The World Series just ended, and Major League Baseball grounds crews must be breathing sighs of relief, as dugouts and fields will finally get a long break from being mercilessly spat upon all summer and fall. But why do athletes spit all the time?
Everyone knows baseball players love to spit, but how come? And why don’t other athletes do it? Sure, soccer players do it sometimes, and football players on occasion, too. But why not golfers? Or tennis players? To find out, we looked at the science and talked to some former pro athletes for their take. Let’s hock up some answers!
Seriously though, why do athletes spit all the time? And especially baseball players?
When it comes to baseball players, most of the time, they don’t even know. The long-retired Tony Oliva, shown here awhile back, says it’s something to entertain the players or else their brain will go crazy.
Obviously, it all goes back to the game’s beginnings, and tobacco’s prominent place in it — which is to say, in everyone’s cheek and lip. There’s also the old-school ritual of spitting in one’s glove to soften it. And there’s the classic, notorious spitball that some pitchers perfected. (Here’s an old tutorial with a couple of the masters of the illegal pitch.)
Most players don’t even realize they’re spitting, though. Josh Labandeira, a retired Major Leaguer who’s now a scout for the Boston Red Sox, says, “It’s just kind of normal [for a baseball player] — you’re outside, you spit in the dirt, no big deal. I sit inside and I watch baseball on TV all day and I don’t spit.”
In addition to the boredom factor, though, it seems to be a low-key trigger for baseball players to focus. “I guess you could say it’s sort of nerves,” Labandeira tells me. “It might be a tight situation — you’re anticipating a ground ball or something, you get going and maybe don’t catch yourself doing it sometimes.”
What about football players? Why do they spit?
Prince Daniels Jr., a retired NFL running back who just wrote a book called Mindfulness for the Ultimate Athlete, says football players do, in fact, spit a lot. “The only difference is that you have a helmet on, so when you spit there’s a possibility that the saliva gets stuck on the helmet!” he says. “And now you have to pull it off. Nobody wants to spit on themselves.” That’s why you often see guys spitting on the sidelines, where their helmets are off.
But also like in baseball, when you’re on the field, spitting might work as a sort of reset button following a play, or ahead of the next one. “After you spit, it’s like you refocus,” Daniels Jr. says. “Like, ‘Alright, let’s go.’”
Like in baseball, spitting in football can be directly functional, as well. Daniels Jr. says football players in skill positions who wear tacky gloves for grip spit on them all the time. “Usually when you get tackled and you put your hands on the ground to get up, the dirt dirties your gloves, so in order to help them to restick, you spit on your gloves and you rub them together,” he says. “After that, you can catch the ball with your eyes closed.”
Maybe it’s both functional and a ritual in between plays: Nearly every at-bat, baseball legend David Ortiz would stick a foot outside the batter’s box between pitches, spit on his batting gloves and clap them together.
What’s the point of soccer players spitting, then? They don’t chew, and they don’t use their hands!
Ah! This appears to be something different. Nobody seems to spit while the ball’s in play, but when it goes out and players trudge back into position, or they miss a shot, they often spit. This might be more like the reset-button idea.
But science suggests there’s something else going on, too. For more aerobic sports like soccer or distance running, studies have shown that your body increases the amount of a certain kind of protein called MUC5B into saliva. This makes it thicker, which makes it harder to swallow and, you’d suppose, more satisfying to spit it the hell out.
Golfers play on grass too, but they don’t spit. Why?
That’s because it’s literally against the rules of the game! Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia have been fined on separate occasions for spitting. Nobody regards spitting as classy, so you’d never expect a game like golf, as stuffy as it is, to allow this sort of thing.
It’s also not allowed in tennis — another upper-crust, country-club sport. Andre Agassi once got fined for it as he was yelling at an umpire, though the gob was later considered accidental.
Whether or not an athlete spits also seems to be a matter of expectations. Labandeira, the retired baseball player, also played basketball and wrestled, and said he’d never considered spitting during those “inside” type of sports. “It’d be like spitting on your kitchen floor,” he says.
What is it about spitting that’s so natural?
Who knows, but it was very commonplace until the early 20th century, when it became the focus of public campaigns against spreading disease, and was also seen as a disgusting, lower-class habit that an upwardly mobile man had to disavow if he was to have any chance of marrying up. As many of our sports are older than this, either their fields have continued to be regarded as an acceptable surface upon which to spit, or spitting’s mild functionality in them has kept it somewhat permissible. In any case, spitting actually persisted for quite a while in elite society — spittoons were still being used in the Senate chamber as recently as 1981!
As for why some players naturally spit on the playing field? Just as with the reason some guys spit when they stand before a urinal, it seems to be Pavlovian: After conditioning yourself to do so, it’s just what you automatically do when you sit in a dugout, kick the ball out of play or stand on the sideline. Since the main factor in the decline of public spitting in Western civilization was the notion of shame, maybe the playing field is the last acceptable place for people — and top athletes — to practice what, until relatively recently, seems to have long been a normal, though highly disgusting, habit.