By Ken Kendrick
Babe Ruth famously said he started chewing tobacco when he was five. In 1909 — back when American Tobacco Company was producing baseball cards and packaging them with cigarettes — the great Honus Wagner demanded that his card be pulled from the packs. Many say Wagner objected to using his image to sell tobacco; others say the tobacco company just hadn’t paid him enough.
Whatever the reason, Wagner’s break with tobacco made that series of cards rare and valuable. I’m proud to own one of them, and I’m pleased that the card represents a player who took action against tobacco.
Now today’s players and owners must make a gutsy call and ban smokeless tobacco use at games. For too long, Major League Baseball players have used tobacco on the field, in the dugout, the bullpen and of course, before millions of fans who watch on TV. I know that many players are addicted, and that’s part of the problem.
Hurting themselves, the kids
Ballplayers aren’t indulging a harmless habit when they use smokeless tobacco. They’re damaging their health with a product that causes cancer and other serious diseases. And they’re endangering the well-being of countless kids who look up to them, and who copy everything big leaguers do.
Each spring, I speak to the Diamondbacks players about the privilege of being in baseball. I tell them we’re a family-oriented game. Young people come with their parents. They idolize you, I say. How you conduct yourself and how you live your life is very important to our success — and your success.
This is what Major League Baseball and the players union must consider as we enter another round of contract talks in which a possible prohibition on the use of smokeless tobacco is on the table. Commissioner Bud Selig has said that the league will propose a smokeless tobacco prohibition like the one that’s been in place in the minor leagues since 1993. I hope owners and players will seize this opportunity and do what’s right.
With cigarette sales down and smoke-free laws restricting where smokers can light up, the tobacco industry has been spending record sums to market smokeless products, promoting them as a substitute for smoking. It’s having an effect: Smokeless tobacco use by high school boys is spiking — there has been a 36% increase since 2003. Every time a kid sees a big league player using smokeless tobacco, baseball is contributing free promotion.
The clear toll
Everyone in baseball has seen the debilitating illnesses that smokeless tobacco use can cause. Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn’s recent cancer diagnosis and his public statements blaming his cancer on years of chewing tobacco is a vivid example. Washington Nationals pitching ace Stephen Strasburg, who is struggling to quit, has said he started chewing as a young player trying to imitate big leaguers.
The Diamondbacks have worked closely with health officials in Arizona to help educate our own players about tobacco and spread the word to school children. I’m proud of these efforts. But unfortunately, until Major League Baseball prohibits smokeless tobacco use, big league players will still use it — and kids will still copy them.
We need to break this cycle to protect players and provide positive role models for kids. We must finally make the link between baseball and tobacco nothing more than an historic curiosity.
Ken Kendrick is the managing general partner of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
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