Spitting Game: Baseball’s Love Affair with Saliva

Black and White Baseball
I’m of two minds on the curious habit of spitting. On the one hand, it’s essentially harmless. Spittle is biodegradable, unlike say, plastic bags, nuclear waste or Ann Coulter’s black heart. It may stain the sidewalk for a few seconds, but it’ll be gone by day’s end, unlike that empty bag of Utz potato chips lying 5 feet away from the garbage can.

On the other hand, spitting is the act of a person who says, “Cigarette smoke–you may stay. Arby’s barbeque beef–welcome to my stomach. $5 liquor from the corner store–have you met my liver? But you, accumulation of saliva, deserve no place in my body.”

Because, really, is spitting all that necessary?

One group for whom spitting is necessary is baseball players, at least those who use chewing tobacco. Brown tobacco juice isn’t something they want to swallow. Nor did they want to swallow the death of Tony Gwynn, a Hall of Famer who died on June 16 of salivary gland cancer.

Contrary to popular belief, chewing tobacco is not known to be a risk factor for cancer of the salivary gland (although the list of cancers it is linked to is substantial and Gwynn himself blamed the cancer on his tobacco use). That hasn’t stopped advocates for public health, such as the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, from using Gwynn’s death to restart a conversation about banning smokeless tobacco in baseball.

The gist of the argument is that young children see baseball players using tobacco, which helps form a link in their young minds between athletic success and tobacco use, which in turn makes them more likely to start chewing themselves. The thing is, while there are certainly players whose lips bulge with so much tobacco that one suspects them of hiding a dead hamster in their mouths, most of the time tobacco is hard to see. The first visible sign of tobacco use isn’t necessarily the mouth wad—it’s the spit. Before you see the spit, you can speculate as to a player’s use. “He could just have a pronounced right jaw,” you’d opine. Or: “That’s just bubble gum he’s saving for first base.” Unless the mouth wad is of Lenny Dykstra proportions, you might even think the player doesn’t chew at all.1 It’s the spit that puts the doubt to rest.

Terry Francona chewing the fat with his players.

Terry Francona chewing the fat with his players.

Or does it?

The thing about spitting is: Baseball players love to do it, even the non-chewers. There are three possible explanations for this.

The first commonly cited explanation is that exercise increases people’s need to spit. While I do see soccer players and other outdoor athletes spit, this argument rings false. Basketball players, who work much harder during games than baseball players, typically manage to repress the urge to spit. Besides, the average distance run by a baseball player in a game is so inconsequential that no one’s bothered to measure it. Certainly, the “exercise made me do it” excuse is invalid.

The second explanation is that, according to some ballplayers, they need to get dust out of their mouths. But this too smacks of disingenuousness. After all, how much infield dust is Jayson Werth likely to encounter whilst patrolling the outfield?

The third, and most likely, explanation is that spitting is cool. If you want to say “I don’t give a shit” without saying anything at all, just spit. Your opponent gets the message. How many movies can you think of where the hero (or villain) spits in the face of their adversary—or, barring that, in the dirt? It’s a badass move.

"I don't even care that I struck out. The spittle still love me."

“I don’t even care that I struck out. The spittle still loves me.”

Baseball is as much psychological as it is physical. Spitting plays a part in the chess game between pitchers and hitters. That fastball you just threw? It wasn’t ‘nuthin’. And to illustrate my point, I’m going to spit on the ground. (Because nothing illustrates a point like spitting fifteen times in a single at bat. Or, from the pitcher’s point of view: You ain’t ready for the curve I’m setting you up for. I see your last measly gleek and I raise you a big fat spit globule. That’s what I think of your swing. When either the hitter or pitcher does ultimately win the duel, there is even more spitting, symbolic of the expelling of failure and the release of built-up tensions. Just as it is for the heroes and villains in the movies, spitting is a badass move for a ballplayer.

Chewing tobacco is so prominent in baseball’s spitting culture because it is known to stimulate saliva production, not because the product in itself is cool. Spitting is a big part of baseball, and chewing tobacco facilitates it. That’s what the arguments about tobacco in sports miss.

Spitting is a big part of baseball, and chewing tobacco facilitates it.

Indeed, the risk of children wanting to chew is small because, frankly, there’s not much need for kids to psyche out classmates during a math test by hocking a loogie next to their desk. Instead, the real risk is to young baseball players as they move up in the sport’s ranks. In fact, Major Leaguers are more than four times as likely to use smokeless tobacco as average Americans. This is because the habit of spitting is generally frowned upon in everyday life. We may look fondly upon a ballplayer that does it, but not to the guy next to us on the sidewalk. It’s the same way with vigilantism: Hyper-cool in the movies (see: Death Wish); not so cool in real life (see: Bernhard Goetz).

If health advocates really want to get rid of smokeless tobacco in Major League Baseball, instead of advocating for prohibition of the product, they should seek a ban on the spit. Not only would this one move get rid of a bad habit not accepted at other workplaces, but it would also eliminate chewing tobacco from the game overnight because players would have no enjoyable options for getting rid of all that saliva. It’s like drinking a pot of coffee right before you embark on a 10-hour bus trip—it’s just not cool when you’ve got to hold it in.

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  1. I didn’t even know Tony Gwynn used tobacco until several years ago when he was diagnosed with cancer. []

2 Comments Spitting Game: Baseball’s Love Affair with Saliva

  1. Wendy Cranford

    I recall a heated spelling bee, oh about third grade. Had you just spit there on the stage I would’ve thrown in the towel immediately. However, no spit… I made it to the top three with you. You still beat me, but let’s just say, you were nervous. I could feel it. Now I know I should’ve just spit.


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