Skip to main content

Chewing tobacco and a Major League dream

By Michael Schulder, CNN Senior Executive Producer
updated 10:07 AM EST, Fri November 25, 2011
Bobby Dews has been coaching with the Atlanta Braves for 37 years
Bobby Dews has been coaching with the Atlanta Braves for 37 years
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Major League Baseball: Chewing tobacco not allowed when fans are present
  • Chewing tobacco is a longtime ritual associated with baseball
  • Bobby Dews recalls the history of chewing tobacco from his father's stories

(CNN) -- A baseball tradition is about to end.

This week, Major League Baseball announced it would no longer allow the use of chewing tobacco when fans are present. If you've got it, says the league, you've got to conceal it.

Since baseball became a professional sport in the mid-19th century, players and coaches have been tucking tobacco between their gums and cheeks and spitting out brown saliva. It's a ritual that has permeated the game.

Atlanta Braves coach Bobby Dews remembers the first time he was offered a "chaw" of tobacco, as they call it. It was 50 years ago when Dews left his junior year at Georgia Tech to sign a deal to play shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals' minor league team. He got a $20,000 signing bonus.

"Everyone was chewing tobacco in the minors," Dews says. "It was almost like an initiation. You knew the major leaguers did it." And everyone in the minors dreamed of the majors, including Dews.

Dews' first day on the team, an older player offered him some tobacco. Why did so many players use it?

"I don't know. Maybe they thought it would help you be a better ballplayer. Or maybe it just made you feel like a better ballplayer," Dew recalls. "I tried it. It made me sick right out of the chute. Lucky for me."

Dews played with the Cardinals farm team. Just like his father, who played more than a decade in the minors, Dews dreamed of playing in the majors. He recalls a story about chewing tobacco that his father passed down that may shed light on the roots of that baseball tradition.

"It was a couple years before I was born: around 1937 or '38, shortly after they built the old ballpark in Durham, North Carolina," Dews said. "My father was in the bullpen a lot. He was a catcher. The ballpark's right field wall backed up to the Bull Durham Tobacco Factory. Young ladies who lived near the stadium would flirt with the guys in the bullpen and occasionally throw 'em tobacco."

Could that be where the term bullpen derived? Bull Durham chewing tobacco? The story sounds like good old-fashioned folklore.

This is a story I've lived with. You hear stories in your family so much they become true.
Bobby Dews, Atlanta Braves coach

"This is a story I've lived with," says Dew. "You hear stories in your family so much they become true. I don't know."

Dews' father left home during the Great Depression and became a minor league player by 16. During World War II, Dews' father was playing for the Atlanta Crackers in AA baseball. Then he was drafted by the Army. After the war, he signed up for the Army Reserves, which periodically interrupted his 13-year baseball career. Dews' father had combat infantry badges from World War II, Korea and Vietnam. He didn't chew tobacco. But he smoked. And he drank.

"When he came back from Vietnam, he quit," Dews said. "He never smoked or drank again."

Dews' grandparents raised him warning him that the men in the family had problems with alcohol.

"I was afraid to start drinking. I didn't want to become an alcoholic. I had a great desire to excel. I didn't have my first drink until I was 30."

And so, Dews, without chewing, without smoking, without drinking, played the minors and dreamed of the majors. After playing for 10 years, he realized, the St. Louis Cardinals were never going to call him up from the farm league. They told him, 'we don't want you to be a major league player. We want you to be a major league coach.' That meant coaching for a long time in the minors.

So he honed his skills in the minors, developing young talent the way he wishes he'd been developed, learning from the mistakes that the men who should have been his mentors made.

"I was 30-something. I hadn't made it to the majors. A minor league manager for St. Louis was a lonely job. You didn't have a staff of coaches. By then, I thought I could handle anything. So I started having a few beers to relax after the game."

At 71, Bobby Dews still goes to spring training and coaches all the home games for the Atlanta Braves.
At 71, Bobby Dews still goes to spring training and coaches all the home games for the Atlanta Braves.

Before he got too deep into drinking, Dews made a call for a new job, a new route to the majors. The Atlanta Braves answered the call. Dews became the team's third-base coach.

But his ascent hit a very big roadblock. The one his family warned about.

In 1988, upper management realized he had a problem with alcohol. He was determined not to be derailed.

"I found myself in a rehab center in St. Simon's Island, just in the nick of time," Dews said. "I'd spent a lot of time trying to get to the top of this game, so I was gonna get help. It's not like it's going to go away. I'm not drinking. But I'll always be an alcoholic."

Dews made it back to sobriety. And he made it back to the majors. He's been coaching with the Atlanta Braves for the past 37 years, with over half a century working in baseball. A number of years were as a pitching coach, in the bullpen, where his father had spent so much time as a catcher.

Even before Major League Baseball announced this week that there would be no more tobacco chewing within sight of the fans, teams would bring in well-known players such as Bill Tuttle, a former Detroit Tigers outfielder, to tell players about his tobacco chewing days and the throat cancer he battled. The league was committed to advising players on the dangers of smoking and drinking.

Dews has continued to follow in the tradition of his father. Like his father, Dews writes books. His latest is "Unpublished Poets." Like his father, he didn't chew tobacco. Like his father, he quit drinking and is proud to say he hasn't had a drink in 25 years.

Unlike his father, Dews made it to the majors and remains with the Atlanta Braves. At 71, Dews still goes to spring training and coaches all the home games.

"I help coaches if they have questions -- if I can help them -- through my experience."

Bobby Dews dreamed of the majors. He kept dreaming, until he got there.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT