Smokeless Tobacco Is No Longer a Laughing Matter

Article excerpt

Casey Stengel used to enjoy sitting with Danny Murtaugh in the dugout before the game when the New York Mets were playing the Pittsburgh Pirates. They'd sit and talk and Murtaugh would spray tobacco juice repeatedly on Stengel's shoes. And Stengel would fan his fingers across his smile and pretend he didn't notice.

It was charming Americana, like driving to spring training through Virginia and North Carolina and seeing all those barns painted up as billboards for Red Man chewing tobacco. Or Beech Nut or Red Horse, or Copenhagen snuff.

Ballplayers would dare a reporter to come near them by spraying a line in the sand. Not so long ago, a Russian baseball team came to Long Island to play some games and one of the Russian kids told of trying chew because that's what American kids did. He got sick. We laughed together. I knew a lot of stories. They were funny, even ridiculous, but reality drowned in the laughter. Maybe we still don't know better. Joe Garagiola tells funny stories when he makes his rounds of training camps with Bill Tuttle, the former outfielder. "He was so handsome," former Met Joe Pignatano said. "Now, it's awful." Tuttle had most of his lower jaw removed because of cancer traced to years of chewing tobacco. It's part of the lore of baseball. Pete Harnisch began when he was a freshman at Fordham. That's what baseball players did; you could see them chew and spit on TV every day. I grew up hearing Red Barber describe the player whose chaw was so big it was a wonder how he could walk straight. We're hearing how Harnisch suffered trying to withdraw from chewing tobacco. We're told that the physiological grip of nicotine addiction is stronger than that of heroin or cocaine. Doctors say they're not sure whether chewing tobacco had a direct effect on Harnisch's disabling problem; it might have contributed. Harnisch's situation gives us some insight into the peril of smokeless tobacco. Its use is forbidden by the NCAA, the Cape Cod League, the minor leagues and goodness knows what else. But it's still done. We still laugh. Sure, I tried chewing tobacco - probably because it seemed like a big-league thing. Even glamorous. There was an item in a gossip column Tuesday that Carolyn Murphy, a top model, chewed because her brothers chewe d growing up in the Florida panhandle. I chewed twice while walking guard duty at Fort Bragg. Nothing to do but stay awake, and lots of room to spit. I got only a little light-headed. One of my first interviews for this newspaper was Sammy Baugh, at the first training camp of the old New York Titans at West Point. Sammy was a good old Texan. He was wearing underwear, sitting in his bed watching a western on TV and spitting an amber liquid into this hotel water glass. Steve Hamilton, one of the best people I've ever known in sports, played basketball for the Los Angeles Lakers and pitched in the World Series for the New York Yankees. And he chewed. He said at home in Kentucky that he'd keep a coffee can on the floor of the car so he could drive and spit. One time, he made a hard turn and the can toppled over and his wife got really angry. Another time, he relieved in the first inning in 95 degrees in Kansas City, got a little light-headed around the fifth and in the eighth inning, threw up on the mound. …