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Butler’s Cancer Has Baseball Reflecting on Its Addiction

May 10, 1996

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Former major league catcher Joe Garagiola wants to rid baseball of a habit he says was never part of the game’s tradition _ chewing tobacco.

Bill Tuttle, whose cheeks bulged with the stuff during the 1950s, wishes he’d gotten the message years ago. After four operations for cancer, Tuttle uses his reedy voice to warn players about the dangers of chewing the intoxicating leaf.

Now 66, Tuttle has squamous cell carcinoma, the same cancer doctors discovered last week in the tonsils of Brett Butler of the Los Angeles Dodgers during a tonsillectomy.

``I chewed 37 years before it got me,″ said Tuttle, an outfielder for Detroit, Kansas City and Minnesota during an 11-year major league career. ``Guys like Brett Butler, he only chewed a few years and all of a sudden this came up out of nowhere.″

Butler and his doctor have downplayed the outfielder’s use of chewing tobacco early in his career as a cause of the cancer. Instead, they point to the secondhand smoke Butler was exposed to as a child by his chain-smoking parents.

Still, the shocking news about Butler has many major leaguers thinking harder about their own tobacco habits.

``It’s definitely a hard thing to quit, because it becomes like a ritual for you,″ said Atlanta’s Chipper Jones, who has been chewing since he was 15. ``I’ve quit a number of times and found myself two or three days after the fact starting back up, not having really realized it. It’s like you’re walking out of the clubhouse and you just throw one in (your mouth) as a pregame ritual.″

Nevertheless, there are signs that tobacco, already banned in the minor leagues, is becoming less of a fixture around big league clubhouses and dugouts.

Several major league teams _ including California, Milwaukee and Philadelphia _ no longer have tobacco readily available next to the packs of chewing gum and sunflower seeds in their clubhouses.

``We didn’t want to feed the habit,″ Milwaukee Brewers manager Phil Garner said. ``Guys can chew it in here, but we won’t provide it. We don’t provide cigars, either.″

But that doesn’t stop players from bringing in their own supply and chewing in the clubhouse or on the field.

Kansas City catcher Mike MacFarlane chews tobacco four days a week, believing it’s as much a part of the game as balls and strikes.

``It’s just like starting to smoke, but we’re not inhaling it into our lungs,″ he said. ``I don’t think it really matters how much you do chew, but I will stop doing it at some point.″

Of the 5 million Americans who use smokeless tobacco, 10 percent are males over age 18 and 20 percent are high school males, according to the American Cancer Society. Using smokeless tobacco has been shown to cause cancers of the mouth and throat and contribute to periodontal disease.

A popular practice in the majors is dipping snuff, putting tobacco processed into a coarse, moist powder between the cheek and gum. That, too, exposes the body to a risk of cancer in the cheek and gum nearly 50-fold among long-term users, the Cancer Society reports.

Peter Karavedas, an 11-year-old Little Leaguer from suburban Downey, would do almost anything to imitate his favorite big league players, except chew tobacco.

``I think the players think it looks cool, but it just makes your mouth swollen,″ said Karavedas, who chews bubblegum instead.

Even as he jams another wad of tobacco under his lip, Atlanta pitcher Greg Maddux wishes he could quit.

``It seems like when I quit, I’m not happy. I’m uptight, I’m irritable, I’m hungry,″ the four-time Cy Young Award winner said. ``It’s not so much that it gives you pleasure when you do it. It causes you discomfort when you don’t do it.″

Cincinnati Reds pitcher Jeff Brantley considered the plight of his friend Butler and quit, just like that.

``I came to the ballpark, and I took the chewing tobacco out of my locker and put it in the trash can,″ Brantley told ESPN. ``I’m not going to touch the stuff. Life to me is a little bit more important to me than sticking tobacco in your mouth.″

Tuttle has learned that lesson too late. His cancer was discovered in his right cheek, even though he stuck his tobacco wad in the left side.

Tuttle’s agonizing pain shows on his disfigured face. The right side is sunken and he has no jawbone, despite doctors’ attempts to rebuild his face using skin from his neck.

His teeth are gone, leaving him to gum the food he can’t taste anyway because radiation killed his taste buds.

``I blame this all on tobacco,″ his wife, Gloria, said from the couple’s home in suburban Minneapolis. ``My husband was addicted and he’ll be the first to admit that. He has lived in hell for 2 1/2 years. I feel so badly for the Butlers, because I know what they still have to go through.″

Garagiola and the Tuttles work together to get their message across to major leaguers by visiting spring training camps. The sight of tubes snaking out of Tuttle’s body seldom fails to command the players’ attention.

``He practically has them hypnotized,″ Garagiola said. ``These are good guys who unfortunately have been lured into a bad habit. We’ve made an impact, definitely. The players want help, and they listen.″

Garagiola urges players who chew to get their mouths examined frequently for lesions, a possible early warning sign of cancer.

``I had one Toronto player come up to me and say, `I had four of those taken out last year,‴ said Garagiola, a tobacco chewer for six years during his playing days.

Garagiola and Tuttle favor educating players and managers about the effects of tobacco over an outright ban in the major leagues. Such a ban would be unlikely anyway, because tobacco is a legal product.

``We in baseball have an enormous incumbent responsibility to avoid the heartache of what that stuff causes,″ said Bud Selig, baseball’s acting commissioner.

``All you have to do is look at Bill Tuttle to know that.″

End advance for May 11-12

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