Baseball, smokeless tobacco share long, unhealthy history
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By George Malkemus  April 25, 2014 12:00 am

Spring has sprung and the 2014 baseball season has begun. 

The joy of baseball and the annual spring baseball renewal is an American tradition. Hope is eternal for every team at the beginning of the season. Another American tradition is tobacco use with baseball; one that needs to stop. 

Like cigarettes, smokeless tobacco (snuff and chewing tobacco), causes 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 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 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 slowly changing with campaigns by ballplayers who have had or have seen friends with mouth cancer caused by chewing tobacco use.


Jeff Bagwell

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 percent of leukoplakias develop into cancer. Fortunately, this did not happen to Jeff Bagwell because of 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 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.


Robert Leslie

Sonoma County has its 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 and Garagiola worked together to plead with young people to steer clear of chew. And when Leslie died at age 31, Garagiola came to Petaluma to deliver an eloquent and tearful eulogy.

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 in Petaluma. 

He believed, rightly so, 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 1800s, 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 rises and falls with the times, most often trading places with cigarettes and cigars. The wrongful belief that chewing tobacco caused the spread of tuberculosis lead to chewing tobacco’s reduction in use during the end of the 19th Century. During the beginning of the 20th Century, it again rose to major use until after WWII when cigarettes became more popular in the United States.

During the 1950s, cigarettes reached their greatest prominence when teams actually sponsored brands. For example, Giants 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.

All tobacco, including smokeless tobacco, contains nicotine, which is addictive. The amount of nicotine absorbed from smokeless tobacco is three to four times the amount delivered by a cigarette. Nicotine is absorbed more slowly from smokeless tobacco than from cigarettes, but more nicotine per dose is absorbed from smokeless tobacco than from cigarettes. Also, the nicotine stays in the bloodstream for a longer time.

By giving players free samples of chew tobacco, the smokeless tobacco manufacturers were getting players hooked to the addictive drug nicotine in a tobacco product that contains 28 cancer-causing substances. Recently, I saw a full-page magazine ad from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. with a free coupon for Camel Snuff. It was advertised as “SPITFREE” and “SOLD COLD” in large bold print, while in small print a warning stated, “this product may cause gum disease and tooth loss.”

Big League Chew, a chewing gum aimed at children, is a product that uses the deep connection between baseball and chewing tobacco. Introduced in 1980, Big League Chew consists of shredded bubble gum, which resembles loose chewing tobacco. 

It is packaged in an aluminum foil pouch, similar to the packaging of chewing tobacco, with the cartoon image of a baseball player on the outside. While candy cigarettes, another symbolic tobacco product aimed at children, fell out of favor years ago, Big League Chew continues to be popular with kids.

Luckily, the love affair between baseball and smokeless tobacco seems to be subsiding. In 1993, minor league baseball banned all use of tobacco products among its teams. As result fewer major leaguers are now coming up from those ranks using tobacco products. Campaigns are making headway discouraging tobacco use and encouraging substitute habits like chewing gum or munching on sunflower seeds. 

Remember former Giants manager Dusty Baker, setting an example for young players by stopping tobacco use and chewing sunflower seeds in the dugout?

Still, an estimated 7.6 million Americans age 12 and older (3.4 percent) have used smokeless tobacco in the past month, and smokeless tobacco use is most common among young adults ages 18 to 25.

So, if you use tobacco, please stop. It is the best thing you can do for your health. There are many tobacco cessation programs and nicotine replacement treatments. 

And make sure to have regular cancer screening examinations with your dentist. Early detection is critical for preventing mouth cancer.

Enjoy America’s pastime. Go Giants! Enjoy life and keep smiling.


George Malkemus has a Family and Cosmetic Dental Practice in Rohnert Park at 2 Padre Parkway, Suite 200. Call 585-8595, or email info@ Visit the doctor’s website at

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