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
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.
Leo W. Banks chewed tobacco once and nearly passed out. He lives
COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT TROYANOS Garagiola uses a before-and-after poster of Tuttle to make his point graphically with the Cubs. [Joe Garagiola displaying before and after photographs of Bill Tuttle in front of Chicago Cubs baseball players]