Today in Baseball History: Oakland’s Mustache Gang is born
Yes, I realize that today is April 15 and that April 15 is the anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color line. My not making that today’s “Today in Baseball History” is not an effort to discount that. It’s simply a realization that every single baseball writer, myself included, has written multiple Jackie Robinson Day stories in the past and that most will, again, do so today. You’re not gonna be lacking that content, my dudes. Especially from white guys like me.
So: go read the story from Howard Bryant in 2016 about the the unsanitized story of Jackie Robinson, which does a great job showing how “the idea of Jackie Robinson the saint is a convenient, unfortunate concoction” that obscures more than it reveals about America, baseball and our attitudes about race.
Or go read a writer named Kyle Andrews, who on Jackie Robinson Day 2017 put together a fantasy team of the greatest all-time African-American players. Or go read some other great writing about Jackie Robinson that is not just a recycled, “Jackie was special and important, man” thing from a white writer who, let’s be honest, doesn’t have anything approaching unique insight on the matter.
For my part, I’ll zig when everyone zags and talk about Reggie Jackson’s face.
There was a time when baseball players tended to look like my friend Candy LaChance of the 1903 Boston Red Sox here:
Or, perhaps, they all looked sort of like these guys from “Gone Batty,” the Warner Brothers cartoon that famously reminded us that “There’s. Nothing. In. The. Rule. Book. That. Says. An. Elephant. Can’t. Pitch.”
There was facial hair in baseball. A lot of it, in fact. Handlebar mustaches and stuff. It defined the image of early baseball more than almost anything.
And then, suddenly, it was gone.
Most sources I could find cite long-time American League catcher Wally Schang, shown below when he played for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1914, as the last player to sport facial hair in a regular season game before it disappeared from the baseball landscape for over a half century:
Why did mustaches and beards disappear from the baseball landscape? Hard to say.
There’s a sense that mustaches went out of vogue in America around 1914 because the most famous mustache-wearer in the world at that time was German’s Kaiser Wilhelm -- and a few years after he was public enemy number one, Bolsheviks like Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin sported soup-strainers -- and that wearing one associated a man with something sinister. That may have been the case, but it was only partially the case, because during the interwar period we still had big stars like Clark Gable and Errol Flynn wearing lip-warmers. Perhaps they were the exceptions that proved the rule? Perhaps you could only get away with those thin strip mustaches like they had, and ballplayers weren’t about to spend the time necessary to keep ‘em up? I have no idea.
What I do know is that by World War II and immediately thereafter mustaches were right out. Hitler and Stalin weren’t great press agents for personal grooming, it seems. Anti-mustache sentiment was so prevalent in America in the years immediately following the war that many people believe that the reason Thomas Dewey lost the 1948 presidential election to Harry Truman was, yep, because he had a mustache and men with mustaches were not to be trusted.
As for ballplayers, forget about it. They follow trends, they do not set them, and baseball players were uniformly clean-shaven for pushing 60 years after Wally Schang shaved his snot mop. And not just by choice. Baseball owners, wanting to convey a wholesome, clean-cut American image to the public, set rules about players’ grooming. Which meant that just about every player from 1914 and into the 1970s had a haircut you could set your watch to and a face smoother than a baby’s butt.
Then, during the 1971-72 offseason, Oakland Athletics’ all-world outfielder Reggie Jackson decided that he was going to do something different.
By 1972 the rest of America had been living a much more hirsute existence for several years, and Jackson decided that rather than conform to baseball’s increasingly staid orthodoxy, he was going to be his own man. He showed up for spring training that February with a mustache on his lip and a promise that, by Opening Day, he’d have a full beard.
A’s owner Charlie Finley didn’t like it. He told Oakland manager Dick Williams to tell Reggie to shave. Williams did so, and Reggie, in the words of teammate Mike Hegan, -- quoted in Bruce Markusen’s book, “A baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s,” “told Dick where he could shove it.” Then, as detailed in Markusen’s book, Finley decided to engage in some reverse psychology:
As A’s third baseman Sal Bando recounted, “Finley, to my knowledge did not want to go tell Reggie to shave it. So he thought it would be better to have us all grow mustaches. That way Reggie wouldn’t be an “individual” anymore.” To that end, as Opening Day approached (following the brief players strike late that spring training) Finley asked A’s pitchers Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers, Darold Knowles, and Bob Locker to all grow mustaches.
The A’s opened up the 1972 season on April 15 in the Coliseum against the Minnesota Twins. When Jackson came up to bat in the bottom of the first inning, he became the first player to wear facial hair in a game since Schang in 1914.
But by then something funny had happened: Finley actually started to like the mustaches. He thought it was kind of fun. While at first blush that may seem sort of surprising, it does fit in with Finely’s personality, at least as it related to the rest of the baseball establishment. Finley was a lot of things, not a lot of them good, but he certainly didn’t care for many of his fellow owners or the commissioner, and he probably figured that the A’s taking the field with faces full of hair would rub some of them the wrong way. Or, perhaps, that it’d be a good marketing angle for his club. Whatever the case, he went from trying to trick Reggie into shaving out of spite to actively encouraging the rest of his team to grow facial hair.
Finley offered a cash incentive -- $300 -- to any player who had successfully grown a mustache by Father’s Day. The whole team joined in. Even manager Dick Williams would grow one. The Mustache Gang, as the mid-70s A’s came to be known, were born. Baseball’s longstanding anti-facial hair policy, informal as it was, came to an end.
At least for everyone except the New York Yankees, who still won’t let guys wear beards for some dumb reason, but that’s a topic for another day.
Also today in baseball history:
1947: Not like I wasn’t going to mention it -- Jackie Robinson goes hitless in three trips to the plate in his big league debut against the Boston Braves. His going hitless was not exactly the lead of the stories that day. Something about making monumental baseball and civil rights history was.
1958: The San Francisco Giants defeat the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first major league game played in San Francisco. 23,192 souls are on hand at Seals Stadium to witness the game.
1968: The Astros score an unearned run in the 24th inning to beat the Mets 1-0. The game takes six hours and six minutes. It sets the mark as the longest N.L. game played to completion, the longest major league night game, and the first 23 innings are the longest major league scoreless game. If two teams played 24 innings today it’d probably take nine hours.
1976 - A radically remodeled Yankee Stadium makes its debut with 52,613 fans on hand. The 1923 Yankee team -- the team from the year Yankee Stadium first opened -- is honored, and Bob Shawkey, winner of that 1923 Stadium opener, throws out the first pitch. The Yankees beat the Twins 11-4.
1997: The 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color barrier in baseball is celebrated with President Bill Clinton, Rachel Robinson, and Bud Selig on hand. Selig announces that day that the number 42 will be retired in perpetuity for every team, with players currently wearing 42 being grandfathered in. Mariano Rivera, who will retire after the 2013 season, is the last player to wear the number other than on tribute days each April 15.