Chuck Williams: 'Brothers' shared a nasty habit

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comJune 23, 2014 

Tony Gwynn's death last week from oral cancer hit Glenn Davis hard.

Before Davis was a Columbus politician, he was like Gwynn, a pro ballplayer.

They are basically the same age. Gwynn died at 54, and Davis is 53. They broke into the big leagues together -- Gwynn with the San Diego Padres and Davis with the Houston Astros.

Though they played against each other, they also were friends. Davis was a first baseman, meaning he had several opportunities to chat with Gwynn, one of the greatest hitters the game has known.

"We were in the fraternity together," Davis said.

And the fraternity had a problem back in the 1980s and '90s -- smokeless tobacco. Watch the ballplayers today, and you still see it.

Gwynn was a big dipper, and before he died he attributed his cancer to his smokeless tobacco addiction.

"Back then, it was just what you did," Davis said. "It was the most acceptable substance. You had three options -- dip, sunflower seeds or bubble gum."

Davis was a bubble gum guy.

"Three pieces of gum before every game," Davis said. "If I didn't get any hits, I would put three more in."

It was that simple. Baseball players -- especially hitters -- are all about routine. Same way every time. For many players, tobacco was a big part of that routine. Some chewed tobacco, but many dipped -- a pinch between the cheek and gum.

In the early 1990s, the American Dental Association and the Major League Baseball began a crackdown on tobacco. It was outlawed from the minor leagues. And experts were brought into Major League clubhouses to preach about the horrors of smokeless tobacco.

"It was what I called shock treatment," Davis said. "They would show us pictures and it wasn't pretty."

And they would get the players' attention.

"Guys would run to the bathroom, line up at the mirrors and pull back their lips," Davis said. "They were looking for lesions."

And they would quit -- sort of.

"They would go cold turkey for two or three weeks," he said. "I am talking about guys who were religious about it -- five cans a day guys. The moment they started struggling at the plate, they would go right back to it just like it never happened."

Davis said he tried smokeless tobacco twice in his career, both times with terrible, even comical, results.

While at the University of Georgia, a senior talked him into taking a dip while they were playing cards.

"I wanted to fit in," Davis said.

So he did.

"In less than 30 seconds, the whole room started spinning," Davis said. "I got really sick. That was the end of the that."

The next time, Davis tried a chew of long-leaf tobacco while he was playing winter ball in Colombia.

"I had never seen long-leaf before and I took a big, ol' wad," Davis said. "I played an inning, then the next inning a ball took a bad hop and hit me in the throat."

He swallowed it.

It wasn't long before the big first baseman asked the umpire for timeout and made his way to the outfield.

"I was throwing up," he said. "My teammates were laughing. The fans were laughing. It wasn't funny."

And neither is Gwynn's death.

It is sad. And it is a reminder that cancer doesn't care if you are a career .338 hitter and Hall of Famer.

"When I heard, it shocked me," Davis said. "We are the same age. It makes you think. A lot of guys in those clubhouses used it. Makes you wonder who's next. You know, we are a band of brothers."

No doubt.

But the brotherhood has a nasty habit that is now coming back to bite them.

Chuck Williams, senior reporter, chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.com

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