Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

OKI Wanna Know: Why do baseball players spit more than other athletes?

Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Hunter Greene spits
Mark J. Terrill
Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Hunter Greene spits after giving up a two-run home run to Los Angeles Dodgers' Trea Turner during the sixth inning of a baseball game Saturday, April 16, 2022, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Our feature OKI Wanna Know seeks to uncover the deeper truths in the world via your questions. This week, we look at an unrecognized tradition in the national pastime.

Baseball season is returning, and that inspired Sue MacDonald of Clifton (and member of the Cincinnati Public Radio Community Advisory Board) to ask about a habit she sees on the field. And in the dugout. Pretty much everywhere.

"Why do baseball players spit all the time? I'm not a huge sports fan, but it's the only sport I watch where the players are always spitting, and I wonder why? Why do they spit and what is it about them that makes them different from other athletes in other sports?"

Fox Sports Analyst Andy Furman says you're not wrong. It does appear to be just baseball players.

"I don't see golfers, or figure skaters, or [gymnasts] spitting. [Just] baseball players," he says.

RELATED: The rebirth of the Reds will kick into high gear in 2024

Location, he says, may have something to do with it.

"Perhaps basketball players think it's a little more hygienic not to spit. As baseball players playing in the outdoors, summertime, in an outdoor field, rather than an indoor arena," he says. "You're a lot closer to the fans in basketball. And where would you spit on a gymnasium floor? I don't think so. It's just not the place to do it."

Furman says ballplayers will sometimes spit into their gloves with the idea that it will soften up the leather.

"A lot of times you'll see them spit in the glove and rub it out. Maybe they make the glove a little more flexible, if you will," he says. "I don't know. The next game I play in Major League Baseball will be my first."

That doesn't account for all the spitting everywhere else.

The director of the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame and Museum says expectoration is an established tradition in baseball, and probably started with the game's connection to tobacco.

"Back then you had advertisers using baseball as the hook. It was just hand-in-hand; it went together. A lot of players chewed tobacco and that created that spitting, because you would build up the saliva and you certainly wouldn't swallow that spit, so you'd spit that out," Walls says. "I think, beyond that, it just really became a habit. Today, it's sunflower seeds. You chew the sunflower seed, you break the shell, eat the seed and spit out the shell."

Walls agrees location might have something to do with it. Baseball is played outdoors, and, he points out, it's played at a slower pace.

Related: Reds Opening Day game returns to WLWT

"That's where the smoking and the relaxing and the tobacco use back in the day took hold," he says. "What else are you going to do in the dugout but maybe spit? Maybe there were even spitting competitions to see who could spit the farthest, or come up with the best spit. I don't know."

Dr. Tim Kremchek confirms that absolutely happened. He played some college ball at Wittenberg University in Springfield before he became the team physician for the Cincinnati Reds.

"Yeah. You talk about boring! We were bored sitting on the bench, but we came up with a lot of those games," he says. "We would shoot at targets. You would spit and shoot at targets. And you always gotta be careful where the wind was blowing so it didn't come back in your face."

Kremchek detailed several other expectoration contests but we will spare you the details.

He says there's no physiological reason for baseball players to spit today, but there could be a psychological reason.

"When kids are growing up, no matter what sports you play, you watch — years ago, I remember being a five-year-old, just going outside and spitting because all the players — that's what they did. They chewed tobacco. They spit," he says. "I remember my son was a bat boy for the Reds in one of the spring training games, and he was probably six. We were videoing him, and we said 'Hey Teddy, how was it down there?' and he goes 'It was awesome! Look at that videotape. Look at all the spit on the ground!'

"It's just part of the game. It's part of the culture," Kremchek says.

Related: Reds Hall of Fame exhibit honors the long ball.

At the Reds Hall of Fame, Rick Walls says, personally, he doesn't notice players spitting anymore. Maybe, he says, he's just gotten so used to it, it doesn't register.

"This is a fun question to think about. I don't think anyone's ever done the sabremetrics report on that ... I don't think that's happened. I don't think that will ever happen."

Bill Rinehart started his radio career as a disc jockey in 1990. In 1994, he made the jump into journalism and has been reporting and delivering news on the radio ever since.