Even though the most famous baseball song goes, “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks,” it’s actually sunflower seeds that are more popular with baseball players.
Sunflower seeds are so popular in the sport that major manufacturer, David Seeds, is an official sponsor of Little League baseball. But this wasn’t always the case, and we’ll look at how these shelled seeds rose and became a cultural part of America’s pastime.
Why do baseball players eat sunflower seeds? Baseball players eat sunflower seeds during a baseball game in order to keep their mouths moist and to keep their minds occupied and focused during the long games. Sunflower seeds aren’t the only way to do this, but they have somewhat taken the place of chewing tobacco.
Players Didn’t Always Spit Out a Sunny Snack
Older fans of baseball or those who watch classic games may remember players launching a long stream of brown tobacco spit out of their mouths at home plate and throughout the game.
Many famous baseball players have died from different types of oral cancer directly related to using chewing tobacco, and as time marched on, the MLB tried to shift their image from nicotine-addicted to snack happy.
Why Is Chewing Tobacco Even a Part of the Game At All?
Well, baseball fields and dugouts are extremely dusty and dry places. Players would chew tobacco to keep their mouths wet and to feel more hydrated.
Also, big tobacco companies have been a part of sports for a long time. Plenty of baseball players and other athletes were sponsored by tobacco companies, and using dip or smoking cigarettes wasn’t seen as a problem or an unhealthy habit until fairly recently.
In addition to keeping their mouths wet, chewing tobacco also helped soften the players’ mitts. They would spit their tobacco juice into their gloves and use it to help soften and maintain the leather. Pitchers would also spit on the baseball to change the movement of the pitch, giving rise to the now-outlawed spitball.
Having something to work around in your mouth while you’re trying to focus on a long baseball game is also cited as another reason why players had their cheeks filled with dip.
In addition, depending on how much nicotine they used on a daily basis, going without nicotine for the duration of a baseball game would cause players to go into mild withdrawal, which would affect their play.
Cracking Down on Tobacco
A lot of kids fall in love with baseball when they start playing Little League, and Little Leaguers want to emulate their Major League heroes.
Seeing them spit out tobacco during a game no doubt had an influence on young kids looking to play like the pros. As the negative health impacts became undeniable, the MLB started to address this issue among their players.
The NCAA banned smokeless tobacco at the college level in 1990, and the MLB outlawed it in the minor leagues in 1993. Now, not to denigrate the talent or commitment of minor league or college players, but they’re certainly not as visible as MLB players, who remained unaffected by dipping bans for another two and a half decades.
When the MLB administration and players settled their collective bargaining agreement in 2012, Major League Baseball players couldn’t have packets or tins of dip in their pockets when the ballpark was open to fans, and they couldn’t appear in interviews with dip in their mouth.
Stadiums were also impacted by local ordinances, which began to outlaw smokeless tobacco products like dip in many public areas.
In 2016, another collective bargaining agreement banned smokeless tobacco for any new players entering the league. While this was a big shift towards a healthier future for the MLB, there are still hundreds of players and staff who were allowed exception to this rule, since they were already playing in the MLB before 2016.
Sunflower Seeds and Gum Are Now the Go-To Alternatives
Despite all of the negative impacts of chewing tobacco, the positive impacts of having something in your mouth can be replicated. Players can chew in the dugout, crack the sunflower seeds in their teeth, and spit out the shells as they discuss strategy or watch their teammates out on the field.
Baseball is a long game, and chewing sunflower seeds not only provides some nutritional value, but it’s also akin to fidgeting. By occupying their bodies with sunflower seeds or gum, baseball players can keep their brains engaged.
Especially in high-pressure games, having something like sunflower seeds or gum can help decrease stress levels and lead to better overall performance on the field.
The Official Sunflower Seed of Little League
Since anti-tobacco initiatives popped up, sunflower seed companies have joined the fight to encourage baseball players to have healthy habits. David Seeds sponsors Little League and minor league baseball, and they have since 1991.
On their webpage, David Seeds proclaims that “baseball and spittin’ go hand in hand.” They also encourage Little League coaches to declare a “David Player of the Game” to encourage players.
Other brands have deals with different teams, or players just have their own preferences to what brand or flavor they like. Major sunflower seed companies have partnered with other major food brands to offer unique flavors, like Hidden Valley Ranch or Taco Bell Taco Supreme. David Seeds also offers fun flavors like dill pickle and bacon mac & cheese.
While the range of flavors may be a new development, sunflower seeds have been a part of baseball for a long time. Sure, more players were spitting tobacco than seeds, but players as far back as the 1950s were seen chewing on a cheek full of salty sunflower seeds.
They were popularized by Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, who regularly chewed them in the dugout. He was even paid to put his name and likeness on a sunflower seed bag, and he chewed them out of habit and for his overall health, telling Sports Illustrated magazine that “The nutritional value is meaningful.”
Due to the collective bargaining agreement in 2016, it’s clear that chewing tobacco will eventually fade away from the game of baseball. However, players who used to chew tobacco or those who want to reap the benefits of a chewing habit have turned to sunflower seeds or gum.
Although the NCAA and minor league baseball placed bans on chewing tobacco in the early 1990s, it wasn’t until the early and mid-2000s that the MLB took action against chewing tobacco, despite several prominent players dying of oral cancers as a consequence of chewing tobacco.
Sunflower seeds are so prevalent in the sport that David Seeds sponsors Little League baseball and softball in order to encourage kids’ healthy habits. Sunflower seeds are seen as a healthy alternative that still helps players focus, keep them feeling hydrated in the dusty conditions, and pass the time through nine (or more) innings.