The marriage of tobacco and baseball dates back to some of the sport’s earliest days. Before 1900, professional baseball was a sea of leagues popping up and then disappearing and dispute over disregarded player contracts. By the turn of the century professional baseball as we know today began to take shape, and tobacco had already entered the scene. Cigarette companies used cards with images of baseball players to stiffen their packs of loosely packed tobacco and thin paper wrappings as early as 1888. In a time when chewing tobacco was widely popular in the U.S., many players indulged in the same habit. While players and ball clubs would go on to advertise many forms of combustible tobacco, cigarettes and chewing tobacco stayed connected most closely with baseball.
In the 1910s, tobacco’s solidification in baseball grew greatly. Bull Durham smoking tobacco launched a revolutionary campaign in 1912, installing large bull bill-boards at almost every major league ballpark. Their promotion ran that any player to bat a ball to the bull would receive $50, or roughly $1200 in today’s money. The prominence of the bull signage and its association with what was becoming America’s pastime led to enormous profits for the company and perhaps the origin of the term “bullpen” to refer to the warm-up area for pitchers. Some of the baseball figures to take a stand against tobacco included Honus Wagner, a legendary player for the Pittsburg Pirates, Ty Cobb, Connie Mack, and Walter Johnson. Wagner, for his part, refused to have his image associated with tobacco-promoting baseball cards. Today, some historians question whether his intent was to help curb young children’s chances of smoking or more to punish the company for improperly compensating him for his image. His decision, nonetheless, made some 1911 Americans question tobacco, while others only more attracted due to the surrounding controversy. In addition, Cobb, Mack, and Johnson all spoke out against cigarettes or allowed their names to be used as part of testimonies collected in Henry Ford’s Case Against the Little White Slaver, published 1914. Cobb and Johnson were both raised to refrain from all forms of mind-altering substances. For their early years in the leagues, right around the time Ford’s book came out, they held true to these ideals and yet still appeared in tobacco ads. Cobb, outside what his ball club may have required of him, even appeared for a self-named brand of tobacco. Clearly, baseball and tobacco were early slated for a complicated and deep relationship.
As baseball’s popularity exploded at the advent of the live-ball era—around 1920—players like Babe Ruth became the idols of millions. Ruth, a hearty man of strength and precision, publicly smoked and drank while living an extravagant, expensive lifestyle. The image of a homerun-belting giant such as Ruth safely smoking cigar after cigar and appearing in numerous ads helped people feel more comfortable with smoking. If such a healthy and lovable character included tobacco in his public portrait, the risk of smoking appeared greatly mitigated. Shocked fans saw Ruth, gaunt and dying of throat cancer, when he returned to Yankee Stadium in 1947, a year before his death at age 53. Despite this clear sign of tobacco’s danger, ads continued to run. Ruth’s former teammate, Joe DiMaggio, appeared in Chesterfield ads a year later. DiMaggio—another public figure who shamelessly smoked cigarettes for millions to see—played a major role in American culture, too. (DiMaggio, also, later died of tobacco-related cancer.) With icons living large and dying painfully from these products, the advertising kept on.
In the mid-1950s, foreboding studies began to warn of the true effects of smoking tobacco. The scare surrounding these products led to tighter restrictions on advertising, such as the 1971 ban on television commercials for tobacco. Tobacco advertising executives needed an avenue to fall back on—a way to separate tobacco from the dark health effects spreading about their products. Advertisements that specifically spoke against the dangers tested poorly, as prospective buyers were simply reminded of the controversy. Instead, advertisers had to turn to focus on a subject that had nothing to do with the growing body of scientific evidence against them. In numbers, R.J. Reynolds and Phillip Morris bought up ad space in ballparks around the country: Houston’s Astrodome, the Phillies’ Veterans Stadium, the Mariner’s Kingdome, and the Angel’s Anaheim Stadium, to name a few. Fans’ typical experience involved seeing a giant Marlboro or Winston sign, conveniently placed above the scoreboard or exits. Without technically advertising on television, cigarette companies received significant ad time on television through these bill boards.
The cigarette scare also influenced baseball in another way—the second rise of smokeless tobacco (ST). ST, as cigarettes do, also poses serious health risks. The act of spitting the tobacco back out and the lack of smoke, however, made users feel safer. ST was so popular among some baseball players that they would keep a dip in when posing for baseball card pictures (signified by a bulge under the cheek or lower lip). Bill Tuttle, a ballplayer, almost always had a dip in on his cards. In 1993, he was diagnosed with oral cancer, and his disfiguring facial surgeries provided living proof of the effect of ST for players and fans to see. That same year, Minor League Baseball banned ST outright; Tuttle spent the next five years of his life campaigning against its use. The 90s also saw the fall of the Winston and Marlboro ads that had grown into the atmosphere of their respective stadiums for, in some cases, over two decades. The tide was turning for baseball to separate from tobacco.
Today, smoking and ST are waning in the public eye and in baseball. Smoking has been banned or heavily restricted in most major league ballparks. Ones with particularly loose restrictions include Marlins Park, the Mets’ Citi Field, and the Rangers’ Globe Life Park, though policies here will likely change in the next few years. The Tigers’ Comerica Park, for its part, has a cigar bar (aptly named the “Asylum Cigar Bar”), but strongly prohibits all other types of smoking, even inside the bar. On the other end of the tobacco spectrum, while Minor League Baseball has moved on from ST, the Majors lag behind. In 2014, Hall-of-Famer Tony Gwynn died of ST-related cancer at 54. This tragic event adds to the numerous chapters of baseball players plagued by tobacco, but may accelerate cause for a ban. Major League Baseball (MLB) has banned spitting and the visible sign of a tin of chew in uniforms when fans are present or during press interviews. One third of players, however, still chew tobacco, either straight, or by mixing it with gum, sunflower seeds, or other products to spit with less suspicion.
The collective bargaining of the players’ union currently blocks the MLB from a ban on ST, however some cities are making the decision themselves. San Francisco enacted a ban effective January 1st, 2016 that prohibits the use of ST anywhere in the city, including the Giants’ AT&T Park. Some players claim this ban will not prevent them from chewing; however, even if only a symbolic gesture, this measure carries great weight. Efforts such as these demonstrate a step toward the wellbeing of the millions of young fans, among others, who idolize ballplayers. On August 6th, 2015, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh called for a similar ban. Curt Schilling, a former Red Sox pitcher who used ST and survived the resultant mouth cancer, currently aids Walsh in the effort. With 15 percent of high-school males using ST, the nation waits to see who will bring what change to America’s game.