The early death of Tony Gwynn, the former San Diego Padres star, ought to be a wake-up call for Major League Baseball. A Hall of Famer and one of the greatest hitters in the history of the game, Gwynn passed away at age 54 on Monday from cancer of the mouth and salivary glands, a disease he attributed to chewing tobacco.
No other major sport permits players to use any form of tobacco on the field, but baseball persists. An effort in 2011 to enact a ban sputtered when the players’ union objected. One would think that the passing of a beloved star would change the equation. But in the wake of Gwynn’s death, there was relatively little mention of the tobacco issue amid the many tributes to his career.
What’s especially vexing is that chewing tobacco has absolutely nothing to do with the playing of the game. Few, if any, of baseball’s legion of sentimentalists would count it among the sport’s cherished traditions, either. Letting it be a part of the character of the game, in the wake of proven health risks and the poor example being set for young fans, is like allowing binge drinking simply because Babe Ruth used to do it. Some of the stars who played alongside Gwynn are still in the big leagues; perhaps his death will finally convince them, and the sport, that’s it’s time to quit.