Forget “Fear the Beard”. Brian Wilson’s now infamous black mane has gained so much notoriety that his new slogan should be “Hear the Beard” because it has become nearly impossible to avoid. From print to television to video games, Wilson’s famous, and infamous, facial hair has gained so much exposure that it might soon require an agent of its own (click here for a youtube page dedicated to the Beard). Perhaps that’s why it seems as if many others in the game have decided to eschew the razor.
In the very early days of baseball, beards, mustaches, and sideburns were actually quite popular. Before the turn of the 20th century, facial hair was as common as spit balls, but sometime in the early 1910s, the clean shaven look became the norm. For most of the next 60-plus years, the beard was all but banned from the game. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to find a photo from this era showing a player with any kind of facial hair.
One of the main reasons that baseball decided to adapt a de facto clean cut mandate was so it could portray itself as a wholesome, family-oriented game. Over time, however, the growing influence of razor and shaving cream ad dollars may have also contributed to the cause. Whatever the motivation, beards and mustaches were relegated to the bush leagues. Barnstorming teams like the House of David and various copy cats*, including a Negro League counterpart, toured the country playing high quality opponents, but the main attraction was always the players’ flowing beards. Whenever these whiskered teams rolled into town, the local newspapers were sure to play up their prominent facial adornments.
*There were so many imitators of the House of David that the outfit sought to copyright the fashion statement. However, in a decision rendered on May 24, 1934, Judge John M. Woolsey ruled that “from time immemorial beards have been in the public domain”.
By the mid-1960s, overgrown hair began to creep back into the major leagues, leading to the great sideburns versus beard debate. The controversy came to ahead in 1968 when American League general managers proposed formally prohibiting the display of beards, mustaches and “extreme sideburns”. Soon, the National League also took up the matter. At a time when both leagues were considering ways to implement an amateur draft and tilt the balance back toward offense, the growth of facial hair managed to take a prominent place on the agenda.
I don’t mind the length so much, but we’re not going to have bushy sideburns.” – Minnesota Twins’ owner and general manager Calvin Griffith, quoted by AP on December 2, 1968
“As long as I’m clean and neat and wash with soap, what does it matter? – Twins pitcher Dave Boswell, quoted by AP on December 2, 1968
The leagues eventually lefty such weighty issues to the discretion of the individual teams. Some, like George Steinbrenner’s Yankees, adopted a strict policy toward grooming. In one amusing anecdote, Lou Piniella challenged Steinbrenner’s policy by referring to the long hair and beard worn by Jesus Christ. According to Bill Madden’s recent biography, “Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball”, the Boss pointed to a lake and responded, “if you can show me you can walk across that lake, you can wear your hair as long as you want”.
One of the first players to overtly challenge baseball’s facial hair aversion was, not surprisingly, Dick Allen, who in 1970 appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated sporting both a mustache and mutton chops. However, the fashion statement didn’t really take hold until 1972, when the Oakland Athletics collectively did there best House of David impression.
The Athletics’ foray into facial hair started when Reggie Jackson arrived at spring training with a fully grown mustache and the stated intention of adding a grizzly beard. According to popular legend, eccentric owner Charlie Finley first opposed Jackson’s appearance, but realized the outspoken outfielder would not yield to a demand. As a result, he encouraged other players to also let their hair grow, hoping it would remove the aura of individualism that he believed appealed to Jackson. That strategy backfired…well, sort of.
Although the tactic didn’t convince Jackson to shave, it gave the Athletics a unique identity, or perhaps more dear to Finley’s heart, a selling point. In response to the popularity of his team’s new look, the wily owner not only stopped discouraging the practice, but actually started to promote it. The tight fisted Finley even went so far as to offer each player $300 to participate in “Mustache Day”, which was held on Father’s Day in 1972. The promotion was a success and the mustache and beard were back.
The champion Oakland Athletics set the style, and now the trend is toward hair-and more hair-among major league baseball players.” – AP, April 2, 1973
After Finley’s Athletics won the World Series, against Sparky Anderson’s clean cut Cincinnati Reds no less, a new trend was born. Although the length of facial hair would ebb and flow from that point to the present, the mid-1970s remained the modern golden age of mustaches and beards. Since then, clubs like the 1982 Milwaukee Brewers and 1993 Philadelphia Phillies would occasionally add facial hair to the team uniform, but for the most part, passing on the razor became an individual decision.
In the wake of Brian Wilson’s endorsement windfall, players around the league are probably contemplating ways to create their own lucrative brand. And, who knows, maybe there are some owners doing the same thing? Perhaps teams like the Mariners, Astros, and Mets could take a page out of Finley’s book and create a new identity for their struggling ball clubs? In many ways, such a promotion would be a win-win proposition. Even if the gimmick fails to attract more fans, the beards could at least serve as an effective disguise.
As the Giants’ closer would say: You’re Welcome.