Academic journal article Nine

"Personally, I Have Nothing against Smoking": The Lethal Alliance between Baseball and the Cigarette

Academic journal article Nine

"Personally, I Have Nothing against Smoking": The Lethal Alliance between Baseball and the Cigarette

Article excerpt

The best-known collision between cigarettes and the national pastime occurred when the American Tobacco Company attempted to use the image of Pittsburgh Pirates great Honus Wagner on a cigarette trading card. As the story is usually told, Wagner expressed concern that his likeness might encourage the many boys who looked up to him to take up smoking, and American Tobacco Company tried to comply with his wishes by withdrawing the card. Their efforts to do so, however, had an unforeseen outcome when a few dozen cards made it into circulation and the Honus Wagner T-206 became the most valuable of all baseball cards.

This traditional version of events does not tell the whole story. Several key elements of it have been conveniently left out, and the results of these omissions are dramatic. As usually told, the tale of the Wagner T-206 card is an innocuous one in which everyone has good intentions that somehow don't quite pan out. What actually happened is more disturbing and is part of a larger tragedy that has conveniently been forgotten.

In fact, the scarcity and value of the Wagner card should serve as a reminder of baseball's considerable involvement in one of the greatest preventable epidemics in human history. The Wagner T-206 card became so coveted precisely because it was both rare and forbidden. The same fate befell the numerous efforts made by baseball men of the era to express concerns about the dangers of cigarettes--even in the case of ballplayers like Wagner who only tried to avoid tacitly endorsing cigarettes. As a result, children came to see cigarettes as being inextricably associated with their favorite activity, and all warnings about them only served to make cigarettes seem even more alluring. After all, if ballplayers could use them and exhibit radiant good health, how could they be harmful?

Tobacco has, of course, been a major part of the American experience since colonial days, when it was discovered that the soil and climate of several coastal states were ideally suited to growing tobacco. It was such a prized crop that it was often used as a form of currency, while smoking pipes and cigars and chewing tobacco became familiar symbols of American masculinity.

Although these forms of tobacco use were common in Europe as well, visitors to the United States frequently remarked on the prominence of spittoons and other tobacco-related accessories. Nineteenth-century American cities were commonly referred to by nicknames based upon their primary industry--Rochester was the "Flour City," Grand Rapids was the "Furniture City," and Cincinnati's meat-packing industry caused it to be known as Porkopolis. By the same token, the early United States could have been known as Tobacco Nation.

Not surprisingly, the intimate association between tobacco use and baseball began almost as soon as this new sport emerged as an adult activity during the 1850s. All of baseball's predecessors were childish games--and many of them, indeed, were played as often by girls as by boys. So it was important for the men who wanted to see baseball established as an adult pastime to associate it with manliness. They went to great pains to make rule changes that advanced this end, introducing a harder ball that made the game more painful to play and that put a new emphasis on strength.

Tobacco became a key ally in this effort to establish baseball as a manly activity. From the earliest days of the new game, separate seating accommodations were provided so that women could avoid tobacco smoke while male spectators could smoke to their hearts' content. Over the remainder of the nineteenth century, the links between baseball and tobacco became more extensive.

The spread of baseball among adults began in the 1850s. Its momentum was halted by the outbreak of the Civil War, but it recovered quickly and began to emerge as a professional sport in the 1860s, with tobacco playing a key role in that transformation. …

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