March 8, 2019 - I know you have witnessed this strange ritual many times: A baseball player steps into the batter’s box, hits the plate with his bat, then spits. After each pitch he then steps out of the box and spits again. Or, you have seen a football player get down in his stance, stare at his opponent, then spits before the ball is snapped. I have often wondered about this spitting ritual done mostly by men. Personally I have never felt the need to spit just to be doing it, so I guess that is why I don’t understand.
Spitting is currently considered rude and a social taboo in many parts of the world, including the West. In China it is considered more acceptable. Social attitudes towards spitting have changed greatly in Western Europe since the Middle Ages. Back then, frequent spitting was a part of everyday life, and at all levels of society it was thought ill-mannered to hold back saliva to avoid spitting. By the early 1700s, spitting had become seen as something which should be concealed, and by 1859 many viewed spitting on the floor or street as vulgar, especially in mixed company.
Spittoons were used openly during the 19th century to provide an acceptable outlet for spitters. Spittons became far less common after the influenza epidemic of 1918, and their use has since virtually disappeared, though each justice of the Supreme Court of the United States continues to be provided a personal cuspidor.
So, the question is this, “Is spitting functional or gratuitous?” On the sidelines, on the team bench, television gives us up-close images of a behavior that we frown upon in homes, most interior spaces generally, and out-of-doors public places as well.
Some sports see it, others don’t. Golfers, or tennis players don’t spit. Basketball players in big indoor arenas don’t - or do they? Is social class a factor? Is the culture of a particular sport conducive or un-conducive? If so, why? I watch athletes spitting water and I wonder why don’t they just drink what they need, swallow it all, and quit there?
Could it be that spitting has to do with the degree of exertion? If you’re pushing yourself hard, especially if mouth breathing is used, the mouth tends to dry out and mucous and phlegm tend to build up. Spitting clears the mouth before you inhale and start choking.
Many basketball players spit a lot, but much of this is done over the end lines in smaller gyms, or into towels. Soccer and football players are big on expectorating, but seem to try to do it where they and others will not be falling into it. The same holds true in tennis - you don’t want to grease the court, so many wait until the breaks when they can rinse their mouth with water at the same time.
Spitting is tied to chewing tobacco in our dear old American culture, and chaw use peaked in about 1890. This cultural timing may partly explain the enduring association between chaw, baseball, and spitting - and may partly explain baseball’s remarkable supply of ritual gestures and posturing.
Another point about spitting and sport: spitting has actually become a sport. In Michigan they have cherry pit spitting contests. In the deep south I have heard of watermelon seed spitting contests. These are distance competitions. I wonder if they judge the spitter on style as well as distance?
One last thought here - that is the ritual spitting of that last mouthful of water. Not in clearing the throat, but in that last mouthful of water. Why spit it out? Is it a symbolic tribute to the gods, or to make a statement? Do you know of any sport in which women athletes spit the way men do? I can’t think of any, so spitting is perhaps male-specific. One suggestion might be this - is spitting a way of an athlete marking his territory?
A lineman spits on a football field at the line of scrimmage in front of an opponent. Is he not saying, “this is my turf”? Is it not also an expression of disrespect to the opponent: “I spit in your general direction you wimpy pig-dog!” Of course, I ask myself much the same thing when I see young men and boys spitting on the street or sidewalk, too.
I suppose there is no good answer to this question. Men will continue to spit just because they can and it makes them feel good.