I don’t smoke because of baseball.
I sure wanted to smoke. I thought those guys in the movies were cool the way they thumped that cigarette away as they made a definite statement about life, love or horses, or all three! If an actor was really peeved, he’d grind that butt into the ground as he exited, stage right. And who could forget Jeff Chandler’s command as he gave his men a brief respite in their trek across the Philippines in “Merrill’s Marauders”: “OK, men, take five. Smoke 'em if you got 'em!”
Dad would flick those ashes off the ends of his Camels with practiced ease. He was about a two-pack-a-day man. Maybe a little more. I’ve walked up Stonewall Street to the store many a time for a loaf of bread and a pack of Camels. He’d give me 50 cents and I’d have change to bring home along with the goods. We were way too young to smoke ourselves but I remember Dad never gave any lectures about the do’s and don’ts of the habit. Of course, in the late ’50s there were just some distant rumblings of the dangers inherant with sucking the dangerous fumes into your system. If the Phillip Morris people had the true facts, they were not letting on.
I loved the commercials. “Winston Tastes Good Like A Cigarette Should.” I’m not sure that makes sense today, but it sold a lot of cartons. “Outstanding….And They Are Mild” was the catch phase for Pall Malls. And the action star of the hit TV series “Tales of Wells Fargo” was one of their pitch men. He’d come riding up on his big horse, dressed in character, jump off and declare, “Howdy. My name is Dale Robertson. I smoke Pall Malls, that’s my cigarette. You can light either end. You can break 'em in two and have two little ones…”
Maybe that’s not exactly what he said but you get the idea.
I reckon I was in junior high when I tried my first smoke. Ricky Hale “borrowed” a Lucky Strike out of Mr. Arvie’s pack and we ran down to the big ditch across Forrest Avenue and lit up. The Lucky Strike slogan was "Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco." “It’s Toasted” was written right on the pack. It didn’t taste toasted, roasted, baked, broiled, fried or sautéed to me. It was kinda like hot air. But man, we thought we were cool. James Dean in “East of Eden” didn’t have nothing on us!
Bobby Waldrup rolled up his cigs in his shirt sleeve. I’m telling you, that was way past cool! And Rollin Truell would roar up on that Harley, pull a Chesterfield out from the top of his ear and light up. Ol' Rollin was about as high up as you could go in our neck of the woods.
Yogi joined me and Ricky down at the big ditch with a whole pack of Kents. They had something called a “micronite” filter. This sissy filter was supposed to make smoking safe. We had no inkling that it contained blue asbestos as we puffed away. It really didn’t matter. I couldn’t tell any difference between it and the Lucky Strikes.
Coach Milrany told us at baseball practice that smoking would cut down on your wind. I didn’t know exactly what he meant but you could tell by context that it wasn’t good for an aspiring athlete. Even as I puffed away on the Kents I had a little hesitation. I wanted to be cool like Rollin and James Dean, but hitting a baseball like Stan Musial and Ted Williams was more important to me.
Coach Bill Rogers in junior high football was also down on smoking. “It will hurt your endurance.” Coach Scott in high school was a little more graphic. “Men, I catch you smoking and I will run you 'til your tongue is lapping the ground between your feet!”
In the middle of all of this, Steve McQueen paused on the set of “Wanted, Dead or Alive” and told us that Viceroy had “the thinking man’s filter and a smoking man’s taste.” Every other show on TV was sponsored by Old Gold, Newport, Salem, Kool or L & M’s. They came at you with every angle from mild taste to charcoal blends. I can still hear that little bell hop yelling, “Call for Phillip Morris.” You throw in the quintessential Marlboro man and it was enough to make a young boy figure it was all right.
Except for that baseball part. And football. And Coach Givens gave us the same talk in basketball. It was decision time for a young teenager. I knew plenty of athletes that smoked. And they seemed to do OK. They never passed out at practice or anything like that. Of course, I never saw one walk up to Coach Scott and admit to puffing on a few Lucky Strike Greens the night before.
Chick King coached the American Legion baseball team. He smoked. But he was dead set against us fooling with it. I was old enough and got to know him well enough to question him on it. “How come if it is so bad for me, why are you doing it?”
“Son, be smarter than I am.” No big lecture. No giant warning. No harbinger of things to come. But if ever a statement came from a guy’s heart…
The next time someone is telling you that you can get hurt playing football, basketball or baseball, or that they’re just silly games///remember...there is more to hitting a baseball than meets the eye.