Chicago White Sox pitcher Chris Sale, the American League’s starter for the Tuesday’s 2016 MLB All-Star Game, started chewing tobacco back in 2007. But in June 2014, he quit, and he did so for a very particular reason: the death of MLB Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn from oral cancer.
On Monday, Sale revealed to reporters that he quit the day Gwynn died and hasn’t touched chewing tobacco since. Two years after quitting, Sale made clear just how much Gwynn’s death affected his life.
“To say that he saved my life, I don’t think it’s an understatement,” Sale said.
The revelation surely wouldn’t offend Gwynn. Before his death, Gwynn publicly discussed the negative effects tobacco had on his health, attributing his cancer to a decades-long addiction to chewing tobacco. When he died, however, Gwynn’s doctors wouldn’t definitively say that tobacco was to blame. Even still, he remained convinced that decades of chewing tobacco caused his fatal cancer. Since his death, Gwynn’s family has fought to prove Gwynn right, filing a wrongful death lawsuit against tobacco companies in May 2016.
Up until Gwynn’s death, chewing tobacco remained entrenched as a baseball player tradition ― a common sight at ball games for over a hundred years. The percentage of MLB players who used it fell from 50 percent in 1994 to an estimated 33 percent in 2014, according to Professional Athletic Trainers Society estimates in line with the MLB’s own numbers.
“When I first started playing, everybody did it,” Red Sox veteran slugger David Ortiz said to The Boston Globe in March 2014. “Now you see fewer guys because everybody knows it’s bad for you.”
Gwynn’s death spurred increased awareness of smokeless tobacco’s dangers, ultimately resulting in MLB imposing penalties on players who chew during games after years of pressure from anti-tobacco advocacy groups. Because of nicotine addiction and players’ habitual use of chewing tobacco as a playing stimulant, it’s been a hard ban for some players to swallow.
Sale is not alone in his reasoning behind why he quit. In death, Gwynn’s influence as a smart, technical hitter has been overshadowed by what his name now means to anti-tobacco advocates and MLB personnel who want smokeless tobacco out of the game. As Sale knows by now, lives are at stake.
CORRECTION: Chris Sale quit chewing tobacco two years ago, not nine as previously written.