If you’ve ever watched a baseball game, from Little League to the MLB, you may have asked yourself, “Why do baseball players chew sunflower seeds?”
Baseball and sunflower seeds go together like tacos and Tuesdays. This wasn’t always the case, though. Why are these seeds such an iconic tradition in baseball?
Baseball players chew sunflower seeds because they’re cheap, convenient, and healthy, as well as a popular alternative to smokeless tobacco. Due to these contributing factors, sunflower seeds are now a classic part of baseball culture.
After doing some research, I was able to find 4 reasons why baseball players chew sunflower seeds, along with some interesting history around how this tradition began.
Four Reasons Why Baseball Players Chew Sunflower Seeds
#1) Sunflower Seeds are Ingrained in the Culture and Image of Baseball
The visual of a baseball player chewing seeds during a game has been around for a long time. And it’s been passed down from generation to generation. Kids in Little League see their coaches chewing sunflower seeds at practice, or watch their favorite professional players do the same thing on TV.
They want to be like their heroes. So they pick up a bag and learn how to crack the shells and spit them out, without sending the seed flying too. For some players, chewing sunflower seeds becomes part of their self image in childhood, and they carry it with them for as long as they love baseball.
#2) Sunflower Seeds are Cheap, Convenient, and Come in Multiple Flavors
If the subject of sunflower seeds comes up with a baseball player, there’s a good chance they’ll mention their favorite flavor. Classic options include BBQ, ranch, black pepper, dill, and original.
And it’s easy to stop at a convenience store on the way to a game and grab a bag for $2 or $3. It’s also not uncommon for MLB teams to purchase sunflower seeds by the case over the course of a season.
Between the low cost, flavor variety, and ability to keep them on hand during a game, seeds have been a top choice for snacking.
#3) It’s an Unconscious Habit That’s Hard to Break
Baseball is known as a sport that’s rooted in tradition and routine. Chewing sunflower seeds can be second nature when a game is in progress. Some players have also referred to the activity as a tic or compulsion. It can take more effort to stop chewing than it does to maintain the routine.
For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Major League Baseball proposed the protocol of “no spitting, using smokeless tobacco, and sunflower seeds in restricted areas.” This was due to the fact that the virus spread through respiratory droplets. There was some concern that players might continue to chew and spit sunflower seeds out of habit, in spite of temporary health precautions.
#4) They’re a Popular Alternative to Chewing Tobacco
Smokeless tobacco has been popular among baseball players since the 19th century.
In a 2015 study, it showed that about 37 percent of MLB players and coaches still chewed tobacco. That number has been declining over time, however, especially since the negative health effects of tobacco use have become better understood.
Sunflower seeds have been seen as a safe alternative for players who didn’t care for tobacco, or at least didn’t want impressionable young fans to see them use it publicly.
The History of Sunflower Seeds in Baseball
While sunflower seeds are now ingrained in the history of baseball, they weren’t popularized in the sport until almost 100 years after the first professional league was founded. Before seeds were a cultural staple, smokeless tobacco dominated the field.
Baseball Players Originally Used Chewing Tobacco
Back in the mid-1800s, when baseball became a widely popular, nationally organized sport in the United States, chewing tobacco was a common activity. And by 1890, the market for smokeless peaked, with the average American chewing about 3 pounds of tobacco per year. Even after the general popularity of smokeless dropped over the next couple decades, baseball players continued to chew tobacco at a steady rate.
And over time, players found ways to incorporate their habit into the tactics of the game. They would use chew to produce extra saliva for lubricating the mouth, while playing on a dusty field. Tobacco juice was also used to soften fielding gloves at the time. And it also gave pitchers an effective way to prepare the notorious spitball, before the MLB banned the pitch in 1920.
The connection between baseball and tobacco was so strong that, from the 1920s through the 1940s, every major league team had a tobacco sponsor. And some of baseball’s greatest figures, such as Babe Ruth, Joe Dimaggio, and Ted Williams, appeared in tobacco advertisements.
Considering tobacco’s place in baseball history, how did sunflower seeds first become a thing?
The short answer is arguably Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson.
Reggie Jackon Chewed Sunflower Seeds for Their Health Benefits
In 1968, Jackson could be found at the Oakland Coliseum in California, chewing on sunflower seeds in the dugout. For him, the seeds weren’t just a way to pass the time between pitches. They provided health benefits that he deemed useful to a professional athlete.
Jackson once told Sports Illustrated, “The nutritional value is meaningful. Sunflower seeds have protein, thiamine, niacin, iron, magnesium, phosphorus. We have to take phosphorus pills to keep from pulling muscles.”
Even though fellow Hall of Famers Stan Musial and Enos Slaughter were spotted chewing seeds in the outfield as early as the 1950s, it was Reggie Jackson who knocked the pastime into the public consciousness. Ever since then, a bag of sunflower seeds is almost as essential to playing a baseball game as a bat and glove.
Since those days, there have been more and more reasons for players to switch over to seeds, as significant actions continue to be taken against tobacco usage in baseball.
Sunflower Seeds are Used More After Smokeless Tobacco Was Banned in Baseball
Smokeless tobacco has been banned in college baseball since 1990, and in the minor leagues since 1993. And under the MLB’s 2016 collective bargaining agreement, smokeless was banned for all new major league players.
There will be a time when smokeless tobacco is no longer a part of organized baseball in America. But, for now, it looks like sunflower seeds are here to stay.