BOSTON -- Curt Schilling's appearance Wednesday on the WEEI/NESN Jimmy Fund telethon, in which he disclosed he had squamous cell carcinoma in his mouth, led to Red Sox manager John Farrell addressing the use of smokeless tobacco in baseball during his media session Wednesday afternoon.
Schilling, who said his cancer is in remission, said he would "go to his grave" believing that his decades-long use of smokeless tobacco led to his condition. Dana-Farber medical oncologist Dr. Robert Haddad, who joined Schilling during his appearance on the "Dennis and Callahan Show," said there is no debate over the risk of cancer that smokeless tobacco poses.
"One of the well-described and defined risks for oral cancer is smokeless tobacco, which is what we're talking about here," Haddad said. "It is not a question mark. This has been shown repeatedly, and the National Cancer Institute clearly makes the case that any form of tobacco is harmful and should not be used."
Interestingly, NFL quarterback Jim Kelly, who was diagnosed last year with squamous cell carcinoma in his mouth, said he neither smoked nor chewed tobacco. Kelly attributed his onset of cancer to the "luck of the draw ... bad luck. I don't know what you want to call it."
But Schilling's disclosure, as well as the recent death of Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn at age 54 due to salivary gland cancer, which he also attributed to his use of smokeless tobacco, has cast a spotlight on its widespread use in the game.
"I don't want to call it a tradition, because it's not," Farrell said Wednesday afternoon. "But it's a norm in baseball culture."
A number of Red Sox players are regular users, and former manager Terry Francona had a well-publicized struggle to break the habit, which included making a wager with CEO Larry Lucchino, a cancer survivor. Francona lost the bet, and continues to chew.
Farrell noted how the use of smokeless tobacco is not prohibited on the big league level, protected by the players' collective bargaining agreement with Major League Baseball.
"MLB has taken steps to dissuade players from using it through educational programs that are administered to every team," Farrell said. "It's even got to the point [in the minor leagues] now where players can be fined if smokeless tobacco is in view of the general public. There have been some of those warnings and penalties levied on some of our players.
"I think we all recognize that it's addictive and causes cancer. That's proven. [But] at this time, it's upon the player to make the conscious decision for himself to use it or not. All we can do is continue educate guys what the ramifications are. ... On the heels of the unfortunate passing of Tony Gwynn and what Curt is going through, you would think this would be a current beacon for guys to take note that there's a price to be paid, if you're one of the unfortunate ones stricken by cancer."
There have been numerous efforts to curtail the use of smokeless tobacco among big league players. Former player Joe Garagiola, who went on to a celebrated career as a big league broadcaster, used to tour spring training camps annually to share his message of the dangers of smokeless tobacco. Garagiola, who used to chew tobacco but quit when his daughter asked him if he was going to die from cancer, was frequently accompanied on his visits by former Tigers outfielder Bill Tuttle, whose face had been ravaged by cancer.
One of the players who took Garagiola's message to heart, at least temporarily, was Schilling, when he was with the Phillies in 1998.
"Schilling was in a line to get checked," Garagiola told the Boston Globe in a 2004 interview. "I could see that he was getting very edgy because he was thinking about the exam. I practically held him by the hand making sure he wouldn't leave. We were talking umpires and Yogi [Berra] stories, anything I could to keep him there.
"He comes out and he's as white as a sheet. He said the second they looked in his mouth the dentist said, 'If you were my son, I'd have this biopsied yesterday.'"
The results showed that Schilling had a lesion on his lower lip, a sign of abnormal cell changes and a precursor to oral cancer. He had the lesion removed, and spoke of the experience at a news conference in Clearwater, Florida. "Basically in no uncertain terms they told me that if I were to continue I would have cancer," Schilling said. "They were 100 percent sure of it. You wonder how the tobacco companies -- the people that do this -- can go to sleep at night. It's a drug, there's no doubt about it. It's addictive."
Schilling, who used moist snuff, which comes cured, finely ground, and sometimes flavored, quit for a year and a half. But despite repeated attempts, he never quit entirely.