RICK CLEVELAND: Chewing a tradition that’s worth losing

By Rick Cleveland

Major League Baseball has tried – so far without success – to ban its players from chewing tobacco. So we still see ballplayers who appear to have a golf ball lodged in their cheeks.
College baseball banned the use of tobacco 16 years ago, and as any reputable dentist will tell you, that’s progress.
The biggest difference between tobacco smoked and tobacco chewed is the type of cancer that results. Lungs or gums, take your pick.
Even in the pros, chewing tobacco is not as prevalent as it was back in the day. My dad took me into the clubhouse of the San Francisco Giants back in 1963 when his buddy, Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer Jim “Peanuts” Davenport, played third base. I remember seeing Willie Mays and Willie McCovey. Yes, and I remember seeing a huge box of chewing tobacco sitting by the door that led from the clubhouse, to the dugout, to the field. Everyone, it seemed, chewed.
It was as much a part of baseball as balls and strikes and scratching. When we were little, we would stuff three or four pieces of bubble gum into our mouths, push it over to the side and act like we had a big chaw of tobacco.
Back then, my position was catcher for two reasons. One, nobody else wanted to play it. And, two, my daddy told me playing catcher was the fastest way to the Major Leagues because quality catchers were so scarce. Like every kid, I dreamed of playing in the Big Leagues.
Which brings us to 1965, when a couple of buddies and I saw an ad in The Sporting News about a baseball camp in Oklahoma that consistently produced Big League players. All spring and summer, we begged our parents to send us. Finally, they relented.
There, we met kids from all over the U.S. who had seen that same ad and had the same dreams. Many of the instructors there were ex-ballplayers. They, of course, chewed. So did many of the Oklahoma and Texas boys who came to the camp. Seemed as if they had been weaned from the breast, to the bottle, to Red Man. They carried the stuff in their back pockets.
One brutally hot, dusty afternoon, I was on a camp team that was to play an exhibition game against the Oklahoma Pony League state champions, who were preparing to play in a national tournament. We played before a big crowd on one of the main diamonds. Our pitcher was a big, strapping 14-year-old from California who nearly knocked me over with his warm-up fastballs.
‘don’t swallow’
Just before we took the field, our shortstop, a kid named Bubba from Texas, put a big plug of chewing tobacco in his mouth and then handed the bag to me: “Here Mississippi,” which is what he called me. “Try some.”
I did. Said Bubba, “Whatever you do, don’t swallow.”
The first pitch was a fastball. The batter swung and tipped the ball right into my catcher’s mask. I swallowed.
First, I got dizzy. Then, my legs caved. They tell me I threw up on home plate. I vaguely remember a lot of laughter and Bubba hollering, “Hey, Mississippi, I told you not to swallow.”
The first pitch that day was my last. They had to help me off the field. My first chaw was my last. I need no warning from the Surgeon General.
Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@msfame.com) is the executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. He blogs at msfame.com.