Thirty Years Ago… Birth of the Mustache Gang - 03/14/2002
Today’s major league players freely make bold fashion statements. Many players wear goatees. An increasing number of players wear earrings, some featuring more than one on each ear. And players have worn mustaches and beards for years. Such practices have become so commonplace that they might not seem newsworthy anymore.
Yet, such individualistic styles have not always been accepted, much less encouraged, especially when they involve the wearing of facial hair. From the mid-1910s through the start of the 1970s, only one player was documented to have worn a beard during a game and none were documented to have worn a mustache. Oh, there were probably a number of players who took the field with a “five-o-clock shadow,” or with the stubble produced by a one-day growth, but only two players dared to step into a dugout during the regular season with a full-grown mustache or beard during that span of time. One of those players was Washington Senators pitcher Allen Benson, who sported a beard for two games in 1934. The other was Hall of Famer Satchel Paige, who wore a mustache at the time that the Cleveland Indians signed him out of the Negro Leagues in 1948, but shaved it off shortly after joining the American League team. Yet, it’s not even clear that Paige wore the mustache long enough to have actually appeared with it in an official major league game.
And why exactly did so few players dare to feature mustaches or beards during a half a century of baseball history? After all, no official major league rule had ever banned players from wearing facial hair. Yet, there did exist an unwritten rule in the conservative sport, one that that strongly frowned upon the mustachioed or bearded look. In addition, several individual teams instituted their own formal policies (most notably the Cincinnati Reds in the 1960s), policies that forbade their players from sporting facial hair. Oh, you want to grow a mustache or a beard. Go right ahead. And by the way, here’s the spot you’ll be occupying on the bench for the next several days.
The start of the 1970s heralded the beginnings of change in the area of facial grooming for major league players. In the tradition of Brooklyn Dodgers outfielder Stanley “Frenchy” Bordagaray, who had grown a mustache in the spring of 1935 but was ordered to shave it off prior to the regular season, one star player reported to spring training in 1970 wearing a mustache. Who would make such a bold fashion statement in a sport known for its conservatism? It was none other than St. Louis Cardinals first baseman and frequent lightning-rod-for-controversy Richie Allen, who appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s spring training issue with both the mustache and his trademark mutton chop sideburns in place. Yet, the new fashion habit failed to stick. None of the other Cardinals grew mustaches, and by the time that Opening Day arrived, Allen had rid himself of the hair above his lip.
It wasn’t until two years later that the hairless trend truly reached an endangered stage. In 1972, Oakland A’s star Reggie Jackson reported to spring training in Arizona, replete with a fully-grown mustache, the origins of which had begun to sprout during the 1971 American League Championship Series. To the surprise of his teammates, Jackson had used part of his off-season to allow the mustache to reach full bloom. By the time that spring training began in 1972, the mustache had reached epic proportions—at least by major league baseball’s conservative standards of the day.
Why did Jackson’s facial hair cause such a furor, while Allen’s spring training mustache had created barely a ripple two years earlier? After all, both were high-profile players, among the most talented power hitters of the era. Unlike Allen, Jackson boasted that he would keep the mustache in place for Opening Day, and would add a beard, as well. Given Jackson’s celebrity status—and the fact that no major league players had been documented wearing a mustache in a regular season game since Wally Schang of the Philadelphia A’s in 1914—the mustache affair made major news in 1972.
The new mustachioed look created a stir in A’s camp, quickly cornering the attention of owner Charlie Finley and manager Dick Williams. “The story as I remember it,” says former A’s first baseman Mike Hegan, “was that Reggie came into spring training with a mustache, and Charlie didn’t like it. So he told Dick to tell Reggie to shave it off. And Dick told Reggie to shave it off, and Reggie told Dick what to do. This got to be a real sticking point, and so I guess Charlie and Dick had a meeting, and they said well, ‘Reggie’s an individual so maybe we can try some reverse psychology here.’ Charlie told a couple of other guys… to start growing a mustache. Then, [if] a couple of other guys did it, Reggie would shave his off, and you know, everything would be OK.” According to former A’s third baseman and team captain Sal Bando, Finley wanted to avoid a direct confrontation with Jackson over the mustache. “Finley, to my knowledge, did not want to go tell Reggie to shave it,” says Bando. “So he thought it would be better to have all of us grow mustaches. That way, Reggie wouldn’t be [such] an individual.”
Several A’s pitchers—including Hall of Famers Jim “Catfish” Hunter and Rollie Fingers and veteran relievers Darold Knowles (known for having to shave three times per day) and Bob Locker—followed Reggie’s lead, each sprouting his own mustache. As it turned out, the strategy backfired. Instead of making Jackson fell less “individualistic,” thus prompting him to adopt his previously clean-shaven look, the strategy had a completely unexpected effect on Finley. “Well, as it turned out, guys started growing ‘em, and Charlie began to like it,” Hegan recalls. Finley offered a cash incentive to any player who successfully grew a mustache by Father’s Day. “So then we all had to grow mustaches,” says Hegan, “and that’s how all that started. By the time we got to the [regular] season, almost everybody had mustaches.” Even the manager, Dick Williams, known for his military brush-cut and clean-shaven look in Boston, would join the facial brigade by growing his own mustache.
The mustache-growing represented only part of the grooming and fashion changes that had begun to take root among the Oakland players. Bando, who had previously sported a short, close-cropped haircut and always dressed very conservatively, showed up at spring training looking like one of the feature characters on the television show, The Mod Squad. “My hair is growing over my collar,” Bando whispered to A’s beat writer Ron Bergman prior to spring training. “It’s going to cover my ears.” Bando also parted ways with the traditional line of clothing that he had worn throughout the 1960s. His wardrobe now included bell-bottom trousers, large lapel shirts, sportscoats with vents and wrap-up around belts in the back, and new-style ties.
Even as late as the early 1970s, most major league players still wore their hair short and preferred conservative-looking clothes. Any player (such as former A’s slugger Ken “Hawk” Harrelson) daring to wear high-heeled shoes, plaid bell-bottoms, gaudy multi-colored shirts, and wide-lapeled suits with vests became the immediate target of public ridicule and front office scorn. Yet, such fashions were now starting to make their way into major league clubhouses.
With an influential player like Reggie Jackson at the cutting edge of facial fashions—and an influential owner like Charlie Finley now encouraging him—baseball’s “hair revolution” had officially begun. In April of ‘72, Jackson and the mustachioed group of A’s pitchers made their Opening Day debuts, bringing to an end the facial hair “drought” that had existed throughout the major leagues for over 65 years. In May, Finley called a press conference to announce that the A’s would hold a special promotion on Father’s Day. Major league baseball’s first-ever “Mustache Day” would take place at the Oakland Coliseum. As part of the promotion, Finley promised to pay $300 bonuses to any player who wore a mustache by Father’s Day. In addition, all mustache-bearing fans would receive free admission to the ballpark.
Finley had gone full circle—from an initial dislike of Jackson’s mustache to a desire to have every player on his 25-man roster wearing one. Some players willingly fulfilled Finley’s request for mustaches. Yet, a small group of players felt differently. “There were three guys that didn’t want to do it,” says Bando. “Larry Brown [a veteran utility infielder], Mike Hegan, and myself. [Finley] had to call us in and convince us—not twist our arm or anything—but just reiterate he wanted us to do it.” After initial misgivings, Hegan eventually caved in to the owner’s wishes. “I finally grew a mustache, did it for about six weeks until ‘Mustache Day’ and then shaved it off.” In ridding himself of the mustache, Hegan gave in to a higher authority than Finley. “My wife didn’t like it,” admits Hegan.
All 25 players on the active roster, Bando and Brown included, sported mustaches by Father’s Day. In return, Finley fulfilled his promise of cash considerations. “Yeah, at the end of the game, there was a couple of hundred bucks in everybody’s valuable box,” confirms Hegan. “[There was also] a little thank-you note for growing the mustaches.” At the cost of $7,500, Finley had put together a successful promotion.
By July most of the other A’s would shave their mustaches, only to bring them back later in the season. Why did so many of the Oakland players revert back to the hairy-lipped look? “Well, we had success as a team,” explains Bando, “so everybody stayed with it.” As a team, the A’s long-haired, mustachioed, and eventually bearded look would stamp them with an identity starkly different from the rest of major league baseball.
No player benefited more from his new appearance than A’s relief ace Rollie Fingers, who grew a stylish handlebar mustache that became his trademark. (It also helped him become the “best-looking guy in all baseball,” according to longtime baseball writer Joe Falls, the winner of this year’s J.G. Taylor Spink Award.) Fingers even made sure to negotiate Finley’s $300 bonus into his 1973 contract with the A’s. In a comically written press release, Finley discussed his contract talks with Fingers. “Rollie not only got a substantial increase in salary,” Finley revealed, “but his 1973 contract also includes a year’s supply of the very best mustache wax available. In fact, this is what held up the final signing. I wanted to give Rollie $75 for the mustache wax and he wanted $125 for it.” The two parties compromised at $100, allowing Fingers to wax the tips of his mustache two times a day.
Thanks to his handlebar mustache, Fingers remains one of the most recognizable of all the Hall of Famers. And while the rest of the 1972 A’s haven’t gained as much fame for their mustaches as Fingers has, they can take solace in knowing they played a role in establishing the legacy of baseball’s “Mustache Gang” some 30 years ago.
Bruce Markusen is the author of The Orlando Cepeda Story, a new release from Arte Publico Press.
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