Sunflower seeds—which as any botany fan will tell you, are not seeds, but achenes—are eaten around the world in various forms. In the United States, they’re mostly seen as an alternative to chewing tobacco for baseball players and other bored people with a penchant for spitting. From Little League to the majors, it’s rare to see a single pitch thrown without at least one emptied shell being orally expelled by someone. But when did players start taking them out to the ballgame?
Hall of Famers Enos Slaughter and Stan Musial were known to chew sunflower seeds back in the 1950s. But it wasn’t until 1968, when fellow baseball legend Reggie Jackson started using them, that their popularity began to sprout.
Who knows whether it was because of the success Reggie had on the field, the attention he got for chewing sunflower seeds off of it, an increased awareness of the dangers of tobacco use, or simply the satisfaction one gets from removing the nutritious kernel from its salty hull, but players started following Jackson’s lead. Which was much to the chagrin of Major League grounds crews, who found the discarded shells difficult to clean up. By 1980, then–St. Louis Cardinals pitching coach Claude Osteen was calling it “the era of birdseed.”
Though the “era of birdseed” moniker doesn’t seem to have taken root, sunflower seeds remain a prevalent part of the game. Just ask anyone who’s had to sweep the floor of a dugout.
[Further Reading: "The Seeds of Content," Sports Illustrated, 10/6/1980]