LARGO, Fla. — Gus Hoefling’s voice sounds like it belongs to a surfer, an easy-come, easy-go rhythm that matches the Florida weather on a mid-February morning: all sun, no clouds. Its owner has forearms that are thick enough to hold up an Amish farmhouse and a face that resembles the craggy features of Robert Loggia, the late tough-guy actor.
On this day, Hoefling is holding court on his patio, shifting in a cushy chair by his pool, while his wife and a few visitors listen intently. He could be any retiree telling war stories, but then the sunlight catches the hunk of gold on his right middle finger: a ring from the Phillies’ 1980 world championship.
He didn’t throw a pitch or get a hit in that Series between the Phillies and the Kansas City Royals. Yet Hoefling was an integral part of Phillies teams in the 1970s and 1980s, one who held unmatched influence over some of the franchise’s biggest stars: Steve Carlton, Mike Schmidt, Larry Bowa, Bob Boone: Each credits Hoefling, a pioneering strength and conditioning coach, with teaching them to toughen their minds and bodies through grueling, year-round workouts that were rooted in martial arts.
Hoefling’s former proteges describe him with a kind of whispered wonder even now, like they’re sharing the story of an urban legend:
Did you hear the one about how Hoefling dressed up like a homeless guy on the subway, then clobbered some muggers?
Or the time he fought some inmates from a prison in China?
Hoefling is 85, still solid as an oak tree. He waves off most of these anecdotes. “If you write that crap,” he says, “it’s Grimm’s Fairy Tales, OK? Jesus.”
For the last two years, he has been focused on a different opponent: Stage IV metastatic head and neck cancer. It is a vicious disease, notorious for disfiguring its victims, some of whom have no choice but to allow doctors to remove pieces of their jaws and necks in a desperate bid for survival.
Hoefling blames the illness on an addiction he developed to smokeless tobacco products in the 1970s, while working for the Eagles and Phillies. He is suing a pair of tobacco giants and a pharmacy in Philadelphia, alleging that the industry supplied professional sports teams with free samples of products it knew were harmful and addictive. Players and coaches became hooked, their puffed-out cheeks serving as billboards for fans — especially the young ones who’d want to emulate big leaguers’ habits.
His claims are supported by records, memos, and studies reviewed by The Inquirer that show the tobacco industry worked tirelessly in the ’70s and ’80s to ensure that dip and chewing tobacco were part of the fabric of baseball, as recognizable and intrinsic as Cracker Jack. Decades later, professional athletes still rely on smokeless tobacco to provide them with a boost or help manage anxiety, like Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Madison Bumgarner, Kansas City Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu, and Washington running back Adrian Peterson.
After enduring dozens of nightmarish radiation treatments and rounds of exhausting chemotherapy, Hoefling hopes he can serve as a warning to athletes and coaches who don’t believe that years of smokeless tobacco usage will catch up with them.
“I’m not Gus Hoefling like I should be. I’ve lost some hearing. I’m weaker. I’m not as quick as I used to be,” he says. “It’s life. It’s a terrible thing. And if this article will stop anybody from using tobacco, it’ll be worth it, won’t it?”
On a Sunday morning in December 1941, Japanese fighter planes launched a surprise assault on a Navy base in Pearl Harbor, leaving a trail of fire, sunken vessels, and 2,400 dead Americans.
Thousands of miles away, something stirred inside Gus Hoefling.
His family lived in Iowa, and he was in third grade. His teacher, whom he knew as Miss Little, told the class that Japan would probably try to bomb Iowa next, because Iowa was the breadbasket of the nation. “Well,” he says, “that scared the hell out of little Gus.”
He sent a Wheaties box top and some pocket change to a radio show — Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy — and received a book on judo in return. His curiosity was piqued.
By 1948, America was heading toward the post-World War II boom. The country’s most prominent baseball stars — Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial — had interrupted their careers for military service. But now they could be found in ballparks again … and on colorful advertisements for Chesterfield cigarettes, which were billed as “the Baseball Man’s Cigarette.”
Hoefling’s family had moved to Southern California. He had what he describes as a serendipitous encounter in Fontana with a man who was practicing tomari-te, a form of martial arts unique to Okinawa, in a chicken coop. “Hard style, you know?” Hoefling says, slapping his palm against his forearm. “I worked with him a couple of times.”
He spent his 20s and early 30s running a string of construction companies, but it was just a way to pay bills. What he really wanted was to deepen his understanding of martial arts, to discover what his mind and body were capable of doing if pushed to the limit. In the mid-1960s, he traded the construction business for the chance to devote himself to exploring and teaching what became to him a sacred and lifelong discipline.
While Hoefling was pursuing his new vocation, baseball fans in Philadelphia could count on some reassuring familiarity. The Phillies were still liable to break the city’s heart, like they did during the infamous collapse in 1964. Legendary broadcaster Bill Campbell was the team’s radio play-by-play voice, and paid ads from tobacco companies punctuated breaks in the action. “This portion of the game has been brought to you by Camel cigarettes,” reads some of Campbell’s radio copy from 1965. “The best tobacco makes the best smoke. Camel is a real cigarette!”
It was around this time that a U.S. surgeon general’s report warned Americans, for the first time, that cigarettes were a likely cause of lung cancer. Few were in a hurry to stop lighting up.
Hoefling settled into his instructional career and took on some doctors as students. In 1970, one introduced him to a 6-foot-5 quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams, Roman Gabriel. At the time, Gabriel, after several solid seasons, was hobbled by injuries and relying on cortisone injections to play.
“I don’t know whether our trainers knew, but the more you got [cortisone], it crystalized and made calcium deposits,” Gabriel explains. “My right elbow got where I couldn’t straighten it. I couldn’t touch my shoulder.”
Hoefling told Gabriel he could train him in martial arts and introduce him to an acupuncturist. Gabriel considered whether to entrust his future to a guy he had just met. “He was very growly,” Gabriel says, “like a black bear.”
He accepted Hoefling’s offer. There was just one problem: A pair of surgeries had left Gabriel with casts on an arm and a leg. Surely he’d have to wait months before he could work with Hoefling. Or so he thought.
“Gus said, ‘You got a garage? I’m going to start training you, with you on crutches.’”
In 1973, Eagles general manager Jim Murray engineered a trade that brought Gabriel to Philadelphia — and Hoefling, too.
“That was a great package. Not only did you get Roman, you got the doctor,” Murray says. Hoefling “was a unique character. He and I hit it off. It took about five minutes to make the deal. He was here before I hung up the phone.”
The flight to Philadelphia marked Hoefling’s first trip east of the Mississippi.
“So when I flew over Philadelphia, it was kind of a dreary day, looking over the refineries,” he says. “I thought to myself, ‘What in the hell have I gotten myself into now?’”
Gabriel, after several years of working with Hoefling, felt reborn. Football players were used to lifting weights and doing jumping jacks. Hoefling had made Gabriel focus on running and stretching his body like a pretzel. He threw for 3,219 yards and 23 touchdowns in his first season with the Eagles and was named the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year.
His new teammates, though, were initially skeptical of Hoefling; what did this sorta-stocky guy know about fitness? “One day, someone asked Gus to lead calisthenics for 15 minutes,” Gabriel says. “Guys had trouble practicing after that. They went back to jumping jacks.”
Mike Evans, the team’s hulking center, embraced Hoefling’s methods, which required players to do squat jumps and more than 1,000 sit-ups. “His attitude was, ‘Stop being a pussy and just do it,’” Evans says.
One routine in particular is still vivid in Evans’ mind. Hoefling instructed players to slip on boxing shoes, get into a fighting stance, and try to maintain their balance as he kicked out their legs. But that wasn’t all of it. He told them to push their tongues up to the roofs of their mouths, to strengthen their neck muscles.
“If I hit your throat, you gag. But if you build that muscle up, and somebody punches you, you wouldn’t know it,” Evans says. “He’d put a chopstick under your throat, and you’d have to break it. If you got more strength, you could do two chopsticks.”
Hoefling’s tenure with the Eagles ended after the 1976 season. “I could see the writing on the wall,” he says. “I wasn’t doing too well with Dick Vermeil. So I said, ‘Hey, shine it on, man.’”
He didn’t have to go far to find a new job. Phillies owner Ruly Carpenter became enamored with Hoefling after the two met at Veterans Stadium, and Carpenter hired him to bring his training program to baseball. It was an era of big sideburns and even bigger aspirations; the club was stacked with some of the most talented players in franchise history.
“Bowa, Boonie, [Greg] Luzinski, Garry Maddox, [Jim] Kaat, [Tim] McCarver — Jesus, Carlton,” Hoefling says wistfully. “Showed you a life you wouldn’t believe existed.”
Ruly’s son, Bob, recalls seeing Hoefling for the first time in Clearwater, Fla., during spring training. “I walked into Jack Russell Stadium and looked around the clubhouse and saw this muscular guy with a bald head, running the athletes through exercises I’d never seen before,” says Carpenter, who was a teenager at the time.
He noticed something else, too: smokeless tobacco. Lots of it. “I remember cases of it being available, coming in for free. It was always around,” Bob Carpenter says. “I tried some myself. Swallowed it. Got sick as a dog.”
Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan once recalled that when he arrived in the big leagues with the New York Mets in 1966, about a third of his teammates smoked, and a handful chewed tobacco. But more than a decade after that first surgeon general’s report on the dangers of cigarette smoking, consumers — and athletes — started to connect the dots and quit.
“Chewing peaked in the 1970s, and dipping took over,” Ryan said. “The switch began with free samples of dip coming into the clubhouse.”
The tobacco industry discovered that it stood to make a fortune from the changing trends. A 1977 study, conducted for General Cigar & Tobacco Co., argued that chewing tobacco met “a variety of physiological, psychological, and social consumer needs. These resources currently lie untapped. …”
Users in the study explained that they found dipping and chewing to be a masculine, rebellious pursuit. More important, they mistakenly believed smokeless tobacco wasn’t addictive or harmful. The study’s authors urged marketing efforts to be directed at the young. “The present research hints at the fact that adult role modeling … may be highly salient for teenagers and young adults.”
A year later, Chicago Cubs outfielder Bobby Murcer appeared in ads for U.S. Tobacco, endorsing cans of Happy Days. Another future Hall of Famer, Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk, starred in cheesy commercials for Copenhagen. “Just a pinch between my cheek and gum, and I’m free to swing, run, slide, jump, catch, throw, sweat — win,” Fisk said in one as a wah-wah guitar riff played in the background.
Hoefling didn’t need to be swayed by advertising. He’d started using smokeless tobacco in 1973, when free shipments arrived in the Eagles locker room, according to his lawsuit. Mike Evans remembers once being startled by the effect that tobacco usage had on fellow offensive lineman Wade Key. It appeared that lesions were beginning to form inside Key’s mouth. “My God, look at your lip,” Evans told him. “It’s white on the inside.”
Every week, Hoefling consumed up to five cans of Skoal shredded tobacco and three bags of Red Man tobacco leaves.
Just a pinch between his cheek and his lip.
Hoefling shared one trait with the heads of the tobacco industry: He understood the importance of messaging. He assured players on the Phillies roster that they were already some of the best athletes in the world. He couldn’t teach them how to throw sharper sliders or hit breaking balls. Instead, he’d toughen their minds, transform their bodies, help them to get the most out of their abilities.
Carlton, the stoic lefty, quickly became Hoefling’s star pupil, the one who excelled at the unusual exercises that unfolded inside a mysterious training room, including one that required him to push his hand to the bottom of a 55-gallon drum filled with rice and slosh it around.
“It provides a form of positive resistance — and negative, at the same time,” Hoefling says. “It was different from pumping iron or push-ups. It got their attention. It was 520 A.D. stuff. The ancient Chinese used it.”
Workouts continued in the off-season, sometimes seven days a week, at Veterans Stadium. If it rained or snowed, Hoefling would instruct players to run the stadium’s ramps. Bowa says Hoefling would egg them on when they grew tired: “You got to get through this. When it’s July 4 and it’s 200 degrees on this turf, you got to find a way to get through this.”
And what about those stories of Hoefling stalking around the Broad Street subway like a middle-aged Batman, looking for trouble?
“He did do that, but I don’t know that he beat the s— out of anybody,” Bowa says. “He’d say, ‘I don’t disguise myself, but I’m not dressed very nice.’ Try to bait somebody. If he saw somebody abusing an old guy, good luck with that.”
Hoefling insists this is a myth. “No, these hands were not like that. Look, it was a business. This” — he smacks his hand against his forearm again — “was a business, OK? And it’s over with. You follow me?”
Hoefling’s kung fu lessons changed the way Boone, who as a catcher had been at the center of any on-field argument or conflict, reacted to brawls. “When you’re getting into a fight on the field, I’d sit there calm and relaxed, because the idea of fighting the way we knew how to fight was very dangerous,” Boone says. “Like having a gun.”
The core members of that Phillies team outlasted many of their peers. Schmidt played until he was 39, Bowa until he was 40. Boone retired at 42, and Carlton pitched until he was 44. They credited their longevity to Hoefling. But some couldn’t help turning to smokeless tobacco for an additional boost.
Boone had an on-again, off-again habit. He remembers stuffing a wad of chewing tobacco into his mouth before stepping to the plate during a day game when he was on the California Angels, then hitting a grand slam. “We won the game,” he says. “I called my wife. I was pompous — ‘Hey, see that?’ She says, ‘You were chewing!’ My career is on the line here. So I did it for a while. It’s hard to break.”
Meanwhile, the tobacco industry continued to insist that its smokeless products posed no health risks, and focused on cultivating its association with professional sports — especially baseball. When the Carpenter family sold the Phillies in 1981 to a group of investors led by Bill Giles, a Philip Morris executive sent a letter to Giles offering congratulations and noting, “We look forward to a long association.”
A year later, internal documents show, the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. outlined a $20 million marketing plan to obtain coveted advertising spots inside the Vet for Winston cigarettes.
But trouble lurked ahead. In 1986, federal legislation required tobacco companies to affix warning labels to their smokeless tobacco products. The label read: “This Product May Cause Mouth Cancer.” “Our knowledge of the health risk of smokeless tobacco products dates back over 250 years,” said Orrin Hatch, a longtime Republican senator from Utah, during testimony at the time.
Even so, Hatch complained, the products were widely used — even among children as young as kindergartners.
Major League Baseball prohibited free samples of smokeless tobacco products from being distributed in ballparks and locker rooms, and even compiled a how-to guide for players who were trying to kick the habit. But the tobacco industry remained intertwined with the sport. Philip Morris records show that in 1991, the company entered into a five-year, $1.45 million deal with the Phillies to continue advertising at the Vet.
That same year, an elevator accident at the stadium saddled Hoefling with lingering nerve damage. He sued the company responsible for the elevator’s maintenance and was awarded $2 million. His career came to a quiet end.
They found the cancer in his mouth in December 2018. The formal diagnosis was cold and grisly: Stage IV squamous cell carcinoma of the left tonsil with metastatic spread to other tissue.
Doctors normally wouldn’t have recommended aggressive treatment for a patient of his age. But Gus is Gus. So he approached the radiation and chemotherapy with the same gusto that he attacked those hours-long kung fu sessions with Carlton. At first.
The radiation treatments for oral cancer are practically medieval. A patient’s face is covered with a mask that is screwed into a table. “Bang,” Gus says, “you can’t move, and you burn.” The radiation invades the skull and sears the cancer cells. Gus had 37 of these treatments — plus seven chemotherapy sessions, always on Tuesdays. “I used to check myself at 2 in the morning to see if my urine glowed in the dark,” he says, laughing, but the humor he spits at the disease doesn’t change the truth: The cure scared him as much or more. It was, he says, “the most terrifying experience of my life.”
MLB has adopted stricter policies toward smokeless tobacco. Any players who have made their big-league debut after 2016 have been banned from using the product on the field, though that still leaves a good number who can be grandfathered in. And the coronavirus pandemic has added another obstacle for remaining dippers: Players are prohibited from spitting on the field during the shortened MLB season.
Former Phillies ace Curt Schilling was stricken by mouth cancer in 2014, five years after he retired. He’d dipped throughout his career. “I met people who — half their face gone,” he told The Inquirer in 2017. “I had the lesions. I had the sores. I had all of those things, but none of it was ever enough” to make him quit. Schilling lost 80 pounds while undergoing radiation treatments and suffered damage to his salivary glands.
Tony Gwynn dipped throughout his Hall of Fame career with the San Diego Padres. His wife noticed a large knot had formed in his right cheek in 2010; doctors found a malignant tumor wrapped around a cluster of nerves. Gwynn died of salivary gland cancer in 2014. His family sued U.S. Tobacco, accusing it of “killing a baseball legend,” and eventually reached a settlement.
Hoefling’s attorneys, Jack Meyerson and Robert Spohrer, filed a lawsuit in 2019 against Altria Group, the parent company of Philip Morris, as well as another tobacco company and a Philadelphia pharmacy where he sometimes purchased smokeless tobacco products while he worked for the Phillies. The case is listed for trial in U.S. District Court in 2021.
“Gus is courageous and committed to bring this case to court and expose the industries’ history and damning documents to the public,” Spohrer said.
An Altria spokesperson declined to comment.
On his patio in Largo, less than eight miles from Spectrum Field, the Phillies’ spring training ballpark, Hoefling doesn’t seem any worse for the wear. When asked, he leaps to his feet. His arms coiled like cobras, waiting to unleash pain, he begins steering his body through some of his favorite martial-arts poses — the combat stances that made him respected, and maybe more than a little feared, when he was a younger, healthier man and the world’s greatest athletes placed their careers in his hands.
His parents and his Chinese-born teachers, he says, instilled a belief in him long ago: Do not give up. You cannot give up.
“Anybody can quit,” he says as he sits by the pool. “I want to win. Turn negative knowledge into positive. I believe in that yet.”