It’s baseball season. It’s also the first week of a New York City law that bans chewing tobacco at the ball field. The timing of this—folklore encountering legislation and coinciding with National Poetry Month—surely demands a sardonic little ditty.
They’re chewin’ toback
They’re swearin’ and scratchin’ and such.
All drivel and drool,
They’re lookin’ so cool;
No wonder we love ‘em so much!
Could it be that one of the sport’s most ingrained customs will be snuffed out? Is it possible that a quintessential baseball convention—so long considered manly, even cute—at last will go the way of the equally unsanitary spitball?
Consider the long history of ballplayers resembling chipmunks—wads of tobacco packed in their grotesquely distended cheeks. Expectoration forever has been a part of baseball’s “look,” coexisting with the game’s quasi-religious symbolism and perfect symmetry, a field of dreams with Garden-of-Eden roots mirroring the American soul.
While erudite essayists, with lumps in their throats and tears in their eyes, have written of how central baseball is to fathers relating to sons, of the spiritual connections to past gods of the diamond, the rough-hewn image of slugger-with-chaw has been equally persistent. And almost as celebrated.
It was only natural that, in his 1994 parody of the classic poem “Casey at the Bat,” humorist Garrison Keillor depicted Mudville’s Casey, as the hated opponent of the Dustburg side, stepping to the plate with his he-man plug.
Oh the fury in his visage as he spat tobacco juice
And heard the little children screaming violent abuse.
He knocked the dirt from off his spikes, reached down and eased his pants.
“What’s the matter? Did ya lose ‘em?” cried a lady in the stands.
Herb Washington, who had been a track star at Michigan State before he signed with the Oakland A’s in the early 1970s, exclusively to run bases with his exceptional speed, was asked the difference between track and baseball. “In baseball,” Washington said, “the players have an overabundance of spittle.” Because chomping on that stuff promotes the need to spit regularly.
A 1999 poem by John Poff, “Baseball Sestina,” contains the word “tobacco” in every stanza, beginning
An ancient North Carolinian broke off a plug of tobacco
And said, “When you get to the ballpark,
First thing you do is check which way the wind is blowing…”
Spit tobacco is said to have come to baseball with the predominance of 19th Century farm boys, who had learned that smoking interfered with chores but a nicotine fix was available with the smokeless substance. More revolting than poetic are such tales as the one of Don Zimmer, who spent 65 years as a player, coach and manager. Zimmer was known to wrap bubble gum around his chaw to keep it intact, but that caused the gum to stick to his false teeth, and after once angrily flinging the wad to the ground during an argument, he had to sheepishly retrieve his dentures from a dusty glob.
Steve Hamilton, who pitched for six teams in 12 seasons into the 1970s, was with the Yankees when he swallowed his chaw while standing on the mound in Kansas City. And threw up.
Still, in his 1990s “Baseball Catalogue,” veteran baseball author Dan Schlossberg included a short section on “The Art of Chewing.” Big-league rosters continue to include fellows who took up the smokeless tobacco habit, sometimes as early as grammar school, because they saw older players chewing and thereby judged that “it was cool.”
My friend Tony has told me that, as kids attending Giants games at New York’s Polo Grounds in the late 1940s, he and his pals would position themselves near the visiting bullpen and ask likeable catcher Joe Garagiola to demonstrate a Major League tobacco spit for them. Of course he would.
Post-playing career, an enlightened Garagiola spent decades preaching about the evils of chewing tobacco, though it wasn’t until 1993 that the stuff was banned throughout the minor leagues. A 2011 attempt to prohibit it in the Majors was blocked by the players association as unreasonably restricting a legal product.
Then, two years ago, Tony Gwynn—one of baseball’s most admired and loved figured—died at 54, after Gwynn attributed the oral cancer that eventually killed him to have resulted from years of chewing tobacco.
That moved real estate agent and poet Steve Hermanos to compose “Why Do They Chew Tobacco, Dad?”
‘They chew tobacco?!’ the confused child asks.
‘That’s disgusting! Why do they chew tobacco, dad?!’
And so, revealed to the youngster at this moment,
Baseball players chew tobacco.
The players’ cheeks and lips bulge with the bitter stuff,
They spit brown spit.
How can you, the parent, respond?
‘It’s just what they do.
They’ve always done it.’
That’s Exhibit A of the charge Extremely Lame Parenting.
Now, sanely and long overdue, New York has joined San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles and Chicago in a municipal assumption of the good parenting role abdicated by professional sports leagues. Here and now, in National Poetry Month.
Of health and P-TUI !
Finally moved cities to act.
Our heroes might learn
A leaf they can turn;
Just spit out that wad of toback.