Chew on this for opening day: Baseball's longtime link with tobacco

April 01, 2004

Steroid use is not the first health controversy to take a swing at Major League Baseball. Although the sport is making headway in wiping off its spitting image, at one time it was not unusual to see even heroes like Joe DiMaggio in ads for cigarettes. University of Cincinnati sports researcher Kevin Grace explores that relationship in his paper, "A Common History of Baseball and Tobacco," to be presented Friday, April 9 at the Ninth Annual Indiana State University Conference on Baseball in American Literature and Culture.

In the city that lays claim to the world's first all-professional baseball team, Grace is a University of Cincinnati adjunct assistant professor and archivist whose research interest is in the social history of urban sports. "This paper focuses on the history of the tobacco industry's relationship with the baseball industry since the 1840s, and how tobacco advertising has always used baseball images for its target audience - males from age 10 to 45," says Grace, who adds that society's reaction against tobacco's relationship with baseball stretches back to when that partnership began.

Back in the 1840s, Grace says amateur teams would light up victory cigars after games. "Cigars were the symbol of the upper class and of celebration. But as more immigrants joined professional baseball in the 1860s and 1870s, they brought their culture of rolling their own cigarettes or chewing tobacco, resulting in a stigma against tobacco that was based on ethnic and immigration differences as well as differences with the lower classes." He adds that cigarettes didn't become acceptable for the mainstream population until World War I. It became patriotic to become a smoker when cigarettes were shipped to the doughboys in Europe. By World War II, Grace says advertising made smoking a status symbol.

Automated cigarette rolling machines in the 1880s and 1890s increased productivity and the popularity of cigarettes. During the Progressive Era from the late 19th century to the years just after World War I, some baseball managers such as Connie Mack and Clarke Griffith were speaking out against tobacco. Grace says, "Billy Sunday, a famous evangelist who had given up baseball for the pulpit, used to preach all the time against tobacco use and he'd say his fellow teammate, pitcher John Clarkson, would stain his bathwater yellow from the tobacco leaching from his body. He would preach that Clarkson died in an insane asylum because of his use of tobacco."

Grace says the tobacco industry used baseball imagery to advertise cigarettes to young men - ads featuring baseball greats like DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Harry Heilmann. Hall of Fame shortstop Honus Wagner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, while not opposed to smoking, battled tobacco advertising that promoted his image on baseball cards in packs of cigarettes - cards that kids collected.

The Bull Durham billboard spread through the major and minor league ballparks in the early 1900s, but by 1993, the Marlboro Man was coming down because of the ban on tobacco advertising. That's because Major League Baseball banned tobacco use entirely from the minor leagues. "Being a part of a minor league team is essentially the only job in America where you cannot have a cigarette break during your work day." And, reflective of the current steroid controversy, Grace says a tobacco ban in the major leagues would have to become part of a collective bargaining agreement.

Grace adds that a campaign partnership between the American Dental Association and Major League Baseball is curbing the players' use of smokeless tobacco. "More and more players are chewing gum rather than tobacco, but there are still some players who mix chewing tobacco with gum or sunflower seeds."

Grace teaches a course on the social history of baseball in the UC College of Education, Criminal Justice and Human Services.
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University of Cincinnati

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