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Scott Ostler

The Reason Comes Straight From the Players' Mouths

September 12, 1985|SCOTT OSTLER

I once worked for a sports editor who wanted me to write a story on why baseball players spit.

I took a pass. The answer seemed simple and obvious: They spit because they chew tobacco, and to swallow would be distressing.

And: They chew tobacco because it's free. In every baseball clubhouse in the major leagues, you'll find a help-yourself supply of chewing tobacco.

Ballplayers are notorious bargain hunters. I'm convinced if clubhouse attendants took away the chewing tobacco and replaced it with stacks of free cucumbers, baseball players would be running around the field with cucumbers in their back pockets, biting off chaws and spitting out the little seeds.

Anyway, I am older now and wiser, and I see that this is a topic not be brushed off so lightly. There are questions to be answered. Such as:

--Why is it that baseball players do most of the chewing and spitting? Why not figure skaters, bowlers, or sky divers?

--Why would anyone want to chew anything so revolting it can't be swallowed?

--If enough tobacco spitting takes place at any given ballpark, is there danger that the residue will eventually leech down into the groundwater supply?

--Why is it that so many players chew tobacco and none of them chew coffee grounds?

So this really is worthy of some serious thought and study, neither of which I have time for today.

All I know is that I enjoy the spitting in baseball. It's traditional, and it can be artistic.

History? The habit is a carry-over from the late 1800s, when spitting was the national pastime and baseball was considered a disgusting habit.

I can't explain why spitting has never caught on in other sports, except that it just doesn't seem to fit. Picture Magic Johnson at the free throw line, eyeing the hoop, then letting fly a stream of tobacco juice into the key.

Football players don't usually indulge because the golden rule of the gridiron is whatever you spit on the ground, you eventually wind up wearing home. Besides, the juice catches on their face masks and forms unsightly stalactites.

So mostly baseball players indulge. It is a popular misconception that players chew tobacco to relax. Wrong. They chew to stay in shape. For many players, chewing is the most strenuous exercise they get. Just watch a pitcher out on the mound, working on a chaw like he's mixing up a load of cement.

Another misconception is that chewin' 'n' spittin' is a dirty habit, although there is a splash factor to be considered. When Harvey Kuenn was managing, not only were players in the dugout in constant danger from Harvey's spray, but the Brewers had difficulty selling tickets in the first two or three rows.

Sportswriters, who spend a lot of time hanging around these spitting, slobbering baseball managers, generally take the simple precaution of wearing rubber trout-fishing waders.

Spitting is part of baseball's lore. Ted Williams, for instance, was considered the game's greatest pure spitter. The Splendid Spitter disdained tobacco, firing jets of pure saliva in the direction of the press box, as a token of appreciation of his friends in the media.

And what about the late, great Nellie Fox? The little second baseman was never seen without a huge bulge in one cheek. There was even speculation that the bulge was not tobacco, but a spare baseball.

That would account for Fox's flawless fielding record. If a ground ball squirted through Nellie's legs, the theory goes, he would discreetly spit the hidden ball into his glove and throw out the runner.

One of the game's great power spitters is Reggie Jackson. He stands in the batter's box and spits sunflower seeds, machine-gun style, through his two front teeth. That's why, when Reggie is in the lineup, you'll often see the opposing infielders wearing catcher's shin guards.

Despite Reggie's influence, tobacco is still the favorite chew of big leaguers. Many of the players, however, chew up some bubble gum first, stretch it out, and wrap it around a chaw of tobacco, forming a combination wad.

In the old days, before gum and chewing tobacco were invented, big leaguers would achieve the same tasty effect by wrapping a soggy pizza crust around a lump of warm paving asphalt.

Despite the obvious color and glamour that spitting imparts to the game of baseball, some fans still find the habit offensive. A woman wrote to this newspaper that she had stopped watching baseball games on TV because of all the sickening chewing and spitting, and vowed thenceforth to follow the sport only on the radio.

By now, no doubt, this poor lady has discovered that most radio broadcasts, in order to capture the atmosphere and realism of the game, employ special microphones to pick up the sounds of players chewing and spitting.

Another woman fan wrote that, because of all the spitting, "By the time the game is over, I'm sick to my stomach and feel like throwing up."

Hey, lady, how do you think the players feel? It's no picnic chewing and spitting and drooling, and sometimes accidentally swallowing, that stuff.

But because it's an integral part of the game, the players work at it, and they master the art. In doing so, they have to overcome a lot of adversity. Yes, chewing and spitting builds character, and that's what the game is all about.

So please try to be more open-minded, m'am. And have a nice breakfast.

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