Smokeless tobacco makes Hank Aaron 'mad as hell'

October 07, 1994|By ROGER SIMON

WASHINGTON -- Mickey Mantle looked pretty good, better than he has looked in years. He has not had a drink in about nine months, and his face has lost that haggard look.

Back in April, he had said: "I still can't remember much of the last 10 years, but from what I've been told, I really don't want those memories."

Yesterday, he talked about some things he did remember.

As he spoke, Hank Aaron looked on, getting ready for his turn. Aaron looks terrific. He may be a pound or two over his playing weight, but he carries it well.

Joe Garagiola, who was acting as emcee, looked exactly like he is supposed to: round and bald and funny.

No, it was Bill Tuttle who caught the eye.

Bill Tuttle's face is only partly there. The left side is collapsed, and that pulls one side of his mouth into a grimace. He has no teeth.

He played major league baseball for 11 years. Now, he goes to high schools and grammar schools and talks to the kids. The grammar schools are the most important. That is the age at which many kids begin using chewing tobacco and snuff in this country.

While cigarette use is going down in America, smokeless tobacco use -- "spit" tobacco as its opponents now call it -- is going up. Last year, tobacco companies sold 50 million pounds of it.

"Spit tobacco is an adolescent addiction," M. Joycelyn Elders, surgeon general of the United States, said this day. "Young people are four times more likely to use snuff as older people. Youths use spit tobacco as early as kindergarten."

Mickey Mantle didn't start using it quite that young, but nearly.

"My dad worked in the lead mines in Oklahoma, and as soon as I was old enough, I worked in the mines, too," Mantle said. "We chewed tobacco because it made us breathe through our noses and that filtered out a little of the mine dust."

When he was 19, Mantle went to play for the New York Yankees. He kept chewing until Casey Stengel asked him to quit. Stengel thought it set a bad example for kids.

"There's a picture of me and Willie Mays," Mantle said. "We came up together and we're both 19 and we're looking pretty good. But I'm standing there with my cheek puffed out with tobacco. People still come up to me and ask me to autograph that picture. Every time I see it, I want to rip it in half."

Hank Aaron got up. "This is a true story," he said. "It was 1957. I met a young man in Chicago, he was 18, and Notre Dame and all the Big 10 schools were recruiting him to play football. He went to college and took a physical. They found some bubbles on his lip. They told him to stop chewing tobacco. He told them he couldn't. He was addicted.

"In his second year at school, the bubbles turned to cancer. They cut off part of his face. Then his tongue. In less than three years, that young man was dead. He had a dream. He wanted to play professional ball. But he was dead.

"When I was farm director of the Braves, I ordered all the uniforms without back pockets so players couldn't keep their tins of tobacco there. I see on TV all these players with those little tins of Skoal back there and it makes me mad as hell."

Bill Tuttle took a drink of water and then quickly mopped his mouth with a napkin. His mouth doesn't work so good these days. He stood and began to speak.

"I was playing with Detroit and I got hurt sliding into a base and I couldn't play for a week," Tuttle said. "Harvey Kuenn, he dipped a chew, and I figured, well, if I get sick from it, I won't miss a game, because I can't play anyway. So Harvey lent me some. Pretty soon, I was buying my own. That was 1955."

Forty years later, he was on an operating table at the University of Minnesota Hospital for 13 and a half hours, during which time doctors removed the largest malignant tumor they had ever taken from a human mouth. Then they tried to build Tuttle a new face. All things considered, they did not do a bad job.

Today, Tuttle goes from school to school as part of the National Spit Tobacco Education Program. In many schools, kids keep a tin in the back pocket of their pants because they have seen major leaguers do it.

Tuttle knows what it is like to be young and to have dreams of playing ball. These days, however, he has other dreams.

"If the swelling goes down some, they say they can give me a set of teeth," Bill Tuttle said. "That's my dream today. I'd really like to have teeth again."

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