A typical rural Midwestern kid, Von Behrens first tried smokeless tobacco to "fit in" on a camping trip. The addiction followed him to the baseball field, where many of his peers and Major League heroes chewed tobacco, and by 17 he was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma.
The cancer in Von Behrens's mouth spread quickly. Now 32 years old, 34 surgeries have claimed his lower jaw, half of his neck muscles, his lymph nodes and a third of his tongue.
"I hit .400 for the local Comets baseball club, and I wanted to play for the Chicago Cubs when I grew up. Baseball was the center of my world," Von Behrens said Wednesday at a House of Representatives committee hearing on smokeless tobacco and the impact its use in Major League Baseball has on American youth.
"Before," he said, "there were colleges that were interested in me. But at 17, my baseball days were over."
Today, smokeless tobacco is banned from every organized professional baseball field in America, except for the 29 used by the U.S.-based Major League Baseball clubs, according to Gregory Connolly, a dentist and professor of public health at Harvard University who has worked extensively with pro baseball teams.
The centerpiece of an effort to remove tobacco from the ballfield is a policy covering minor league teams, said Robert Manfred Jr., the executive vice president of labor relations and human resources for Major League Baseball.
Since 1993, the minors have banned the use and possession of all tobacco products by club personnel -- including players -- in minor league ballparks and during team travel.
Even so, about a third of current Major League Baseball players report using smokeless tobacco, Connolly said.
"There can be no doubt that public use by MLB players directly contributes to youth smokeless tobacco use in the U.S.," said Connolly. "And players are not proud of using this. That's a reality. They wish they didn't start as little leaguers, or as high school ballplayers, or as minor league ballplayers."
Kicking the Habit
Smokeless tobacco use increased 25 percent among males age 12 to 17 from 2004 to 2008, according to data from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Agency.
Von Behrens and baseball broadcaster Joe Garagiola are trying to reverse the trend.
"When a kid comes up from the minor leagues," Garagiola said, "he knows he shouldn't use it. But I see the first thing they do. They don't even pick the bat first. They throw the chew in their mouth. ... We have to educate, educate, educate."
Von Behrens is doing just that. Besides regularly talking to members of baseball's players association, he's spoken to children in all 50 states and all 10 Canadian provinces about the dangers of tobacco. He estimates he's spoken to more than 2 million youth in total.
But along with Garagiola, Von Behrens is desperate to see Major League Baseball implement an outright ban on smokeless tobacco.
"Why can't baseball and the players association, right here, get together and ban it," said Garagiola. "Take it off the field ... get it out of our game. It's a great game, greatest game going."