That spitting image just doesn't fly Chaw: Baseball tries mightily to rid itself of some nasty tobacco habits, but, gosh darn it, when it's two outs in the ninth

July 13, 1996|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

Say it ain't so, Davey. On the eve of Major League Baseball's All-Star game, the Orioles manager got so stressed -- something about a home run with two outs in the ninth -- that Davey Johnson reached for the dug-out devil: chewing tobacco.

Johnson had quit for two months, then spontaneously unquit during a week when a public campaign began to teach young ballplayers they don't have to stuff snuff in their jowls and risk oral cancer just to act like big-leaguers. Boston's Mo Vaughn is on the campaign. He's the guy who homered to beat the Orioles July 4, which sent Johnson packing and spitting.

"Please yell at him and tell him not to do it," half-jokes Johnson's wife, Susan. "Luckily, Davey chews only in the dugout and not at home."

Smokeless tobacco was not invented in the dugout; it just seems that way. Explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who, to our knowledge, never played ball, recorded a strange practice in his 1499 journal. The New World men "had their cheeks bulging with a certain green herb which they chewed like cattle, so that they could scarely speak." Disgusted, Vespucci promptly turned around and sailed home.

Snuff -- a moist, potent variation of chewing tobacco -- was high-brow stuff in China centuries ago, when ornamental snuff bottles were the perfect gift.

American Indians chewed tobacco for years before that idea was swiped from them. And by the early 19th century, dipping replaced pipe smoking as the most popular oral fixation in these United States. You couldn't spit without hitting a spittoon.

Right up the street, the Demuth Tobacco Shop in Lancaster, Pa., began catering to a Colonial society that preferred snuff over smokes. After 225 years, the business is considered the oldest tobacco shop in the country. They still sell their signature brands, Demuth Plain Scrap and Good Bite. Storekeeper Harold Rebman says some folks still buy cases of the stuff. That's 36 packs to a case. "Chewing tobacco keeps your mouth nice and moist. You get that saliva in your mouth and spit it out," says Rebman, a nonchewer. "Also, if you're in some place where you can't smoke, you can chew tobacco on the sly."

Baseball and spitting have always gone hand-in-glove. Hall-of-Fame spitters included Nellie Fox of the White Sox. Sparky Lyle of the Yankees packed a wad. It's easy to picture the Royals' George Brett not only hitting the ball constantly, but also chewing tobacco with his mouth resembling a blowfish's.

Tobacco companies often sponsored early minor league teams. (Remember Bull Durham.) At one time in the majors, pitchers were allowed to doctor the ball with spit laced with chewing tobacco.

Ball players continued to use snuff and chaw into the modern era of baseball. Television typically catches players spitting on the dugout floor or into a Dixie cup. It's always good for a yuck.

"Up until now, it's been a big joke," says Marion Ceraso, state coordinator for the National Spit Tobacco Education Program. The program has recruited six major league teams, including the Orioles, to support the group's anti-chewing campaign. On July 22 at Camden Yards, the group will hold a ceremony before the Orioles game -- conceivably while some Orioles are chewing in the dugout.

"Well, not only are they advocates for the program," Ceraso says, "but they are also targets of the program." About eight Orioles chew tobacco or snuff, including Bobby Bonilla and Chris Hoiles, says club spokesman John Maroon.

But the ritual seems to be receding. Orioles catcher Gregg Zaun had a 20-dip-a-day habit until Brett Butler's story scared him straight. The Dodgers' Butler, a former tobacco chewer, was diagnosed with cancer of the tonsils this year. Zaun took it to heart. This habit can grow on you. Like a cancer.

The rugged life

We've seen the ads for smokeless tobacco and we, too, want to be a rugged, blue-collar, blue-jeaned dude with a pack of Skoal in our hip pocket. These men aren't seen spitting or spitting up, so chaw must be a healthy, happening experience. After all, more than 12 million Americans use smokeless tobacco, and snuff production has risen 83 percent since 1981, federal statistics say.

We'll try it.

Smokeless tobacco is a $1.6 billion-dollar business. The Rite-Aid, for example, is stocked with Red Man, Copenhagen and Skoal: Skoal Spearmint, Cherry, Mint and Wintergreen. These flavors are marketed as starter packs until the youngsters feel ready to "graduate" to the hard stuff/snuff, says Sandra Esslinger with the American Cancer Society of Maryland.

"You can't tell young people 30 years down the road you'll have mouth cancer. When people are young, they never think they'll be affected," she says. "They think they look cool. It's that Joe Camel sort of thing."

Public service announcements aside, one could aim for the strike zone on kids. Tell the estimated 20 percent of male high-school students who chew tobacco that this is not sexy behavior.

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