On March 12 Joe Garagiola, the catcher turned broadcaster, gave a talk to the New York Mets about the risk of getting cancer from chewing tobacco. When it was over, pitcher Pete Harnisch decided to quit cold turkey. He didn't tell anyone, and for the next two weeks he suffered severe nicotine withdrawal. The symptoms, including chills, hot flashes and sleeplessness, got so bad that he had several dismal spring training performances and almost lost his Opening Day starting assignment.
Finally he told Mets manager Bobby Valentine what was wrong. Valentine let Harnisch start the season opener, and although Harnisch chewed during the game—he lasted into the sixth inning—he remained determined to kick the habit. But he will need some help, and Garagiola is ready to offer assistance.
The talk to the Mets was part of Garagiola's annual tour of spring training clubhouses, begun in 1994 through a group called the National Spit Tobacco Education Program (NSTEP), to educate players and coaches about the dangers of smokeless tobacco. Garagiola has been speaking out against tobacco for years, but when a 1993 study by the Criminal Justice Commission in Arizona, where Garagiola lives, reported that 9.8% of third-to sixth-graders had tried chewing tobacco, he says, "It made me mad. Somebody had to speak up." U.S. sales of smokeless tobacco in 1995 topped $1.7 billion, and according to the National Cancer Institute, in '92 more than 22% of high school seniors (mostly male) reported using smokeless tobacco.
"There's an oral-cancer epidemic out there, and the first thing we have to do is stop calling chewing tobacco and snuff smokeless tobacco," says Garagiola, a chewer himself in the 1950s and '60s. "People need to know smokeless does not mean harmless. I call it spit tobacco because it's gross."
Garagiola is often accompanied on his visits by Bill Tuttle, a 67-year-old former big leaguer who chewed for nearly 40 years and who has had four operations to remove cancerous tissue from his right cheek. He required skin grafts to fill the gaping hole left by the surgery. "The ballplayers see my face and listen," says Tuttle. "I'm a sad-looking sack."
Ten grams of snuff has between 1.5 and 2.8 times the carcinogenic nitrosamines of 20 cigarettes, according to the National Cancer Institute. Rhys Jones, a consultant to the NCI and a member of NSTEP's advisory board, says, "For heavy users, chewing and snuff are more addicting than smoking." (Snuff, finely ground tobacco, is sucked in small quantities between the gum and lip; chewing tobacco, made of shredded leaves, is formed into a plug, to which the user often adds chewing gum.)
Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Lenny Dykstra was one of the most visible chewers in baseball, and Garagiola made a passionate appeal to him to quit. But the man nicknamed Nails for his toughness said he couldn't. Then, last spring, Dykstra did an about-face and made a public-service announcement for NSTEP. "Copy my hustle," he says in the spot. "Copy my desire. But, please, don't copy my tobacco use." He hasn't chewed since last May.
Companies that sell smokeless tobacco say family and friends determine who takes up chewing, not advertising and role models. "Study after study shows baseball players simply don't have an effect on young people initiating use," says Alan Hilburg, spokesman for the Smokeless Tobacco Council, a trade association that disputes the scientific basis for NSTEP's assertions about the relationship between chewing and cancer.
But Dykstra started chewing to copy his hero, Rod Carew, and from his playing days Garagiola remembers boys in St. Louis batting in a Stan Musial crouch. "Don't you tell me kids don't emulate," he says.
Garagiola would like to persuade jeans makers to imprint the outline of a tobacco can on back pockets and paint a red slash through it. "I'd have the rear end of every nonchewer in America as a billboard," he says.