Joe Garagiola was more than a broadcaster and baseball character. He was more than a guy who grew up with Yogi Berra in St. Louis and had more to do with propagating Yogi-isms than anyone.
He also was among the founders of the Baseball Assistance Team (B.A.T.), an organization that has offered assistance to former players in need of help. I had a chance to exchange a few phone calls with Garagiola due to his involvement in another quest:
To make baseball players fully aware of the health risks (particularly cancer) associated with chewing tobacco. This came after I wrote a column in December 1993 on the gruesome surgery that former Twins player Bill Tuttle underwent to deal with cancer caused by his addiction to chewing tobacco.
The first call from Garagiola was to make me aware that his organization wanted to distribute the column in its material when making anti-chewing tobacco presentations to big leaguers.
This was a brief follow up on that column a number of years later:
“Joe Garagiola was involved in a campaign to convince major league ballplayers not to use chewing tobacco. Garagiola came across a Star Tribune article in 1993 on Bill Tuttle, a former center fielder with the Twins and other teams.
‘’Chewing tobacco had caused mouth and jaw cancer for Tuttle. He underwent a series of disfiguring surgeries. The former major league catcher and announcer convinced Tuttle to make appearances in big-league camps, to dramatize the risks of chewing tobacco.
‘’Tuttle died from cancer five years later.’’
Here was the original column that appeared on Dec. 14, 1993. Soon thereafter, Garagiola and Tuttle became teammates in the fight to greatly reduce the popularity of chewing tobacco in baseball:
CALVIN GRIFFTH GAVE A demonstration of the free spending to come with the first trade he made for the Minnesota Twins. On June 1, 1961, the Twins sent pitcher Paul Giel and third baseman Reno Bertoia to the Kansas City Athletics for center fielder Bill Tuttle.
Money was not an obstacle for Trader Cal, when it came to improving the Twins. Right?
"You bet," Tuttle said. "After I left the Twins, I went to Syracuse and played in the International League, and I made the same salary there that I was making when I played for Calvin."
Tuttle was in his eighth big league season and he had earned a reputation for having tremendous range in center field. Unfortunately, one of the Twins' better players in that first season was center fielder Lennie Green, so they had to figure out something else to do with Tuttle.
"When I got to Minnesota, I told 'em that I had been an infielder in college, so they put me at third base," Tuttle said. "I did OK there and figured I was going to be the third baseman in '62, but Rich Rollins came up. So I sat there."
Tuttle had 370 at-bats for the Twins in 1961 and 123 in 1962. He was released a couple of weeks into the 1963 season, after getting three at-bats. "The Twins said they had to make room for a young outfielder named Tony Oliva," Tuttle said. "They said the kid could hit. I guess they were right."
That was 30 years ago, so Tuttle can't be blamed for mistaking the young outfielder who arrived at Met Stadium in 1963. The Twins were making room for Jimmie Hall, another kid who could hit. He finished with 33 home runs in his rookie season.
"I was an everyday center fielder when I came to Minnesota, and then I was out of the league at age 33," Tuttle said. "The trade to the Twins hurt me plenty as a player."
Tuttle did meet a Minneapolis woman, Gloria Neuber, during his Minnesota stay, and they were married in 1964. Almost immediately, Gloria started giving Tuttle grief about his fondness for Beechnut chewing tobacco.
"At first, I just told him it was a terrible habit - all that spitting," Gloria said. "Later, when the cancer information came out, I would say, `If you don't stop, you're going to get cancer.' All Bill would say was, `It's not as bad as smoking.' "
Gloria could not say much in response to that, until two years ago, when she gave up cigarettes. Tuttle did not follow her example. He continued to chew his beloved Beechnut.
Tuttle signed for $8,000 [with Detroit] in 1951. He was sitting next to Harvey Kuenn on the Tigers' bench a few seasons later.
"I had an injury that was going to keep me out for a week," Tuttle said. "Harvey was a real tobacco chewer. I had nothing to do, so I said to Harvey, `Give me a taste of that stuff.' I took another handful later in the game. I liked it."
At the ballpark. On the fishing lake. Hunting game birds. Playing golf. Tuttle chewed his Beechnut during all of these activities, plus he would sneak in a chaw when Gloria was not around. The Tuttles were living apart - Bill in Kansas City, Gloria in the Twin Cities - from 1982 until this summer, so he had plenty of chewing time.
"I moved back here this summer, and we moved into a new place, a big house in Anoka, in October,’’ he said.
A few days after moving into the new digs, Gloria noticed that Bill seemed to have a chaw inside his right cheek. "Are you chewing in the house now?" she asked. Bill said no, but there was a growth in his mouth, under that cheek.
It turned out to be one of the largest malignant growths the doctors at University of Minnesota Hospitals have removed from the mouth of a patient.
Bill does not have health insurance. After the biopsy showed a malignancy, it took some time to come up with the $5,000 needed as a down payment on the hospital bill.
Joe Garagiola's group that helps old-time ballplayers, BAT, sent the $5,000, and Bill underwent 13 hours of surgery in mid-November. Much of that time was spent having skin from his chest grafted into his mouth, to fill the hole left by the removal of the huge growth.
"Jim Kaat called me the other day," Tuttle said. "Jim is helping Rod Carew with an anti-tobacco campaign. I told Jim to give Carew my number. If he wants someone to talk to kids in this area, I'll do it."
Carew chewed enormous amounts of tobacco. He had a cancer scare with a spot inside his mouth awhile back. It turned out to be benign, and the grateful Carew is now trying to keep kids away from chewing.
"It seems like a harmless habit, but I'm evidence that it's not," Tuttle said. "You know what I'm eating these days? Pudding. I love steaks and pork chops, but my mouth is so swollen, I'm eating pudding."