The Current

Spitting is part of baseball tradition and will be tough to quit, historian says

Major League Baseball is set to return for an abbreviated season, but it comes with new regulations to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 — including a ban on spitting.

MLB issues spitting ban as part of COVID-19 measures

Texas Rangers third baseman Isiah Kiner-Falefa spits during a baseball game against the Boston Red Sox in Arlington, Texas in Sept. 26, 2019. The 2020 season is banning spitting. (AP Photo/Louis DeLuca)

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Baseball historian Indy Neidell says spitting in baseball dates back to the 19th century and thinks the habit will be tough for players to quit.

As Major League Baseball is set to return to play following a four-month suspension due to the COVID-19 pandemic, new rules will be in place to prevent a coronavirus outbreak.

One of those rules is that players cannot spit, whether saliva, sunflower shells or chewing tobacco.

Neidell discussed why spitting is so ingrained in baseball with The Current's guest host Robyn Bresnahan.

Here is part of their conversation.

First of all, how did spitting become such a big part of baseball?

Well, I mean, it goes back, you know, [to] the 1800s. You had a lot more people using things like chewing tobacco than they used today. You didn't have, like, free rolled cigarettes. You had to buy tobacco loose and you couldn't afford a lot of it. It was a lot easier just to have chewing tobacco.

That exploded and for the next 15 years, until it was banned in 1920. You saw all kinds of things being used to produce spit. They wouldn't just use tobacco, although there were a lot of pitchers who did not even use tobacco outside of games.

[Tobacco gave] them all kinds of nicotine buzzes and stuff. But slippery elm, anything you could put in your mouth to create spit for the almighty spitball was used.

I mean ... even after the tobacco stuff, even having chewing gum and stuff, it is so traditional in baseball. Baseball is an incredibly conservative game over the years about tradition.

This is not baseball's first global pandemic. How did the sport handle the flu outbreak in 1918?

It's funny because all pitches that involve defacing the ball — scuffing, signed balls, spitballs — they were all banned in 1920. And this was still during the Spanish flu, although I've never seen any evidence that the two are related.

They were also trying to keep the balls cleaner during the games, particularly after the deaths of Cleveland star shortstop Ray Chapman, when he got hit in the head with a pitched ball in August 1920 and died. So that was a big wake-up call.

But if you look, you can find pictures of minor league teams in 1918 and [1919] playing [while] wearing masks.

Of course, just at the end of the First World War and the next six or seven months when all of the soldiers were returning home to the various nations, you could not help but have hundreds of thousands of people packed together.

Baseball responded to the flu basically the same way it responded to everything. You just slowly adapt, usually a little bit slower than the rest of the world does, because it is a kind of traditional institution.

Toronto Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo gestures as he speaks to a staff member during summer training camp batting practice at the Rogers Centre on July 19. Masks will be part of the new MLB guidelines for the 2020 season. (Dan Hamilton/USA TODAY Sports)

Well, when the current spitting ban was announced, many players did have something to say about it. Just take a listen to Justin Turner. He is with the L.A. Dodgers.

Spitting for baseball players is like blinking; it's going to be a tough habit to break. It's not even just spitting on the ground. You know, a lot of us have routines and habits — you know, you spit a little bit in your glove before a pitch. It's got to be a conscious effort from everyone. And, you know, we're going to have to do our best.

How do you think the baseball players will handle the ban on spitting? As you heard there, he was saying there's so many routines and habits.

Well, he's right. And it's going to require a big conscious effort. I've watched games all my life. There's always been spitting involved. I mean, even spitting on the umpire — which you get fined for big time, anyway.

But still, if they're going to enforce it with fines or with even suspensions, then I think pretty darn quickly it will take effect.

I can see the first few games, people are going to be really uncomfortable consciously thinking about not spitting until it becomes more second-nature.

I was reading a piece that said baseball is the only American sport where people actually snack in the middle of playing. I mean, it sounds like the sunflower seeds and tobacco, they're going to be banned to spit. What do you think is going to happen? Are they still going to chew on those sunflower seeds and just swallow them?

Well, that's a tough one about seeds and things like that. I mean, they're going to be chewing on things in the dugout. But I think it's going to be things that you can entirely swallow and not have to leave a piece of behind. Raisins, I guess? I don't know.

Written by Lito Howse. Produced by Sarah-Joyce Battersby. Q&A edited for clarity and length.

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