Baseball's Nuts

June 1, 2017

 

No ball season would be complete without peanuts in the stands and sunflower seeds on the bench. These two nuts, that are actually not nuts at all, have been a part of the game for more than 50 years. 

 

Get Your Legume’s Here!

 

As you may already know, peanuts are not nuts at all but come from the family of legumes. The same family that gives us delicious beans, peas and lentils, and my favorite the cashew, also gives you these savory self-contained snacks. 

 

The National Peanut Board dates the marriage between game and nut to the late 19th century. Baseball was America’s pastime and peanuts became a staple food of parks everywhere. Quoting the book, The Joy of Ballpark Food by Bennett Jacobstein as their source, the board says it was a ballpark concessioner named Harry Stevens, who sold advertising space on scorecards, that started the trend after a peanut company bought a slot from him in 1895. Instead of making their payment in cash, the company literally paid him in peanuts. Stevens, in turn, sold the nuts at the ballparks. Proof positive that tradeout is also a long-standing tradition in the sport.   

 

According to Steven’s grandson, the secret to their success at the ballpark is simple, “In baseball, the tension builds slowly. Eating peanuts is part of a nervous habit—it gives you something to do with your hands.” Of course their tasty flavor, and the fact that they pair perfectly with a frosty mug of summer’s favorite midday refreshments, never hurt the nut one bit. And, just like it's song partner the Cracker Jack, everyone’s favorite ditty to stretch out to during the 7th inning is the best mouthpiece a nut ever had.

 

According to the History Channel 600 million pounds of peanuts are consumed in American ballparks alone each year. The National Peanut Board says that Hampton Farms is the record supplier for in-shell peanuts to baseball stadiums. They sell more than 3.7M bags to parks across the States annually. According to the research the pattern for highest consumption is not geographically related as Dodgers, Royals and Mets fans all tied for the top spot. Our guess, if you look at the year the research was conducted and compare it to the season's standings, the correlation will become clear.

 

In San Francisco, they prefer their nuts freshly roasted where the smell can consume passersby and those sitting sections away alike. In Tampa Bay, it is true Southern tradition that wins out with boiled peanuts being the nut of choice. Other parks incorporate the nuts into hummus and the spread Americans are famous across the world for loving, peanut butter. Both are used as dipping sauces in a variety of fusion ballpark snacking cuisines. 

 

The nut's history in the US dates back to the days of the Spanish conquistadors. It was they who first brought the nuts to Europe as part of their discovered bounty from their exploration of South America. From there the plant was shared with Asia and Africa. During the slave trades of the 1700s, the nuts were used to feed the captives on the long journey across the seas. 

 

As a result, the peanut suffered from bad branding. Southerners grew crops in the 1800s but they were used primarily for animal feed and oil because the food was still regarded as a poor person’s meal. As often happens, with war came a change in perspective. Soldiers of the Civil War, North and South alike, found common ground in the plant. Following the war, demand for nature’s perfectly wrapped, inexpensive snack food increased. Vendors began selling roasted peanuts on street corners and at events, including ballgames. 

 

Given their history it seems fitting that the man responsible for giving peanuts their rightful spot in America’s history was the son of a slave. Known in botanist’s circles as the father of the American peanut industry, George Washington Carver’s legacy was using the peanut as an alternative cash crop to cotton to help the area become more agriculturally diverse. 

 

According to Men’s Health Magazine not only are peanuts a great source of protein, fiber, magnesium and Niacin, they help satisfy hunger. All that AND they have manganese in them, which helps the body naturally burn carbs! Given how great a ballpark can smell, even to the most full of bellies, they are the perfect stadium munchies food. 

 

 

Fruit Of The Seed

 

The sunflower seed is the favorite achene amongst ballplayers around the world. Thanks to their high concentration of vitamin E and healthy cholesterol, they improve cardiovascular health. Their magnesium levels also help muscles and skeletal function work better together. These little guys are even proven to improve your mood as well as reduce redness and swelling in the body. With all these amazing health benefits it’s no wonder why players always seem so happy! 

 

So how did this great seed become a staple in dugouts across the world anyway? Well, it all stems from a tradition that many would like to see called outdated in the very near future – chewing tobacco.  

 

Around the time baseball was invented the tobacco trade was booming in the States. That’s when Blackwell Tobacco Company, makers of Bull Durham Tobacco, began advertising their brand in outfields near the warm up area for pitchers. While there is no confirmable origin for the word, Men's Journal says that some historians believe this was how the term bullpen began being used to describe the pitcher’s bench in the outfield. To learn more about the history of sport and it’s chew partner we recommend giving the full article a read. 

 

The turn to seeds is traced back to the 1950s and it happens, like many fads, as a direct result of hero worship. Hall of Famers Stan Musial and Enos Slaughter begin chewing on the seeds during their careers and some followed, but it was Mr. October himself, Reggie Jackson, that helped push the seeds over the edge of stardom when he began popping them in his pocket in the late 1960s.  

 

With stadium renovations running ramped, club after club began replacing their dirt floor dugouts with cement. Thought of by many as a more sanitary alternative, as far as spitting habits go, seeds grew in popularity after the renovations.

 

By the 1980s seeds had taken over the number one spot in dugouts in terms of on-field appearances but the deadly plant was still a clubhouse favorite, especially amongst the veterans. It was during this period of time that the folks at Amurol Confections brought Big League Chew to market, the bubble gum shredded to look like tobacco, so that kids could act just like their favorite players without the harmful side effects. 

 

As science proved the effects of tobacco on an athlete’s body, more players began to make the switch. Anyone who spends time in the limelight will tell you, image is everything. The MLB knows how to spin a story as great as any publicity machine and, as the reports about tobacco’s harm came to light, they opted to put a stop to the problem the best way they knew how, by getting to it before it started.

 

To make a change in policy on the major league level, all negotiations have to go through the collective bargaining agreement negotiated by the Player’s association. Realizing the number of active players that chewed and understanding this is a difficult habit to break, the MLB opted instead to handle the issue in their minor league system where they are free to implement policies under less strict guidelines.

 

They also felt it was easier to stop a bad habit from forming than to try to correct it in hindsight. In 1993 chew was banned from ballparks across the minor league system. Fines ranging between $100-$1,000 were levied against violating players. Despite what their signing bonuses may tell you, $1,000 would just about eat up the entire month’s wages for the average minor league player at that time because the majority of those bonuses only went into effect once they’d hit the bigs. 

 

So there it is. Two of nature's best snack foods, each playing their historic role in overcoming popular perspective. Though achieving greatness in vastly different ways, both have found their rightful place in the heart of the game. 

 

Having both sat the bench, and shelled more than a few nuts while enjoying a game with gramps, I think that the connection between these two natural edibles and the game speaks most directly to the mentality of the game itself. Going back to Jacobstein's comments, I think he was on the right path but took a wrong turn. 

 

There is a nearly zen rhythm you can get into shelling peanuts and, as when you’re busy cracking seeds with your teeth, the task itself takes on a natural state along with a sense of achievement. Both experiences enlist a primitive part of our mind. Food and the task of getting to it. That allows the bad at bat, and the stress of a close matchup, to take backstage. I like to think of these wonder foods as nature-prescribed nerve pills in tempting flavors and packaging. Grab a bag of your favorite and toss them in with your gear. It's game time! 

 

 

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