Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Facial Hair in the Majors: A Brief (and bushy) History

After the shaggy sideburns of the nineteenth century fell out of fashion, major league baseball more or less discouraged players from growing facial hair. The trend persisted into the early-'70s, when A's owner Charlie Finley began offering his players $300 apiece to sprout moustaches and beards. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn went along with it, commenting affably that the game needed some "showmanship." The most memorable trend-breaker on that club was Rollie Fingers, whose handlebar moustache was a throwback to an earlier era. Most reasonably informed baseball fans have encountered pictures of Fingers' curly-cue whiskers, which make him look like he stepped right out of a Dr. Seuss book. It became his personal trademark and he has continued to wear it ever since.

Other players who made major fashion statements in the '70s include Oscar Gamble and Dock Ellis. Gamble wore an afro that closely resembled a Chia Pet and, by 1976, it had so much volume that he could barely fit his hat over it. On both of his Topps baseball cards that year, his cap looks like it's about to pop right off. Ellis always marched to the beat of his own drum and, after Ebony magazine ran an article about his "Superfly" hairstyle in 1973, the eccentric hurler began appearing on the field in hair curlers. Commissioner Kuhn promptly drew a line in the sand, asking the big right-hander to curtail the practice. Ellis, who was always vocal about racial injustice during his career, griped: "They didn't put any orders about Joe Pepitone when he wore a hairpiece down to his shoulders." Ellis definitely had a point. Pepitone, a Yankee infielder who never lived up to his full potential during the '60s and early-'70s, became self-conscious about losing his hair and created a radical Beatle-esque coiffure using a hair piece. Pepitone apparently had two hair pieces, one for everyday use and one he referred to as his "game piece." In a moment of comic relief, the "game piece" came off one day when he removed his cap for the National Anthem.

While some managers and owners allowed players to wear their hair long, Yankee proprietor George Steinbrenner vigorously opposed the trend and once got into a theological debate with Lou Piniella over the topic.  As the story goes, Piniella argued that Jesus Christ would not be allowed to play on the team under Steinbrenner's regulations. "The Boss" supposedly led the outspoken fly-chaser to a pool behind the team’s hotel and countered: “If you can walk across that pool, you don’t have to cut your hair.” Steinbrenner could be fairly lenient in some cases. He allowed reliever Goose Gossage to sport a Fu-Manchu moustache and turned his back when captain Thurman Munson grew a full (and unkempt) beard during spring training one year. Munson's scraggly thatch was captured on his 1976 Topps baseball card.

Perhaps inspired by the hair trends of the '70s, numerous players pushed the envelope in the years that followed. Dennis Eckersley was a fashion icon in the '80s and '90s with his Magnum P.I. moustache and long, flowing locks. Through most of his career, Future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson had a shock of unruly hair flying out of his cap. Johnny Damon wore a "mountain man" beard during the Red Sox championship season of 2004. But Damon's Grizzly Adams look paled in comparison to Brian Wilson

Wilson made a big splash in 2010 when he led the NL with 48 regular season saves then added 6 more in the postseason as his Giants won the World Series. Impressive statistics aside, Wilson has received more attention for his beard, which is so gnarly and long, it looks like it may be housing a family of squirrels. Whenever the camera focuses on Wilson in the Dodger dugout nowadays, I half expect something fuzzy with teeth to pop out.

And speaking of things that are fuzzy with teeth...

Borrowing a page from Wilson's book of style and carrying it to an extreme, the 2013 Red Sox are by far the most disheveled club in the majors. Not since the 1934 "Gas House Gang" has a group of ballplayers appeared so disorderly. Half of them have eye black running down their faces. The other half have helmets that are sticky with pine tar. Their uniforms are smeared with dirt and their beards haven't been trimmed since spring training. But what they lack in cleanliness, they make up for with hustle and grit. After finishing first in the ultra-competitive AL East, they knocked off the Rays in the Division Series and, as of this post, they had tied up the ALCS at a game apiece.  

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