How Sports Mentoring Helps Youth Avoid Tobacco Dangers

chewing tobaccoOnce again it is time for the annual fall classic that is major league baseball. This tradition is over 100 years old and this country’s national pastime. Mr. Doubleday’s recreation has been exported to Japan and all points in between. This is a good time to take a look at how Jackie Robinson West Little League, Joseph Haley and Tony Gwynn are intertwined.

Here in Chicago, baseball has a new champion, the Jackie Robinson West Little League. It was the efforts of one man, Joseph Howard Haley, whose aim was to develop and implement a little league that would become a vehicle of encouragement and a positive example for the youth of the community.

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In 1971, a few hundred of the neighborhood boys around Mt. Vernon Park, on Chicago’s South Side, began to put Mr. Haley’s vision to the test. I was lucky enough to play for Mr. Haley’s team, the Mt. Vernon Mustangs (JRW- All Star Team Class of 1972). It was an electric moment. While most of us just wanted to be on a team with our friends, we did not realize that we were being subsequently taught lessons in teamwork, community pride and self-esteem.

I’m a plastic surgeon and you may be wondering what does this have to do with plastic surgery? Well for starters, this league started me on the road to time management by incorporating sports along with schoolwork and also identifying for myself detrimental behaviors.

Even in little league, you would hear of major league ball players that would chew tobacco. We even had a bubble gum product called Big League Chew that emulated the real thing. Mr. Haley never let anyone on our team imitate that behavior and while I didn’t know it at the time, later in life as a surgeon I realized how influences can play a significant role in a child’s life. By not allowing us to imitate the habit of chewing tobacco with a bubble gum substitute, Mr. Haley was changing our lives and in many ways saving our lives.


Tony Gwynn was the legendary Hall of Fame talent from the San Diego Padres. He hit .338 for his career, hit over .350 seven times, won 8 batting titles, and one year hit an amazing .394 for a full season of major league baseball. Earlier this year at the young age of 54, Mr. Gwynn died from oral cancer, which he blamed on his greater than 20 years of chewing tobacco.

Whether it is peer pressure or the mystique that the big leaguers do it, kids as young as little league are subtlety encouraged to try chewing tobacco. “Just a pinch between your cheek and gum” was a popular commercial back in my day that we heard on the radio.

In the movies you can still see it glamorized. In the Tom Hanks film, A League of Their Own, Hanks’character prompts Geena Davis’ character to try chewing tobacco stating “that a lot of ball players do it.” Later, they are seen spitting together and he says, “That was a good one!” That is how it starts: one small influence begins a life of addiction to tobacco.

While chewing tobacco is banned in NCAA baseball as well as the U. S. minor leagues, even smoking cigarettes in the dugout is not allowed at the major league level. Nevertheless, at almost every game you can see someone with a lump in their cheeks that represents “chew”.

As a plastic surgeon, we perform a lot of reconstructions on the human body. Some of the most well-known include breasts for women with cancer, however, to date, the longest operation that I have ever been involved with – over 31 hours – was a jaw reconstruction for a man that developed oral cancer from chewing tobacco.

I applaud Tony Gwynn who in recent years despite his physical and mental pain, took his experience in baseball and his addiction to chewing tobacco and decided to push for a change in major league baseball to fight this dreaded disease.  The Jackie Robinson West team are champions on the baseball field because of their ability and their poise and our city celebrates the achievement that they have brought.

Let’s make sure that the influences that define them are positive and uplifting. After all, they have a great mentor, Joseph Howard Haley, who encouraged us to play like men, and be better kids as a result.


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