Baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn died of mouth cancer this week at the age of 54. Years of smokeless tobacco use — a longtime practice on America’s baseball diamonds and dugouts — took its toll on Gwynn.
The news made Gwynn the talk of the town, as if he lived in Walla Walla now.
He doesn’t, but he spent a short time in Walla Walla in the summer of 1981 playing pro baseball at Borleske Stadium.
This community takes pride in the fact that Gwynn and fellow Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith got their starts here.
And many feel close to Gwynn and Smith because they played on the same field that thousands of kids from the Valley have played on since 1926.
Even today (when the Walla Walla Sweets are on the road) the facility is used — from Babe Ruth League games to American Legion baseball.
Even those who never had a chance to watch Gwynn (in 1981) and Smith (in 1977) amaze the fans at Borleske with their talent have heard the stories about their rookie seasons.
Their legends liveon in Walla Walla even though they’ve not played at Borleske for more than three decades.
But all the talk about Gwynn, here and across the nation, is more than about baseball. It’s also been about the dangers of smokeless tobacco.
Gwynn, through video tape, will soon speak out against smokeless tobacco in an informational video MLB is producing, according to USA Today. It is planned to be release sometime during the current season.
About one-third of current major leaguers use spit tobacco, although that is a decline from two decades ago when it was about half.
However, that 33 percent is about 10 times the amount in the general population, according to the American Cancer Society. The data shows about 3.5 percent of Americans over 12 use smokeless tobacco.
“It’s definitely ingrained and something that’s part of our baseball culture, but it’s not exclusive to baseball,’’ Oakland Athletics first baseman Brandon Moss (a non-user). told USA Today.
“You would hope a figure like (Gwynn), something tragic like that happening, would be a wake-up call for everyone, not just those in baseball. ... But most guys are probably going to look at it as the loss of a great man and a great baseball player and leave it at that.’’
Perhaps. But if MLB, the American Cancer Society and other groups build a strong platform on Gwynn’s cautionary tale, it could reduce the use of smokeless tobacco, particularly among teenage baseball players.
Given Gwynn’s legendary status in Walla Walla, we hope the message to stop dipping and chewing will make a positive difference locally.