Why do baseball players spit ? Unfortunately, I remember going to a game as a preschool child, when my dad was playing on his seminary team. Somehow, I got hit smack in the forehead with a baseball or softball. This may have addled my brain.
When I met my husband to be, I was only partly aware of his and his father’s love of the game. Little did I know that later in life, my husband would stay up late almost every night for seven months of the year thanks to this love.
He helped me understand how baseball cards, statistics and other baseball rituals, which were extremely important to him and his friends growing up. Finally, I decided to join him watching baseball after our child went off to college and have learned much since then and grown to love the sport.
I do, however, wonder about one aspect of baseball. What is it about baseball culture that players, managers and staff spit so often? How did this get started?
Perhaps anxiety is a root cause
Yes, I see the vats of bubblegum in the dugouts. When I watch closely, I see the pitchers, the outfielders, the catchers and the batters spit frequently. I also see sunflower seeds flying but that’s far less revolting than spitting to me.
One night when Aaron Judge got thrown out at first base, he spit his gum onto the field in disgust. Ugh, chewed bubble gum on the field, bunches of unsanitary spit in the dugout.
Am I just a highly judgmental woman or what?
Baseball is known to be a sometimes slow but extremely interesting sport. Is spitting part of its charm, its lore or the cultural habit? Do you have to pass some spitting test in order to be drafted to an MLB team? Do female ball players spit like this?
Maybe it’s such an anxiety-producing sport that players need to burn off their nervousness or soothe themselves. Maybe it’s the fear of getting hit by a baseball at 100 mph — which I realize must hurt like hell.
Being a psychotherapist, I also know about the oral phase of child development along with addiction. I, too, love to have a straw in my mouth much of the time. I’ve enjoyed chewing a lot of gum in the past.
Would you want to see other athletes spit?
Maybe it’s an art or a skill or a craft they’ve learned, like batting well and throwing hard. I wonder if there’s hazing or an initiation ritual involving spitting? I suppose no one overdoses and that’s good.
A tradition of baseball players spitting
Using chewing tobacco was a common practice as far back as the 1800s — both on and off the field. Players used the chew to stimulate their saliva on the dusty field, then when they spit it out they’d use the spit to moisten their gloves.
As time went on and the dangers associated with chewing tobacco became more known, players started turning to sunflower seeds and gum to get the same effect. Former Minnesota Twin Tony Oliva has said dugouts were dirt when he first started in the majors, so players never had a problem spitting on the ground.
Though he says he never chewed tobacco, many of his friends did. “When you play the game, you have to have something to entertain you, otherwise your brain goes crazy,” according to the retired outfielder, who played from 1962-1976.
Chris Colabello acknowledges the tradition of spitting, recalling when he was a kid. “You saw guys on TV spit, you want to spit like the big league ballplayers. When you’re 5 running around, you go out and spit.”
The use of chewing tobacco declines
Players started to use chewing tobacco less and less in the 1970s and ’80s, with chew becoming even less popular in the subsequent decades as players became concerned about the negative effect it had on their health. And there isn’t much chewing tobacco use anymore after a 2011 agreement between MLB and the players’ union.
As part of the deal, players agreed not to use chewing tobacco where fans can see them, hoping to keep kids from seeing them chew on tobacco and be encouraged to start doing it themselves. Some players do still use chew when and where they can, but most of them have turned to sunflower seeds and chewing gums as the replacement for chewing tobacco.
In 2016, the league and union agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement that banned new players entering the league from using chewing tobacco entirely, and all 30 stadiums now ban the use of smokeless tobacco on their premises.
Sunflower seeds and chewing gum
Sunflower seeds also have a long tradition in the sport. One reason for their popularity is because they are packaged in small plastic bags that are easy for players to roll up and keep in their back pocket. That makes for easy access when they want to throw some seeds into their mouth while they’re in the field.
Chewing on sunflower seeds is a harmless habit that doesn’t have any of the side effects or negative health consequences that chewing tobacco does, so it’s something that a player can chew on and spit out from when they’re a kid all the way to the majors. And spitting the shells onto the field isn’t dangerous because they’re so small they don’t pose any risk to injure the players.
Chewing gum is in the same boat as the seeds, a habit that a player can take up at a young age in little league and continue chewing on gum while he’s making millions as a major leaguer. Unlike tobacco, the league and union won’t be setting limits on or banning sunflower seeds or chewing gum anytime soon.
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