Time Out: June 25, 2014
He was a legendary baseball star, considered by many one of the greatest hitters to ever play the game. Baseball lost one of its legends, one of the best ambassadors of the game, a man noted for his warmth of spirit and width of smile when Tony Gwynn, 54, passed away last week.
An eight-time batting champion, Tony Gwynn had 3,141 major league hits and logged a .338 batting average, over a 20-year major league career. After batting .289 in his rookie season, Gwynn hit over .300 for his last 19 seasons, a streak second to only Ty Cobb. And, defying the inevitable progression of time, Tony Gwynn got better with age, batting .350 over his final five seasons.
In a 2,440 game career, Gwynn struck out twice in a game only 34 times making the odds of his hitting four hits in a game better than those of his fanning twice. And, hot in the pursuit of becoming baseball’s first player to bat .400 since Ted Williams, Tony Gwynn saw his chances dashed late in the season in 1994 when the players went on strike. Gwynn finished at .394 in that strike-shortened year.
But, Tony Gwynn the man was far more than his stats. The iconic baseball broadcaster Vince Scully called Gwynn a great baseball player, but more than that a wonderful human being. Gwynn was the heart and soul of the city of San Diego, a baseball star who earned the scorn of the union that represented him by choosing to take less monetarily for the privilege of playing for the people of the city he called home rather than to move, taking his services to the highest bidders.
In an era when ego reigns and athletes often think first of themselves and then of their teams, Tony Gwynn’s dignity and modesty seem almost out of place. Gwynn’s makeup was recognized again and again, most notably when he received the Branch Rickey Award in 1995, the Lou Gehrig Award in 1998, and the Roberto Clemente award in 1999, all presented to baseball players for their humanitarianism and character.
Tony’s work is not done
Perhaps, the work of Tony Gwynn is not yet done. Gwynn died from salivary cancer, specifically, the parotid gland located near the ear. Gwynn believed chewing tobacco caused the disease that killed him, because the cancerous tumor took shape in the exact spot where for years he placed the chewing tobacco in his mouth when played.
Oncologists confirm that chewing tobacco is not one of the known causes of the cancer that ended Tony Gwynn’s life prematurely. Because the cancer is rare, no unified concept of its causes has been determined.
Even so, why are chewing tobacco and baseball so closely aligned? Even if chewing tobacco was not the cause of Tony Gwynn’s cancer, it would be hard to argue chewing tobacco, a product with a long historical presence in baseball, is wholesome and healthy. Chewing tobacco is associated with cancer of the mouth, the throat, the stomach, and the esophagus and chewing increases the risks of heart attack and stroke.
Major league baseball is acutely aware of the dangers and health risks chewing tobacco presents to their players. As far back as 1988, MLB banned free samples of chewing tobacco that had historically been provided by tobacco companies to pro- and college-team clubhouses. In 1990, MLB issued a report on the health hazards related to chewing and announced efforts intended to help players quit. In 2011, understanding the message seeing baseball players chewing sent to kids who play the sport, MLB and the Players Association agreed to new rules banning MLB teams from providing smokeless tobacco to their players.
Less use, exposure
In addition, players were no longer allowed to keep tobacco tins in the uniform pockets or have chewing tobacco in their mouth when speaking with the media. All smokeless tobacco was banned from minor league parks. In 2012, MLB required oral examinations be included as part of the annual physical requirements of professional baseball players.
What the MLB has failed to do is take the ultimate step; ban the use of chewing tobacco on the playing field or in major league stadiums across the land.
Joe Garagiola has been a voice urging baseball players to stop chewing tobacco for years. Garagiola visits major league clubhouses to talk face-to-face with players as part of his campaign. Garagiola attests to the fact that quitting the habit is extremely difficult and calls for a MLB ban.
“Let’s do something. Tony Gwynn’s dying is sad enough. I would hope the players and baseball would get together. You’ll have to get both groups to sit down and work it out. We can’t wish it. Tony’s death is sad enough. I can only hope it triggers a ban.”
A ban is long overdue. The time is right. Act now.