As the Summer of the Great Home Run Race enters the final stretch, there are two records that are about to be broken. One is the home run records held by Roger Maris and Babe Ruth. The other, lesser known record, is the associated legacy of tobacco-related death disease. Both Babe Ruth and Maris died prematurely from cancer caused by their addiction to tobacco.
Babe Ruth died at age 53 from throat cancer, the result of a lifelong cigar habit. Roger Maris outdid him in this regard a well. Maris, a cigarette smoker, died at age 51 from lung cancer. Maris not only smoked the stuff, he also helped sell it, appearing in Camel ads in the 1960s.
Whether you're rooting for McGwire, Sosa or Griffey Jr., there's one record we can all work to break: the toll that tobacco has taken on the game of baseball. Players and coaches alike should speak out against the use and promotion of tobacco products at every opportunity. Major league baseball should follow the lead of the minor leagues in banning the use of tobacco among players, coaches and umpires. And tobacco advertising should cease to be a backdrop for the nation's favorite pastime.
Today the most valuable baseball card in the world is a 1909 card of Honus Wagner. Long before baseball cards were used to sell bubble gum, they were used to promote cigarettes while also serving as package stiffeners. Wagner, a nonsmoker, ordered all cards with his picture destroyed because he was furious that his image was being used to sell cigarettes to children.
More recently, former player and broadcaster Joe Garagiola has been leading a campaign to educate young fans that spit tobacco is not a safe alternative to smoking cigarettes, and to encourage those who are users to get help in quitting. Several major league players have joined him in his effort, including former Detroit Tiger star Bill Tuttle, who died this summer from oral cancer caused by his use of chewing tobacco.
Let's hope that the sports heroes of tomorrow, whoever they might be, choose to live their legacies tobacco-free.
Tobacco Control Program
Roswell Park Cancer Institute