Chewing tobacco is rare regret as Sepkowski retraces career

February 09, 1997|By JOHN STEADMAN

Smoking cigarettes never appealed to him; it might cut down on his running speed. But in the training camp of the Cleveland Indians he was offered a pouch of chewing tobacco and, in time, became addicted. If teammates packed their jaws with a wad, then why not try it? Peer pressure, of a sort, exhibiting itself in a baseball clubhouse.

Now, more than 50 years later, doctors tell Ted Sepkowski, who brought his high school homework with him on the road when he joined the Baltimore Orioles, then of the International League, that problems are developing from the use of tobacco and becoming an increasing concern with athletes of his generation. It's having a residual effect and indeed, in some cases, believed to deal physical harm.

Chewing tobacco was the only bad habit Sepkowski developed, other than occasionally chasing a high pitch, in 15 years of playing and managing in professional baseball. He considers himself fortunate that cancer of the tongue, attributed to chewing tobacco, has been removed at Johns Hopkins Hospital. "I got lucky that my family doctors were concerned enough to send me to Dr. Wayne Koch," Sepkowski says. "The biopsy proved something was wrong. Dr. Koch removed the cancer, and I can still talk and be understood. Radiation treatments bothered my teeth and they may have to be removed, but you can live without your natural teeth."

His lament is if only he hadn't gotten hooked on spit tobacco. It's difficult to understand why the practice has for so long been associated with baseball, but now the warning signs are posted. Players once believed chewing helped cut down on the intake of dust from the infield and prevented their mouths from becoming cotton-dry. "With me, I felt chewing kept me calm but, as I look back, it was all a serious mistake," Sepkowski says.

Most all of his baseball recollections provide pleasant recycling, making for an entertaining trip down memory lane when visiting his Severna Park home. He left classes at Mount St. Joseph High School but took his books with him to join the Orioles and, at the end of the 1942 season, was selected by the Indians as part of their working agreement.

"They could pick any two players off the roster, each for $10,000," he says. "Eddie Robinson was the other one. Yet before I could report, I had to face the military. World War II was on. I got accepted by the Army. Then I heard from the Coast Guard and was told that Dick Porter, manager of the baseball team at the Curtis Bay [Md.] station, had arranged for me to go there. One day I'm going in the Army, the next day it's the Coast Guard."

A convenient development, considering he had been raised at Wagner's Point, not far from the Coast Guard yard, and could walk home after duty hours when issued a liberty pass. Curtis Bay had an excellent team, playing and beating numerous major-league clubs that visited for the benefit of boosting the morale of the trainees.

Such talented players as Hank Sauer, Sid Gordon, Mickey Witek, Hank Majeski and promising minor-leaguers Don Kerr, Alex Ronay and Marty Tabacheck, among others, were there. "My top moment was when Cleveland, the club that bought me from the Orioles, came to the base. I hit two home runs and a triple that day. I grew from 160 pounds to 195 in the Coast Guard, and Dick Porter moved me from second base to the outfield because I began to hit with power."

Baltimore, at the time Sepkowski joined the Orioles, was considered a highly productive city for amateur and high school baseball. Scouts for major-league organizations camped out for weeks, believing it to be one of the most fertile grounds for signing prospects.

Sepkowski was among them. He had been recommended to Tommy Thomas, the Orioles' manager, by his Mount St. Joe coach, John Donohue, and left school to join the Baltimore club in midseason a mere child among men. "Thomas was great to me, like a father," he says. "He bought me a $50 pair of those kangaroo baseball shoes, the kind rich players wore, and a sport coat. I was making $200 a month as a kid and playing with such established players as Bob Repass, Bob Lemon, Jack Conway, Eddie Robinson, Joe Becker and Steve Gromek."

Sepkowski came from a family of 14 children and ran errands, polished automobiles for a quarter, and cashed in ginger ale bottles to get a nickel. He saved the coins to buy a baseball glove, first a Joe Doak model and then a Ken Keltner. "I'd be playing Sunday afternoon sandlot ball, and on Saturdays I'd put on my uniform and wish the day was Sunday. That's how much I loved the game."

Circumstances were different then, an era fading into oblivion. Families the size of the Sepkowskis made it on their own. And widows without income pinched pennies to provide for their children. When he arrived with the Orioles, his name was spelled Sczepkowski, which made it impossible to fit into a one-column box score.

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