The Tobacco-Free Kids campaign is leading a drive to make smokeless tobacco illegal in ballparks and recreation areas. Many cities in North America have already passed bans.
Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
John Gibbons had been using smokeless tobacco for about 25 years when he encountered Bill Tuttle in the mid-1990s. By then, Tuttle, a former major-league outfielder, was drifting inexorably toward a dreadful death. And as the end approached, he embarked on a mission: to convince players, in both the high school and professional ranks, not to do what he had done.
Tuttle was a steady everyday player for three clubs during a decade in the majors. "He wasn't a superstar, but he was a good ballplayer," his wife, Gloria, told me during an interview in 1998, a few months after Bill died at age 69.
Throughout his career and beyond, Tuttle used smokeless tobacco. Countless players did in those days; few gave it a second thought. Many players still use it, although less conspicuously than in Tuttle's day, when tobacco-fattened cheeks were common features of mug shots on baseball cards.
By the time Gibbons and Tuttle crossed paths, Gibbons was managing in the low minors with the Mets and Tuttle was visiting any clubhouse that would have him, spreading his anti-tobacco gospel, often accompanied by former big-league catcher and broadcaster Joe Garagiola, another high-profile evangelist for the cause.
Tuttle could barely speak, but his disfigured face spoke volumes. Surgeons had removed most of his cancer-ravaged jaw and cheek and rebuilt his face, to the extent possible, with tissue from his chest, a tendon from his leg and a piece of his skull.
Tuttle's playing career ended in 1963. Thirty years later, he was diagnosed with oral cancer, traced directly to his tobacco addiction. He used the last of his energy to dissuade others from falling into the same trap.
"He always said he was meant to do this," Gloria told me in 1998. "There was no way that anyone could've lived through the surgeries that he had, and the pain, and the horrible things that he lived through if God hadn't been there saying, 'You need to do more.' He would not give up. He was quite a guy."
Bill and Gloria Tuttle lived for family. They had seven children and 17 grandchildren.
"It was very hard at the end because he wasn't really a grandpa to them any more," she said. "After some of his surgeries, they couldn't come up and hug him because he had a tube in his nose, or a tube in his stomach that he fed through. It was just really, really heartwrenching."
And during Tuttle's brief visit to address players in John Gibbons' minor-league clubhouse, the current Blue Jays manager found it heart-wrenching, too. But it didn't change his habit.
"It was an amazing story, and it took a brave man to do what he was doing," Gibbons says. "I don't know if he got the attention of many people. The tough part about it all, it's like when you're going through driver's ed, before you get your licence, and they show those videos of car wrecks, people getting maimed and killed. A lot of times that's forgotten in a week or two."
Then, two years ago, Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn died at age 54, a victim of a smokeless tobacco addiction that led to salivary gland cancer. Everybody loved Tony Gwynn, and his death got people's attention.
After Gwynn died, John Gibbons quit using smokeless tobacco.
"It had been on my mind to do it," Gibbons said. "I just thought it was the perfect time."
In different generations, Tuttle and Gibbons and Gwynn—like myriad others in baseball—had provided free advertising for the smokeless tobacco industry every time they walked onto the field. They kept a dirty business humming.
I interviewed Gloria Tuttle by phone from her home in Minnesota 18 years ago for a story that was never published. But recently, I dug up my notes from that interview after reading about various major-league cities passing local bylaws banning the use of smokeless tobacco in ballparks. (A similar proposal is in the committee stage at Toronto City Council.)
Then came the recent news that Tony Gwynn's family is suing a smokeless-tobacco manufacturer over his death. The suit charges that aggressive marketing, especially to young African-American athletes, drew him into a 31-year addiction that led to his death.
In 1999, seven years before she died from pancreatic cancer, Gloria Tuttle filed a similar lawsuit over her husband's death. It failed, an appeal court ruled, "for want of admissible proof of causation." In its defence, the tobacco company said, "We believe the products we make are not injurious to health."
No one believes that anymore. Smokeless tobacco products sold in the U.S. must carry one of four specified warnings, including one that says that if you dip, you might get oral cancer.
How that truism affects the Gwynn lawsuit remains to be seen. The defendants will likely assert that Gwynn, acting on his own volition, chose his path to the disease that killed him.
Meanwhile, tobacco companies continue to advertise their smokeless products prominently in such publications as Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine. Chase Utley of the Dodgers said in a recent ESPN interview that he estimates 25 percent of major-league players still use smokeless tobacco, down from perhaps 50 percent a decade ago. And according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, 17.4 percent of male high-school athletes in the U.S. use the stuff. (A 2015 report on tobacco use in Canada indicates that the use of smokeless tobacco in this country is below two percent among all age groups.)
Smokeless tobacco has always been a popular and highly visible part of the baseball culture; at the turn of this century, it was routinely supplied to major-league players by their teams. But its widespread use in society was fading by the 1980s, says Matt Myers, president of the Tobacco-Free Kids campaign.
"This was a case where the smokeless tobacco industry transformed a slowly dying product through image advertising and the association with sports into a craze that we're still paying for today," Myers told me.
Gibbons can testify to that. Except when fishing or golfing, he didn't dip in the offseason, he says. But the urge returned when spring training rolled around.
"It just always seemed to me that when you get around a baseball field, and you smell the grass, tobacco just goes with it," he says. "You see so many people doing it. But it was definitely more prevalent back then than it is now."
Still, among teenage boys in the U.S., the decline in use has stalled, even as cigarette use among the same demographic continues to drop, Myers says.
"Because the product had become so ensconced with a broad range of adolescent boys, we have failed to make further progress in large part because of the imagery of major-league baseball players using it," he says. "Unintentionally, major-league players have provided hundreds of millions of dollars of free advertising to the smokeless tobacco industry."
Wiping out that imagery is the goal of the Tobacco-Free Kids campaign, which is leading a drive to pass local legislation making smokeless tobacco illegal in ballparks and recreation areas. Boston, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago already have passed bans. Myers expects Toronto, Washington and several other cities to follow suit by next season. Which raises the obvious question: how will cities enforce the ban in major-league dugouts? Will tobacco police lurk beneath in clubhouse tunnels, looking to pounce when they spot a tell-tale bulge in a pitcher's lip or a tin of dip in an outfielder's back pocket?
Myers says he is less interested in slapping $250 fines on millionaire offenders than raising public consciousness and helping players shake their addiction.
"During this transition period, the call has been not to pinpoint violators but to assist players to quit," he says.
Clubs, including the Blue Jays, have expressed public support for the campaign. So has Major League Baseball, which banned tobacco use in the minors in 1993 but has been unable to persuade the players' union to co-operate on a ban in the big leagues. Players have the right to make their own choices, the union says.
But if players want to quit, help is readily available.
"MLB and the union have agreed to retain one of the U.S.'s foremost tobacco-cessation experts to be available to work with teams and individuals, and this individual has sent out a note to his network of tobacco-cessation leaders in the U.S. asking if they would be available to assist locally," Myers says.
MLB is also making available tobacco-cessation products, such as nicotine gum and nicotine patches, he says.
When Gibbons arrived in Dunedin, Florida, for spring training in February, he found a carton of nicotine gum on his desk. It was the brand he has used since he quit dipping.
"It has done wonders," he says.
A trainer told him there would be more where that came from.
Beyond the monotonous warnings on tobacco tins, there are plenty of cautionary tales in sports circles. Bill Tuttle. Tony Gwynn. Curt Schilling. Babe Ruth chewed tobacco and died in 1948 of throat cancer, although the connection was never proven and in those days was never even part of the collective consciousness.
"I smoked," Gloria Tuttle told me. "Bill was on me to quit smoking. I'd say, 'Well, you chew.' And he'd say, 'But chewing isn't dangerous.'"
A 2015 study echoed what previous studies found: in general, smokeless tobacco users consume more nicotine than cigarette smokers. As Tuttle, Gwynn and others discovered, it can take decades for oral cancer to emerge. And for the young and confidently invincible, dipping can seem cool, especially when they see their heroes doing it. Like Gibbons, who kept vowing every winter that he would give it up, they don't realize at the start how addictive it can become.
Players often find it easy to ignore the long-term potential for mouth cancer and other health risks. And many have long insisted they would quit when they're ready.
"It's so addictive," Gibbons says. "I guarantee you there's not a guy out there that's using it that doesn't want to quit, some more than others, of course. But it's tough to kick."
Gibbons kicked it, finally responding to family pressure and to the impact of Tony Gwynn's death. That green gum he still chews constantly helped a lot, too.
"It's a rotten, filthy habit," he says. "I don't think you can ever wipe it out. It's like anything else—the tobacco industry, the alcohol industry, you name it, they're powerful."
There are many layers to this story. For Matt Myers of Tobacco-Free Kids, it is a morality tale. Starting in 1980, when he joined the U.S. government's Federal Trade Commission, Myers has been involved in almost every legislative and judicial assault on the U.S. tobacco industry.
"What I found," he says, "was that tobacco was impacting more people in the U.S. and around the world than any other single issue, and that it was pushed and promoted by an industry that, at every juncture, violated all reasonable notions of ethics."
For John Gibbons, it is about the saga of addiction, and the ease with which he put aside his desire to quit so he could deal with the everyday stresses of playing and managing.
"I'd say, the hell with it, I'll wait 'til the offseason to quit," he says. "It does make you feel good."
And for Gloria Tuttle, in the end, it was about an ineffable sorrow that overwhelmed her family. As death drew near, Bill was reduced to communicating with them through poignant notes.
"He wrote me such wonderful notes, thanking me," Gloria recalled. "He wrote, 'Thanks for taking me fishing one last time. I didn't get anything, but I got one big bite and I let it get away.' He said it was just great being able to do that.
"One of the last notes he wrote to me was that he was so thankful he got to talk to the kids in the schools. He was so sorry for what he'd done to his family by being so sick. He'd brought it on himself, but he was thankful he was able to reach the kids that he did. We heard from people saying they'd quit after hearing Bill."
And it is that sentiment that motivates Matt Myers, anti-tobacco crusader and longtime baseball fan. He wants to see no more ballplayers' cheeks bulging with tobacco, no more managers spitting brown juice into cups in the dugout, no more pitchers staring in for the sign with a pinch of dip bloating their lower lip.
"I have a grandchild," Myers says. "I want to make sure that the first time I take him to a baseball game, this is not something he's ever going to have to see."