As the crisis caused by Covid-19 continues, our professional sports teams have made large contributions to help combat the far reaching effects of the virus.
Carolina Panther owner David A. Tepper donated $2.65 million through his foundation, while Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer has pledged $25 million to fight the virus.
Each of the major league baseball teams pledged $1 million each to help out their work force and ballpark employees.
It is not just teams that have made contributions to the cause. Philadelphia 76ers star center Joel Embid has made two separate donations totaling $1.8 million for testing and medical relief. Drew Brees and his wife Brittany have personally committed $5 million to the State of Louisiana for relief efforts in the pandemic.
It is not just the money that counts. If you Google your favorite sports team you will see that the athletes are donating their time and muscle to the cause, and not just writing checks.
While the present crisis is a unique situation for all of us, the response of help by an athlete is not without precedence. In some cases they have even given their lives.
Bill Tuttle was a major league baseball player for 11 seasons for three different teams from 1952-1963. An excellent defensive centerfielder, with a very strong arm, he was known for his acrobatic catches. Early in his career, while injured and sitting on the bench, a teammate suggested he try chewing tobacco to pass the time. This started a habit that would last almost 40 years.
I saw Tuttle play numerous times, and indeed, in the pictures of him on the bubble gum cards we collected, he always had a bulge in his left cheek from the chew he was carrying in his mouth.
After retirement as a player, Bill continued to use chewing tobacco. In 1993, he was diagnosed with cancer, and he had an operation to remove a tumor. In fact, five operations were needed, resulting in Tuttle losing much of his face, including his jaw, teeth, and right cheek. Doctors tried to repair his face by taking patches of skin and muscle from other parts of his body. Still, Tuttle was so disfigured, that some of his grandchildren did not want to visit him. They were afraid of their own grandfather.
In 1993, Bill and his wife Gloria joined with former major league catcher and broadcast announcer Joe Garagiola, who was head of the Baseball Assistance Team. Garagiola was also head of the National Spit Tobacco Education Program. In the spring of 1994, the Tuttles went on a tour of major league clubhouses where Bill would speak out against the use of chewing tobacco. At first it wasn’t easy, as almost 40% of the players were using spit tobacco.
Garagiola would say that “Bill’s physical presence was his story. His face alone was enough for some of the players to stop chewing.” Bill’s message was simple, that if you chew, you may end up looking like me.
Gloria would talk about the impact on the family, and write to the players’ wives. “I am watching the man I love die,” she wrote. “It is the most difficult thing I have ever done in my whole life.”
In his debilitated state, Tuttle continued to crusade against spit tobacco. He spoke to major and minor league teams, students, and legislators. He did that, when he was well enough, right up to his passing in 1998 from his oral cancer.
While smokeless tobacco was banned from college baseball in 1990, and the minor leagues a few years later, the major leagues were slower to act. Then Tony Gwynn would die in 2014 from salivary gland cancer, due to decades of dipping smokeless tobacco. He was only 54 years old. In 2016, under the new MLB collective bargaining agreement, smokeless tobacco was banned for all new major league players.
Today, when I go to cover a baseball game, and I see a young player put some gum in his mouth instead of a wad of chew tobacco, I always think of Bill Tuttle. His immense sense of duty and responsibility in the last years of his life was not in vain. I quietly thank him for his sacrifice.
Mike Wood is a sports correspondent for The Daily Advance.