On Sunday, George Vecsey of the New York Times wrote a column on the oft-observed disparity in the public and political reaction to the topic of performance-enhancing drugs as they pertain to baseball versus the same problem in football. Vecsey offers many of the usual reasons-because we enjoy the violence of football, we look the other way so players can attain the bulk necessary to supply it; the anonymity of the players under their helmets; the lack of memorable football statistics. He concludes, “Football is a compelling weekly event, but I submit that baseball still has a deeper hold on the national psyche. We save more of our moral concerns for what Bonds and Clemens just might have done. Baseball could consider this a compliment.”
Indeed, it is a compliment, one baseball could probably do without. Yet, it has been ever thus. Baseball players have always been held to a high standard (or exploited, to put it more cynically) when it comes to issues of national health. In fact, they were in there at the start, at the moment when the very idea that there was a national health standard to be maintained began to raise itself in the American consciousness, a moment which arrived with the establishment of the cigarette as a product for mass consumption. Ballplayers were enlisted on both sides, sometimes unknowingly, as cancer sticks sought to gain the acceptance of a skeptical public.
We like to think and the tobacco industry would have us believe that cigarettes were unsuspected as a health risk prior to the famous Surgeon General’s report of 1964. In fact, as Allan M. Brandt writes in Cigarette Century, an excellent new history of the country’s long relationship with smoking*, cigarettes were always controversial. Almost from the beginning, even before the medical evidence began piling up, there were many who found something menacing about them as distinct from other tobacco products; by 1910, several states had passed legislation banning them or restricting their use. The tobacco industry, embodied in the giant American Tobacco Company trust, loved cigarettes because they could mass-manufacture them in a way that was then impossible with cigars. They were cheap to make and cheap to sell, and that made them the perfect entry-level vehicle for the consumer. Escape from stigmatization came in the form of promotion, promotion, promotion. Advertising to young men and boys was key to the attack, and baseball players served as unwitting soldiers in that war.
Baseball cards originated as giveaways for cigarettes. They go back to the 1880s, which is also about as far as modern cigarettes go back-prior to that, tobacco was mainly consumed in the form of chew, snuff, or cigars. Since cigarettes initially seemed somehow disreputable compared to established forms of tobacco consumption (though inarguably neater than spitting), the trick was in just getting people to try them. Since cigarettes were highly addictive due to the greater ease with which they allowed nicotine-laced smoke to be drawn into the lungs, the product itself would do the rest of the work. One enticement to start was a picture of Cap Anson or another star ballplayer of the day. As Brandt writes:
From its inception, the cigarette targeted the uninitiated; young people, for whom it was the first form of tobacco consumption, were the primary constituency. According to the New York Times, tobacco dealers like [American Tobacco’s Buck] Duke used premiums to “entice boys to excessive cigarette smoking.” “Every possible device has been employed to interest the juvenile mind, notably the lithograph album.” Youngsters seeking these picture books “clamor[ed] for the reward of self-inflicted injury… many a boy under 12 years is striving for the entire collection, which necessitates the consumption of nearly 12,000 cigarettes. He will become demoralized, and possibly dishonest to accomplish his purpose.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the same long-simmering temperance movement which eventually led to the national prohibition of alcohol with the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1919 quickly seized on the cigarette as an evil tantamount to that of demon rum. With the movement peaking, they scored some quick successes. By 1909, the states of North Dakota, Iowa, Tennessee, Kansas, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Washington had all prohibited or restricted the sale of cigarettes to minors, and Pennsylvania was about to pass a similar law. It is in this context that Honus Wagner‘s refusal to allow his likeness to be used on a tobacco card took place.
In 1910, American Tobacco approached John Gruber, team secretary of the Pittsburgh Pirates, offering him a $10 bounty if he could get Wagner’s consent to appear on a tobacco card. No doubt Gruber thought he had a sure thing; Wagner was no temperance man. He smoked cigars, chewed tobacco, and liked drinking a bit more than was good for him. Further, his likeness had been used on other tobacco products, though whether his permission had been secured in those frontier days of intellectual property is unknown (see also Babe Ruth and the Baby Ruth candy bar and the tragic story of Percy Crosby and Skippy). Gruber sent the offer on to Wagner and waited for a reply. The return mail brought a polite ‘no’ from Wagner and a check for $10 to cover Gruber’s missed opportunity. Gruber had it framed. Simultaneously, American Tobacco, never imagining that the ballplayer would demure, had already run off the first Wagner cards. A few got out before they could pulp the run, and thus the much-coveted T-206 tobacco card was born. The best-known copy was sold for $2.8 million in September of 2007.
No one can know for certain what Wagner’s motivation was for turning down the endorsement, but the general atmosphere of disapproval likely played a part. In addition, according to the 1995 Honus Wagner biography by Dennis and Jean DeValeria, Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss and manager Fred Clarke were vocal cigarette haters. They were also already angry at the 36-year-old Wagner for having his worst season since 1898-he was worth “only” 9.6 WARP3 after having been in double figures for the previous 11 seasons, something they blamed on his overindulgent drinking. Between the political and the team’s atmosphere, he likely figured it wasn’t worth rocking the boat so some guy in the front office could make ten bucks-or perhaps he was peeved that Gruber was getting ten bucks that rightfully belonged to him. It was, after all, his face that was the commodity. We will never know for sure.
The tobacco cards rolled on without Wagner, and as candy and chewing gum manufacturers adopted some of tobacco’s marketing techniques, they too got into the baseball card business, eventually giving us the modern form of the hobby. Meanwhile, baseball players weren’t done playing in the cigarette wars. Before Detroit automobile magnate Henry Ford became obsessed with the international Jewish conspiracy , he was an avid anti-cigarette campaigner. In 1916 he brought Ty Cobb into the cause. On and off the field, Cobb was never one to state things softly, saying, “Cigarette smoking stupefies the brain, saps vitality, undermines one’s health, and lessens the moral fiber of the man. No boy who hopes to be successful in any line can afford to contract a habit that is so detrimental to his physical and moral development.”
Despite Wagner’s absence from tobacco card sets and Cobb’s condemnation, cigarette smoking inexorably grew in popularity. In 1904, just five percent of the American population smoked, with about 70 cigarettes consumed per adult per year. By 1920, cigarettes per capita had shot up to 665 (peaking in the 4000s in the 1960s and 70s) and baseball players were no longer advocating against it. In fact, few Americans were. A cultural sea change had taken place, motivated by the First World War: our boys on the front lines were jittery and needed something to calm their nerves. The Army was skeptical at first, but a public outcry led to cigarettes being rationed to soldiers. “Promotional efforts, tightly tied to wartime patriotism and morale,” writes Brandt, “proved impressively successful in transforming a popular, if marginal, product and behavior into a cultural idiom… Soldiers returned home committed to the cigarette.” The “lost weekend” that was the 1920s followed. The war was a disaster; Prohibition was a disaster; the moral code of Victorian America was being discarded. Temperance of any kind had lost credibility. No one wanted to hear a lecture on the evils of tobacco, and no one did-nor would they, for decades.
In the ensuing years, few baseball players had qualms about endorsing cigarettes. Joe DiMaggio smoked like a chimney in the dugout runway between at-bats during his 1941 hitting streak, so it was perhaps unsurprising that he appeared in print ads for Camel. One late-1940s ad had DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Bob Elliott, Ewell Blackwell, and Bucky Harris all swearing allegiance to Chesterfield, “The Baseball Man’s Cigarette.” Willie Mays pumped Chesterfields too.
Since those days, cigarette advertising has been greatly restricted in the United States and in other parts of the world as well, though by no means all. American cigarette smoking has declined as well, shrinking to under 1700 cigarettes consumed per capita, and from 46 percent of all Americans in 1950 to 21 percent in 2004. Major League Baseball has tried to eradicate chewing tobacco in the minor league player ranks, and though success at the major league level has been less than overwhelming , the lords of the game would no doubt frown upon a Derek Jeter or Jimmy Rollins signing up to be the new Marlboro Man. That’s not the end of the story, though. Even as American smoking declines, it is on the rise in foreign lands, where US tobacco companies face far fewer restrictions on marketing. The World Health Organization projects that the developing world will see deaths from smoking-related illnesses more than triple by 2030, from two million in 2000 to seven million in 2030. If consumption trends remain constant, tobacco-related deaths in the 21st century will reach one billion. If adult consumption drops by half by 2020, the number will be “only” 400 million. Many of these unnecessary deaths will be created by American exports.
Baseball too is an American export, and the countries that have embraced the bat also enthusiastically reach for the stick. Japan has one of the highest smoking rates in the world. South Korea loves a good puff. China, MLB’s final frontier for marketing, is racing to catch up. With our rising generation of Asian baseball stars popularizing the game back home, who knows what cigarette-related endorsement opportunities await today’s major leaguers? While we stew over the potential corruption of our children because a few baseball players experimented with steroids, we’ll be tacitly complicit in hooking other people’s children on a toxic product-and maybe Hideki Matsui‘s face will be on the carton, maybe Derek Jeter’s. As long as those players are clean, though, we can still love our game and our country.