Joe Garagiola, Oral Cancer Advocate, Dies at 90



Joe Garagiola is known for his baseball career, both as a player and as an award-winning broadcaster. But he also spoke out against the dangers of smokeless tobacco, particularly oral cancer. The athlete and advocate died on Wednesday, March 23 at the age of 90.

Garagiola and Bill Tuttle both played major league baseball in the 1950s, and both used chewing tobacco. They also were friends. While Garagiola quit the habit, Tuttle kept chewing and eventually developed oral cancer, requiring multiple surgeries and losing the ability to talk.

“The guy who came up with (the term ‘smokeless’) should get a huge bonus, because with that one word the tobacco companies really put a whole new spin on this business, be it chew, be it snuff, be it dip,” Garagiola was quoted as saying.

Both players began to campaign against smokeless tobacco. In the dugout, Garagiola would talk to other players one on one about their habits. Later as a broadcaster, he would speak to current players and even introduce them to former players who had developed cancer.

“When I’d go into a clubhouse, I could see the look on their faces that said, ‘Oh, God, here comes another one of those sermons,’” Garagiola said. “So I’d tell them right away that baseball did not pay our way. We’re here because we believe in it and we thank the ball clubs for giving us the opportunity.”

Later, Garagiola was named the chair of Oral Health America’s National Spit Tobacco Education Project, founded in 1996. Working with Major League Baseball, its goal is to encourage current smokeless tobacco users to quit and young people to refrain from starting.

Stars such as Mike Piazza, Alex Rodriguez, and Paul Molitor filmed public service messages broadcast during major league games. Events for youth featuring other players were held at stadiums. Broadcast networks and baseball card companies stopped showing players who were chewing and spitting. Other promotion followed as well.

“I told my story to President Clinton and urged him not to refer to it as smokeless tobacco but as ‘spit tobacco.’ I told him why, and he agreed,” said Garagiola. “That was the beginning of getting really big support, because the president talking about not only cigarettes but also spit tobacco brought this subject to the forefront.”

In addition to his 1946 World Series victory with the St. Louis Cardinals, Garagiola earned a Peabody Award for his broadcasting. But the Baseball Hall of Fame also honored him with the 2014 Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award for his lifelong fight against smokeless tobacco.

“You get a call from the Hall of Fame, especially the way I played, you wonder what they want,” Garagiola said. “But there were things happening in baseball that I was a part of and worked hard to get going and keep going that helped a lot of people.”

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