Nationals

The history of chewing gum and baseball

Nationals

The New York Yankees dugout found an unlikely pastime for America’s pastime on Tuesday while hosting the Oakland Athletics -- bubble gum. 

Several dozen pink dots were spotted during the broadcast, littering the field as Yankees players appeared to be aiming at a nearby sprinkler head. While groundskeepers across the league are likely hoping this activity doesn’t gain traction, it was just another example of the prime real estate chewing gum occupies in baseball. 

Here’s a look back at how chewing gum became a staple of dugouts and locker rooms across the country.

Where can you see influences of chewing gum throughout baseball?

Look no further than one of the most iconic baseball stadiums in the world -- Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs.

The storied diamond shares a namesake with Wrigley gum. William Wrigley Jr. bought the Cubs in 1921 and officially renamed the stadium from Cubs Park to Wrigley Field in 1927. 

While the Cubs have been sold twice in the century since Wrigley Jr. took over -- once to the Tribune Company and most recently to the Ricketts family -- the naming rights of the field have withstood the test of time. Tom Ricketts, chairman of the Cubs and the family’s primary public voice on team matters, has taken creative approaches to legacy partnerships and innovative stadium renovations, but has made it clear the Wrigley name is here to stay. 

 

When did baseball players start chewing gum during games?

While Wrigley established an early connection between chewing gum and baseball, it wasn’t until the 1980s that it took to the dugouts. 

For much of history, baseball and tobacco have gone hand-in-hand. Even the coming-of-age movie the Sandlot, set in 1962, features a memorable scene that involves “Big Chief” chewing tobacco, a spinning amusement ride and some unfortunate luck for the rag-tag group of sluggers. 

Not only was tobacco a staple of American culture throughout the turn of the 20th century, but it proved resourceful on the diamond, generating saliva that helped filter out the dusty environment. 
 
The emergence of gum as an alternative to tobacco can be traced back to a struggling left-handed pitcher, eager-to-prove batboy and an independent baseball team in Oregon. 

In 1977, Rob Nelson, pitcher for the Portland Mavericks, noticed teenage batboy Todd Field carrying a pouch full of chopped licorice. When questioned about the chewing snack, Field quickly assured him that it was just licorice posing as tobacco, but the idea struck a chord with Nelson who also didn’t chew tobacco. With the financial help of former major leaguer Jim Bouton and Field’s childhood kitchen as their lab, Nelson invented what would later become “Big League Chew.” 

Things came full circle by 1980, when Wrigley took a chance on Nelson by selling Big League Chew throughout the stadium. It came at the perfect time as the Tribune Company bought the Cubs the following season.

Why is baseball the only sport that chews gum during games?

There’s no straightforward answer, but it likely boils down to culture and conditions.

Every once in a while, a basketball player can be seen smacking away. In fact, Michael Jordan was frequently spotted chewing gum during warmups. More recently, however, players like LeBron James and Steph Curry have opted to stick to mouth guards. 

Meanwhile, Cam Newton is occasionally spotted chewing gum, but the physical nature of football isn’t very conducive to the act. 

For the better part of a century, baseball was a cultural moment, a giant among entertainment. While other sports have surpassed its popularity in the decades since, some traditions never die. Perhaps chewing gum is one of them.