That’s how old baseball great Tony Gwynn was when he died Monday.
Gwynn, who hit a career .338 in 20 seasons with the San Diego Padres, was also the baseball coach at his alma mater, San Diego State. He left behind a wife, a son, a daughter and so much more the public eye will never know. A life unfinished.
Gwynn succumbed to his four-year battle with salivary cancer. There’s no way of knowing for sure, but Gwynn attributed his cancer to years of chewing tobacco. Gwynn’s initial cancerous growths were on the right side of his mouth in the same spot he said he dipped tobacco for 30 years.
Gwynn is gone, but that number, 54, remains.
It’s an ominous figure for many such as Edmond Santa Fe coach Ryan Phillips, who played three seasons in the Boston Red Sox organization and said he’s never used smokeless tobacco. Phillips said his grandfather and uncle both died of cancer after years of dipping.
“I’m 30 now, so 54 really seems a lot younger than it might to someone who’s 16,” he said. “For guys my age that are still playing it or doing it, I think people will take a second look at it. If they quit or not, who knows, but it’ll definitely have them reevaluate themselves.”
A study from the Pro Baseball Athletic Trainers Society showed the use of tobacco among Major League Baseball players dropped from 50 percent to about 33 percent in the past 20 years.
But that 33 percent is enormous compared to a 2012 American Cancer Society study that charted tobacco use at 3.5 percent among Americans 12 and older.
Heritage Hall coach Breck Draper played at Oklahoma State and spent three years playing in independent leagues. He said the reason players use tobacco is a product of the game’s nature.
“More so in professional baseball there’s so much downtime,” Draper said. “You’re sitting around in the bullpen and someone says, ‘Hey, try this.’”
Oklahoma State coach Josh Holliday, who said he’s never used smokeless tobacco, wants the connection to end.
“It not something I wanted to be associated with or something I want to be associated with baseball,” Holliday said. “I’ve known many great, great men who struggled with it and tried to kick the addiction. From what I understand that’s a very hard thing to do.
“It’s dangerous, quite frankly it’s nasty and it’s expensive, too.”
A can of dip cost $3 on average, and a can a day costs about $1,100 per year, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.
Tobacco is banned in high school, college and the minors. In 2011, the MLB placed restrictions on tobacco, but it was not completely banned.
That doesn’t mean it’s only a problem in the pros.
Eleven percent of male high schoolers use smokeless tobacco, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study.
Carl Albert coach Wayne Dozier, who said he gave up tobacco in 1994, said it’s not near the problem it used to be at the high school level, but it still happens.
“When I was playing coaches dipped on the field, players dipped on the field, but you don’t see that very often,” Dozier said. “You also saw a lot more coaches that smoked back then. But society has changed, and culture has changed. It’s eliminated it from vision, but I don’t think it’s eliminated it from actually taking place.”
A 2009 NCAA survey revealed 52.3 percent of college players used spit tobacco at least once in the previous month. That number actually rose from 42.5 percent in 2005. Results of a 2013 survey have not been released, but the percent is expected to drop.
An Oklahoma baseball spokesman declined an interview request for this article, but Holliday said his program strives to make players aware of the negatives of any drug use.
“What we try to do is educate our athletes on what’s best for their bodies,” Holliday said. “For them to be great athletes, they can’t put things that are bad for them into their bodies. That’s something we stress.”
With Gwynn’s death, the MLB Players Association is facing serious pressure to ban tobacco entirely. Whether this will spark real change remains to be seen, but now the issue is in the spotlight.
Only eight years ago, Draper played against Gwynn’s SDSU team while at Oklahoma State.
“It’s scary to see a guy like that disappear within a few years,” Draper said. “It’s crazy to hear and see.”
Gwynn was a Hall of Famer, a member of the 3,000-hit club, won eight batting titles, was a 15-time all-star, had a reputation as one of the sport’s friendliest players and impacted lives as a coach.
His greatest contribution to baseball, though, might be found in his death.
“It might take something like that to punch someone in the mouth and get them to say, ‘Holy cow, this could happen to me,’” Holliday said. “It’s sad to see a great, young man lose his life to something like that, but hopefully it will influence others to realize how dangerous this can be.
“I knew probably five people I talked to after that who said, ‘That’s it. I’m quitting.’”