Chewing tobacco — and spitting streams of brown juice — has been a part of baseball for decades, a ritual of the game passed down through generations of players.
The legendary slugger Babe Ruth, who often kept a wad in his cheek, once mused: “I think I was about 5 when I first chewed.”
Now, San Francisco officials are looking to end the tradition with an ordinance that would ban smokeless tobacco from ball fields throughout the city, including at AT&T Park, where the Dodgers and Giants are playing a three-game series this week.
The ban still needs to pass a second Board of Supervisors vote and be signed by Mayor Ed Lee before AT&T Park becomes the first major league stadium to ban the use of smokeless tobacco.
“San Francisco will send a simple and strong message,” said Supervisor Mark Farrell, who introduced the ordinance. “Tobacco use in sports will no longer harm our youth, our health.”
Major League Baseball welcomed the legislation.
“As we have repeatedly and publicly acknowledged, MLB has long supported a ban of smokeless tobacco at the Major League level,” the league said in a statement, “and we intend to comply with all applicable laws regarding the use of smokeless tobacco on the field in all of our ballparks.”
The Major League Baseball Players Assn. declined to comment on the legislation.
During the last round of collective bargaining, management sought — and the union rejected — a ban on smokeless tobacco. Such a ban is in place in the minor leagues, where management can implement changes unilaterally.
The union argued that it would not be appropriate to ban a product that remains legal and widely available.
However, management and the union agreed to forbid the use of smokeless tobacco in televised interviews and player appearances, to restrict players from carrying tobacco products in their uniforms, to develop and implement educational programs to demonstrate the health risks of tobacco use, and to provide resources to any player wishing to quit.
Dodgers relief pitcher J.P. Howell, who chews a can a day, is in favor of the ordinance and hopes that its passage will help him quit using tobacco.
“I’m for it. It should be enforced. It’s common sense. It’s a filthy habit. I do it. Maybe it will help me quit,” Howell said. “I’ve tried to quit every off-season. It’s mainly more cutting back than quitting.”
Howell believes enforcement of the ordinance will be problematic for officials.
“Guys are going to do what they want. I don’t think they would remove us.”
San Francisco’s proposed law would add smokeless tobacco to the more-common prohibitions against smoking cigarettes at ballparks. Dodger Stadium restricted smoking to designated areas in 1993.
“We’ll comply with city and state laws,” Giants Manager Bruce Bochy said. “Hopefully, it will help these players. It’s not an easy thing to get off.”
With chewing tobacco, much has changed since the late 1970s when Boston Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk appeared on television commercials, smiling into the camera as he held up a can of his favorite brand.
“Just a pinch between my cheek and gum and I’m free to swing, run, slide, jump, catch, throw, sweat … win,” he said.
In 1986, a report to the surgeon general stated that “scientific evidence is strong that the use of smokeless tobacco can cause cancer in humans.”
That spring, the Dodgers became the first major league team to stop offering free samples in their clubhouse. The Angels and other teams soon followed suit.
Still, smokeless tobacco has remained a presence in the game, from loose leaf to powdered to “gumbacco,” which combines tobacco with bubble gum.
Medical officials have estimated that about 30% of players chew or dip.
Ruth, who also smoked cigarettes, died at 53 from cancer of the nose and mouth. More recently, longtime pitching ace Curt Schilling believes his bout with oral cancer was “without a doubt, unquestionably” linked to 30 years of chewing tobacco.
A more serious warning came in 2014 from Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn. Considered one of best hitters — and most popular players — in the history of baseball, Gwynn succumbed to a long battle with salivary gland cancer at age 54.
Concerns about baseball and smokeless tobacco extend beyond the field of play. Critics have long argued that young fans are influenced by the behavior of famous athletes.
Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly quit after years of chewing, in part, because he did not want to send the wrong message.
“The TV is always on you, and if you’re dipping, kids are seeing it,” he told The Times last year. “It just got to the point where I didn’t want to be that guy.”
The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids estimates about 535,000 children ages 12 to 17 start using smokeless tobacco each year.
In February, state Assemblyman Tony Thurmond (D-Richmond) drafted a bill that would outlaw use of chewing tobacco at California fields from Little League to the big leagues.
“We know that young people look up to baseball players,” Thurmond said. “We have a great opportunity to protect our players and stand up for kids by getting tobacco out of the game.”