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Baseball and Sunflower Seeds

Tuesday, August 1, 1995
filed under: Utilization/Trade

Several thousand years before Abner Doubleday and his fellow baseball pioneers took to the field in Cooperstown, Native Americans were raising sunflower for its tasty seeds. So it seems only logical that today, more than a century and a half after the invention of the National Pastime, the quintessentially American sunflower seed has become the snack of choice among players, coaches and fans of our country’s greatest game.

In the early days of baseball, players usually chewed and spat tobacco rather than sunflower seeds. But in today’s game, healthy, tasty and fun in-shell sunflower seeds have replaced tobacco — and other snacks — in the dugout, the stands and on the field. Baseball’s sunflower surge is mirrored throughout the country: Last year, Americans cracked open an estimated 100 million pounds of seeds — 50-percent more than 10 years ago.

And at the ballpark, while some seed-lovers are content to just split the sunflower shells open and eat the kernel inside — either one by one or by the mouthful — for many diamond denizens, the seeds ar efinding new life as jewelry, tiddlywinks, UFOs and even as a cause of the sport’s latest occupational injury.

We’ll start in the bullpen, where, ever since breaking into the big leagues, former major league pitcher Larry Andersen has been famous for adorning his entire face — including eyelids, earlobes and lips — with sunflower seeds that have been slightly pinched open and act like clothespins. “We have a lot of spare time in the bullpen,” explains Andersen, now a player-coach with the Reading (AA) Phillies. “The looks I get are phenomenal — from scaring kids, to older people thinking there’s a swarm of bees on my face.” He adds that tricks like this are increasingly common in major and minor league ballparks. “Sunflower seeds are becoming a standard for players; it seems like everyone’s always either eating them or playing with them,” Andersen remarks.

From the bullpen to the dugout, where astute managers like the San Francisco Giants’ Dusty Baker use sunflower seeds to their competitive advantage. Early this season, at the Colorado Rockies’ brand-new Coors Field, Giants outfielders asked their skipper where they should position themselves on the unfamiliar field. Wisely, Baker told his players to “go where the seeds are” and plant themselves among the sunflower shells left by munching Rockies outfielders.

Hopefully, none of those outfielders will share the fate of the Philadelphia Phillie who this year became the first known victim of Sunflower Seed Finger (SSF). The pitcher, whose case was detailed in the 1995 Professional Baseball Athletic Trainers Society newsletter, loved his seeds so much that he kept them in his pocket as he pitched. However, while digging in his pocket to get to the seeds, he over-stretched his digits, leading to the injury — and probably a lot of jokes from his teammates.

This pitcher might have done well to strengthen his finger by playing a game popular among the Milwaukee Brewers. Brew Crew pitchers pinch sunflower seeds between their thumb and forefinger, then flick the seeds with their opposite forefinger in contests of accuracy and distance. Some Ruthian seed-shooters reportedly fire shots from the dugout almost to the first-base line.

Meanwhile, up in the stands, vendors like Roger Owens are contemplating the aerodynamics that go with tossing a bag of sunflower seeds behind the back, between the legs, 12 rows into a customer’s lap. A 37-year Dodger veteran, whose snack tossing has earned him appearances on the “Tonight Show” and other programs, Owens suggests that would-be seed tossers throw sunflower seed bags “like line drives, as opposed to peanut sacks’ long, arcing lobs.” Owens, who has seen it all in his Dodger decades, has noted the vast increase in fans happily cracking open sunflower seeds. “It’s part of the growing health consciousness of America today,” he suggests.

The facts concerning in-shell sunflower seed consumption in the United States prove Owens’ observation true. More and more people are recognizing sunflower seeds as a healthy, fun snack — and a source of entertainment, to boot. Furthermore, sunflower kernels are an excellent source of iron, zinc and vitamin E, as well as dietary fiber. And most importantly, they taste great — as befits a truly “big league” snack. — (This article, which was provided by the National Sunflower Association, also has been distributed to sportscasters and writers around the United States.)
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