Baseball not set to polish off spitting image

October 20, 1993|By David Behrens | David Behrens,Newsday

It's traditional. It's cultural. It's as old-fashioned as the spittoon and just as American. It's something big-league baseball players always did.

Now it's World Series time again, attracting viewers not as accustomed to the idiosyncrasies of the game. Then comes the inevitable question: Why do baseball players spit so much?

It all started, of course, with chewing tobacco. In the grand old days of baseball, early in the century, almost everybody who played the game professionally chewed tobacco. The game was played on grass in the sunlight, and many of the players were raw-boned kids off the farm. Baseball was a paycheck for just six months a year then, and in the off-season the players returned to communities where smoking tobacco got in the way of chores and even Granny liked a chaw now and then.

"It just became one of baseball's nutty traditions," says Dr. Allan Lans, who might very well be an expert in nuttiness, having served as New York Mets resident psychiatrist.

"It was hot out there in the outfield. Your mouth was parched. So you chewed tobacco and you salivated more. It kept your mouth moist and your brain occupied. You couldn't smoke a cigarette, after all. What would you do if the ball came your way?"

As years passed, some players wrapped gum around their chaw to keep it intact. And a few nonconformists, who didn't like tobacco's taste, chewed gum instead. But all of them spat. For the gum-chewers, there was no real physiological need to spit, Lans says. "It was part of the imagery of baseball."

But we never saw Joe DiMaggio spit. A few old-timers say he never did. We never saw Duke Snider spit. The bleachers were too far away and there were few TV close-ups. Later, we found out that, in fact, he did.

Basketball players, of course, don't spit: Maybe they run too fast. Maybe it's the wooden floors. Football players spit, but not so much: Maybe they aren't caught so often in sideline close-ups. Maybe the face masks make it inconvenient. The Doublemint Twins -- the ones who double their pleasure and double their fun -- don't spit. Spitting's just one of those leisure-time activities, perfect for the quirky laziness of baseball.

There are legendary moments in the culture of spit: When former Chicago Cubs Manager Don Zimmer, one of the champion chewers, got so angry at an umpire that he pulled his chaw out of his mouth and threw it to the ground. His fury subsided when he had to retrieve his dentures, still biting into the tobacco.

Jim Ogle, a former sportswriter who heads the New York Yankee Alumni Association, says there wasn't much of a fuss about chewing and spitting when he covered the Yankees, beginning in the 1940s. "A lot of guys chewed and nobody paid much attention. If you chewed, you chewed and nobody worried whether it was gonna kill you or not."

"A lot of them said it was relaxing," Ogle recounts. "They couldn't smoke on the bench so they chewed. They were in the dugout every half an inning or not playing at all, sitting for the whole afternoon with nothing to do. So they chewed."

And players today? "They probably started spitting when they were kids, chewing gum and spitting, like the big-league players, chewing tobacco and spitting." A few years ago, in fact, "Big League Chew," a shredded bubble gum, came along. Now kids can dip into their little pouch for a chaw of gum.

And bubble gum is becoming the chaw of adulthood, too. "Because of the focus on cancer and heart disease, a lot are trying to break the tobacco habit," Mets publicist Jay Horwitz says. John Kruk, Philadelphia's first baseman, for instance, now chews about 10 to 15 packs of gum a game and still spits like a champ. And in the dugout, his teammates are chewing sunflower seeds.

In the old days, chewing and spitting went unremarked. Baseball FTC players sat in the clubhouse with little spit cups, a polite gesture for some. And major-league teams supplied free chewing tobacco.

It is a deadly habit, says the American Cancer Society, which reported 8,000 deaths and 31,000 new cases of oral cancer last year. In the summer of 1993, organized baseball responded, banning the use of tobacco in the minor leagues. Even before the ban, chewing gum and sunflower seeds replaced chewing tobacco as freebies distributed in the clubhouse.

There are die-hards, of course, such as Phillies manager Jim Fregosi and teammate Len Dykstra, the National League's most valuable chewer, who still bats with a chaw-packed cheek.

But are more players really spitting these days, or does it just seem that way? Is it just closer television coverage? Well, says psychiatrist Lans, "it doesn't take too many guys spitting to make it seem like an awful lot."

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