the cancer was gone again.

A year later, it was back.

By this point, Gwynn was exhausted. He declined further radiation, which meant wearing a claustrophobia-inducing mask, and waved off a second opinion from the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, because it was too far away from home. “I’m dying,” he told his doctors. “I’m gonna go out my way. Let me enjoy what I can enjoy.” And in those last days, nothing made him feel more alive than working.

Gwynn coached the San Diego State baseball team for 12 seasons. But his devotion to the Aztecs was never more plain than in the last four years—from the first cancer diagnosis until his death on June 16, 2014, at 54. Only the most withering pain could keep him away from the dugout. Sometimes Gwynn went to work straight from the hospital, often with his face covered in bandages. “That’s one of the most amazing things about that whole time period,” says Aztecs senior outfielder Spencer Thornton. “I really didn’t put it in perspective until later on—like, Man, this is crazy.This guy’s out here, and he’s got cancer. He’s deep into chemotherapy treatments. He’s not feeling good. But he would never let any of us know that. If he was here, he was gonna give it his all.”

In some respects, Gwynn hasn’t left. Friends, family, fans—they still talk about him in the present tense. His old ballpark office in the stadium that bears his name—a shuttered concession stand with a giant rat trap by the door—remains unoccupied, out of respect. Same goes for his home field perch, a worn black leather office chair that sits near the dugout steps. His likeness looms over the rightfield wall, in his short-sleeve windbreaker and Oakley shades, reminding the Aztecs to “do things right.” That had been Gwynn’s slogan since taking over as coach of his alma mater in 2003, two years after retiring from the Padres after 20 seasons in the outfield and a Hall of Fame career.

If Gwynn were ever going to stop chewing tobacco—which is forbidden in college baseball—it would have been there. But he never did. In an otherwise squeaky clean life, dipping was Gwynn’s only vice. Was it also the reason he died?

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Officially, the cause of Gwynn’s death was complications related to parotid cancer, a rare malignancy of the salivary gland. Even as he wasted away, Gwynn was convinced of a link between his cancer and smokeless tobacco, his unshakeable routine for more than three decades; his malignant tumor had grown from the same tiny space inside his right cheek where he’d always gotten his fix. “His thing was 'educate to choose,'” says his wife, Alicia. Arm people with the information to arrive at their own decisions. Anything stronger, he felt, might’ve sounded too hypocritical coming from him. “He was going to start something, a program,” she says. “But he didn’t get the chance.”

Initially, in media reports at the time of Gwynn’s death, the link between Gwynn’s habit and his cancer was questioned by two of Gwynn’s San Diego-based doctors: Prabhakar Tripuraneni, the head of radiation oncology at Scripps Clinic; and Loren Mell, a consultant of the Gwynns who is the chief of head and neck radiation oncology service at the Moores Cancer Center. Even as they acknowledged that smokeless tobacco could lead to plenty of heath problems, “in the case of parotid cancers, there’s not a single, unified cause that’s identified,” Mell told the San Diego Union Tribune in 2014. “He may have chewed tobacco, but that’s not likely to be the cause.” But Mell is reconsidering that position since reviewing a key piece of clinical research that has emerged as part of a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Gwynn’s family in Superior Court last month.

MORE MLB: Remembering Tony Gwynn, a San Diego legend and hero

Among other things, the complaint—which was filed by Alicia; his daughter, Anisha; and his son, Tony, in San Diego Superior Court—alleges that Altria Group, Inc. (which used to be known as Philip Morris Companies, Inc.) preyed on Gwynn and others from a young age and groomed them into lifelong customers while hiding the toxic effects of their products. “He never knew it,” Anisha said in a press release when the lawsuit was filed, “but they were using him to promote their dip to the next generation of kids and fans who idolized him.” (Altria declined to comment to SI.)

For the nearly two years they’ve been in mourning, the family has avoided public speculation about Gwynn’s true cause of death. With this lawsuit, however, the Gwynns move to the front lines of a smokeless tobacco counteroffensive that has led to prohibitions on the use of tobacco in ballparks in five major league cities and a California-wide ban that will go into effect next year—six months after the All-Star Game at San Diego’s Petco Park on July 12.

Some major league players have not welcomed these reforms. Ironically, Gwynn—who feared being immortalized as yet another cautionary tale in baseball’s long and ignominious smokeless tobacco narrative—might not have welcomed them either. As for his family, they don’t want anyone else to have to go through what they did.

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Gwynn won eight batting titles and made 15 All-Star teams in his Hall of Fame career, all of which was spent with the Padres.

Gwynn won eight batting titles and made 15 All-Star teams in his Hall of Fame career, all of which was spent with the Padres.

Gwynn’s best drinking story dates back more than 35 years—to his bachelor party, which he spent among his Aztecs teammates, wincing down shot after shot. Nobody can remember him ever touching a cigarette. The only thing he disliked more than recreational drugs were performance-enhancing drugs—especially greenies, i.e. amphetamines, which he considered on par with steroids. Fast food and junk food were guilty pleasures. Smokeless tobacco, though, was something else.

Gwynn often referred to himself as a “tobacco junkie.” His preferred form of it was snuff, which is finely ground from tobacco leaves, and his preferred brand was Copenhagen, which like most snuff comes in a tin. At the peak of his habit he would go through 1 1/2 or two tins a day. He relished the buzz from nicotine—which, according to the American Cancer Society, is as addictive as heroin or cocaine—that snuff delivers into the bloodstream through the cheek and gums.

While a 1964 surgeon general’s report led to a flood of research linking cigarette smoking to afflictions such as heart disease and lung cancer, the impact of smokeless tobacco hasn’t been explored nearly as extensively. One exception is a research paper published in a 1986 issue of the medical journal Head & Neck, which studied the relationship between types of tobacco use and the risks of head and neck cancer. Drawing from the state of Florida’s cancer registry, it found that “users of smokeless tobacco experienced 11 times the risk of cancers of the mouth and gum as nonusers of any tobacco product.”

Mell, who was pointed to these findings by the Gwynns’ lawyers, found the study “certainly plausible,” but he says it would take much more research to make an unimpeachable medical case against smokeless tobacco as a cause of Gwynn’s specific form of cancer. “The awareness of that study doesn’t necessarily sway my opinion, which was always just that there was no established link,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t one. The absence of evidence isn’t the evidence of absence.”

Another issue the lawsuit raises is baseball’s historically cozy relationship with Big Tobacco, which has counted Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Lou Gehrig among its pitchmen. While players were forbidden to shill for tobacco companies after the 1964 surgeon general’s report, violators were only fined. Tobacco companies spun smokeless tobacco as the healthier alternative, and the dips and chews often came in a variety of sweet, kid-friendly flavors like “warm winter toffee” and “midnight berry.” Chewing tobacco is still advertised widely, including in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. Warning labels noting that the product increased the risk of cancer, gum disease and tooth loss didn’t appear on the packaging until 1987. By then, Gwynn had been dipping for 10 years. He was clipping coupons and sending away for free samples. And the tobacco companies had launched a relentless marketing and advertising offensive that targeted African-American men, the Gwynn family lawsuit alleges.

Baseball cards (or “tobacco trading cards,” as they were first called) featured a great many chipmunk-cheeked players. These players could further be observed stuffing their faces during games, in the dugout and on the field. Gwynn? He would step into the batter’s box with a tin in his back pocket, then step out between pitches to expectorate off to the side. It was all part of his plate presence. “When Tony became a big league player,” says Alicia, “he’d get big long rolls of Skoal and Copenhagen at the ballpark for free.”

For many young fans who bore witness to all this from a distance, there was no separating appeal from risk. High school boys have proved especially impressionable. Their use of smokeless tobacco has held steady at around 15% since 1999 even as smoking rates in that cohort have fallen precipitously, according to a September 2015 national survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Tony Gwynn was a joy to watch at the plate, and in life

Still, a national movement to eradicate smokeless tobacco use didn’t coalesce until after Gwynn’s passing. Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City and San Francisco passed prohibitions against smokeless tobacco use at ballparks that have gone into effect this baseball season. Get popped in Chicago, which passed its ordinance this spring, and you’ll be out $250 on the first offense and up to $2,500 for the third. “We’re grown men,” Cubs pitcher John Lackey told reporters in March. “People in the stands can have a beer, but we can’t do what we want? That’s a little messed up.” Added his manager, Joe Maddon, “I’m not into over-legislating the human race.”

Spurring these reforms are nonprofit groups like the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. With each success, they put more pressure on the MLB Players Association to ratify a smokeless tobacco ban. In fact, that would seem to be one of the sticking points left in the negotiations over the next CBA; the current one expires after this season. (“You are right about that,” says Bud Selig, the former MLB commissioner. “We discussed this with the union over and over.”)

After Gwynn’s death, smokeless tobacco users around the league reconsidered the habit. Two of Gwynn’s former Aztecs hurlers, Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg and Mets reliever Addison Reed, made very public vows to quit.

Over the past few years, MLB has adjusted its own relationship with tobacco, working toward reform with stronger measures than just using sunflower seeds or bubble gum as a substitute. In 2015 it brought on a general internist, Michael B. Steinberg, as a “smokeless tobacco cessation consultant.” Hard-won amendments in the current CBA bar players from having smokeless tobacco on their person during games or from using it during interviews or other official business. Even so, the league’s ability to enforce these measures is murky under the CBA

The concern is that kids will be influenced by watching the pros. As it happens, though, Gwynn didn’t acquire his chewing habit by aping any big leaguer. Curtis Burkhead never made it that far.

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​Back in the late 1970s, Gwynn and Burkhead were the Aztecs’ odd couple. Gwynn was a reticent sophomore, Burkhead an outgoing freshman. Gwynn was an everyday player (at DH to start), Burkhead an off-speed pitcher. Chewing tobacco helped break up the waiting. Once, before a series, “probably Tony’s first road trip,” Burkhead says, “I walked by Tony in the bus and said, ‘Hey, if we beat these guys, you’re gonna have a dip with me on the way home.’ And he said, ‘O.K.’”

When the Aztecs triumphed, Gwynn dutifully extended his thumb and forefinger for a pinch. “So he had a dip with me,” Burkhead continues. “Came home, and he started puking. But the next day he had a dip in.” That was the first time Gwynn tried chewing tobacco. He was 17.

With no NCAA restrictions, smokeless tobacco was all the rage in college baseball. The Gwynn family lawsuit says that during Gwynn’s time in at SDSU, from 1977 to ’81, the campus was especially fertile ground for the tobacco companies, which operated through proxies who lavished students with “free samples and promotional goods.” This despite the best efforts of longtime Aztecs coach Jim Dietz, a tobacco reformist with a personal connection to the issue. “My dad died of smoking in his 60s,” says Dietz, now 78. “It always bothered me.”

Dietz, who was also of the belief that tobacco made his players lethargic, went out of his way to pass along his feelings about the habit to the Aztecs. He enlisted the help of an area dentist, who staged presentations on the perils of tobacco use and checked gums for early cancer signs. “I tried to scare them,” Dietz says. “But you can’t scare college kids.” Instead, he was the one getting scared straight—by his compliance officer. “Coach,” the officer told him, “you gotta be careful with this because the NCAA might consider it an extra benefit.”