Article Thumbnail

The Scruffy Story of Why the New York Yankees Can Never Have Facial Hair

George Steinbrenner wanted his players to look ‘neat.’ Fifty years later, the team still fears the beard, a silly policy endemic of an antiquated ethos that baseball is trying to get away from

In January 1973, George Steinbrenner, along with 11 other business partners, bought the New York Yankees. The deal was for $10 million, a bargain considering the team’s previous owner, CBS, had purchased the club for $13.2 million back in 1964. Steinbrenner had made his name in the shipping industry, dabbling in Broadway as well. But when the New York Times reported the sale of the Yankees, Steinbrenner was modest about his ambitions. “We plan absentee ownership as far as running the Yankees is concerned,” he insisted. “We’re not going to pretend we’re something we aren’t. I’ll stick to building ships.”

Steinbrenner has been dead now for 12 years, but his fingerprints remain all over baseball’s most storied team. For one thing, his family still owns the club. But more symbolically, one of his rules continues to be upheld to this day: If you’re a New York Yankee, you can’t have long hair and you can’t have a beard.

A new Major League Baseball season just got underway, filled with the promise and excitement of what might await us over the next six months. But one thing we can absolutely count on is seeing Yankee players clean-shaven — and also complaints about why this is still a thing. The most recent instance came earlier this month, when the club announced they were trading for New York Mets relief pitcher Miguel Castro. He looked noticeably different when he reported to the Yankees:

It’s taken as a given that if the Yankees pick you up, whether through a trade, the draft or in free agency, you’re trimming your facial hair. In 2019 when the Yankees acquired highly-prized ace Gerrit Cole, he had to say goodbye to his beard and long hair. “I haven’t shaved in like 10 years, but you know what? So be it,” Cole said shortly after joining the club. “That’s the way it is. If you’re a Yankee, you shave. That’s what’s up. … I woke up this morning, got a shave and came here. The guy who does it in the clubhouse just came to the hotel and dialed me in.”

For a man who claimed he’d be hands-off, Steinbrenner made sure his influence was felt in the clubhouse. He was notorious for hiring and firing combative skipper Billy Martin several times over the course of their contentious professional relationship, but his micromanaging came out in other ways, too. Shortly after taking over the Yankees, he decided he’d end a tradition of having fresh-cut flowers on employees’ desks. “I said, ‘What the hell is this? Is it Flowers Day? Is it Secretary’s Day?’” Steinbrenner later recalled. “Somebody said, ‘Isn’t that wonderful? Mr. Burke does this every day for us.’” Michael Burke had been part of the group that had purchased the Yankees along with Steinbrenner. “Mike Burke is a guy who I admired tremendously,” Steinbrenner said. “He was a real heartthrob type of guy. Everybody liked him. I loved him, but for what I wanted, he didn’t fit with me. When I saw the flowers, that was the trigger. I got involved.”

Steinbrenner was just as proactive when it came to personal grooming. The story goes that, at the Yankees’ first home game of the 1973 season, he noticed during the National Anthem when the players had their hats off that their hair was too long for his liking. Soon, the mandate came down, leading to a policy that continues to this day: “All players, coaches and male executives are forbidden to display any facial hair other than mustaches (except for religious reasons), and scalp hair may not be grown below the collar. Long sideburns and ‘mutton chops’ are not specifically banned.”

The 1970s was an era of incredible facial hair in baseball, perhaps best embodied by Rollie Fingers, whose handlebar mustache was a thing of beauty. (In fact, he ended his career in 1986 rather than agreeing to shave it off to be a member of the Cincinnati Reds, which didn’t allow facial hair.) But Steinbrenner didn’t want that hippie-ish nonsense infecting the Yankees. In 1976, Steinbrenner gave an interview with the Times where he clarified his position. “I have nothing against long hair per se,” he said. “But I’m trying to instill [a] certain sense of order and discipline in the ball club because I think discipline is important in an athlete. They can joke about it as long as they do it. If they don’t do it, we’ll try to find a way to accommodate them somewhere else. I want to develop pride in the players as Yankees. If we can get them to feel that way and think that way, fine. If they can’t, we’ll get rid of them.”

On one level, you could understand the owner’s viewpoint. The Yankees have won more World Series than any other club, but when Steinbrenner bought them in 1973, it had been nearly a decade since they’d made the playoffs. If this was an inspirational sports movie, we’d be at the beginning, when the tough-but-fair leader instills strict measures on his players, turning them into champions. Steinbrenner’s military background is often cited as the reason why he didn’t want long hair or beards, and certainly for generations of baseball fans the Yankees — who don’t put their players’ names on the back of their jersey, suggesting that the team is greater than the individual — have resembled a tight ship, at least in how they present themselves to the public. 

“I like to see a player look neat,” Steinbrenner said in the same interview. “Maybe I’m wrong, but we’ll see. I’ll try to explain it to them at a meeting. They’ll joke about it, but sooner or later we’ll get it ingrained in them. We’re starting it in our minor league system. The Yankee system isn’t what it used to be and we’ve got to get it back to what it was.” 

Naturally, some players rebelled. Lou Pinella, who joined the club in 1974, playing for them for the next 10 years, supposedly told the owner, “I don’t understand, Mr. Steinbrenner, what long hair has to do with your ability to play baseball. I’m a Christian. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ had hair down to the middle of his back, and it didn’t affect the way he went about his work.” According to Pinella, Steinbrenner in response showed him a nearby pond, commenting, “It’s about seven to eight feet deep. If you can walk across it, you can wear your hair as long as you want.” 

The owner, nicknamed “the Boss,” could be obsessive on this matter: In his book Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ‘70s, Dan Epstein writes that Steinbrenner “was so horrified to see photos of long-haired Yankees in the Bronx Bombers’ new [1976] yearbook, he insisted that team publicist Marty Appel recall the entire print run.”

Occasionally, there would be some wiggle room in terms of how long mustaches could be, but the policy was largely maintained. Not that superstars wouldn’t test the owner’s patience. In late summer 1977, there was a brewing controversy when catcher Thurman Munson went a whopping 11 days without shaving his beard — normally, he just had a mustache — sparking rumors that he was trying to get traded. When Munson ended his facial-hair protest, manager Billy Martin (who apparently had appealed to his catcher to get a trim) tried to downplay what had become a bit of a local news story. “He did it all himself,” Martin told the press. “I don’t like to say anything about it at all. He shaved, that’s enough. Now the beard issue is dead. Tune in tomorrow for Chapter 13 of As the World Turns.”

But future sagas with other players were inevitable. In 1991, Don Mattingly, one of the most beloved of the Yankees during the 1980s who was by then in the twilight of his career, was benched because his hair was too long, provoking his ire. “Maybe I don’t belong in the organization anymore,” Mattingly said after his benching. “I talked to [general manager Gene Michael] about moving me earlier in the year. He said we’ll talk at the end of the year. Maybe this is their way of saying we don’t need you anymore.” Mattingly relented and got his haircut the next day, but the incident was infamous enough to be mentioned in the great 1992 episode of The Simpsons, “Homer at the Bat.” 

Ironically, though, Mattingly’s clash with management over his hair actually occurred when Steinbrenner was (temporarily) banned from baseball. The long-hair/facial-hair rule was still in place, though, despite his absence.

In the mid-1990s, the Yankees began to resemble the championship clubs of yesteryear, appearing in the playoffs on an annual basis, winning four World Series in the span of five seasons. Players like Derek Jeter were ubiquitous every October, their clean-shaven countenances serving as the face of baseball for a decade. With the Yankees again the sport’s dominant club, high-profile free agents came clamoring, resulting in a series of lucrative contracts and the repeated weirdness of, say, seeing Randy Johnson shaving to comply with the team’s policy. 

But perhaps the most memorable occurrence was Johnny Damon, the heart and soul of the scruffy Boston Red Sox team that came back to beat their hated rivals the Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship Series, who joined New York soon after. Damon changed uniforms and said goodbye to his lovable caveman appearance. It wasn’t just that he was teaming up with Boston’s arch nemesis — it felt like he was selling out and losing part of himself in the process by going clean-shaven. “Without a doubt, George Steinbrenner has a policy and I’m going to stick to it,” Damon said. (“He looks like a Yankee, he sounds like a Yankee and he is a Yankee,” Steinbrenner wrote in a statement about the Damon signing.) 

But not everyone made that deal. In 2013, the eccentric San Francisco Giants closer Brian Wilson told the Yankees that he wouldn’t shave his magnificent beard, ending any possible talks of him signing with the team. That same year, Tampa Bay Rays pitcher David Price made it clear that when his contract was up, he wouldn’t want to play for New York. Discussing the freedom that Rays manager Joe Maddon gave his players, Price said, “It’s a joke, to me, that I had less rules in college than I would on some major league teams. That’s not my style, man. I couldn’t do it on some of these teams I hear about. I couldn’t do it. I’m a grown man.” Being told that he’d have to be clean-shaven if he went over to the Yankees, Price responded, “I wouldn’t stay there very long then. I wouldn’t sign a long-term deal there. Those rules, that’s old-school baseball. I was born in 1985. That’s not for me. That’s not something I want to be a part of.”

Even some recent former Yankees have been dismissive of the team’s stringent attitude toward personal grooming. All-Star outfielder Andrew McCutchen joined New York in 2018, dutifully shaving off his beard, but he ripped the policy in 2020 after leaving the club. “Those policies — shaving and letting the jersey speak for itself — I definitely do think it takes away from our individualism as players and as people,” he said. “We express ourselves in different ways. For me, when I was on the Pirates and me having my dreadlocks, I’d be lying to you if I said if I got traded over to the Yankees and they said you gotta shave your hair — for me, that would have been a very tough thing to do. Because that was who I was. That was how I expressed myself. That’s what made me Andrew McCutchen.”

Of course, the Yankees’ dim attitude toward facial hair and flowing locks can be seen as symptomatic of baseball’s “play the game the right way” ethos, which can often feel racist and inflexible — an ethos that Major League Baseball is doing its best to move away from. (Never mind that it also opens the Yankees up to derision, like in this great Onion piece headlined “Yankees Eliminate Longstanding ‘No Pubic Hair’ Policy.”) Plus, there’s an open question concerning what would happen if current Yankees… simply refused to shave. The team’s players often rock beards in the offseason, suggesting that they’d actually prefer to have facial hair. And especially with the team in recent years failing to live up to their potential, it’s worth debating whether management should let the players be themselves rather than forcing them to conform to a musty old rule.

Also, is the Yankee policy even legal? In 2019, the State of New York passed a law that banned employment discrimination on the basis of hair. And although the law was more about striking down racist hiring tendencies, an argument could be made that the Yankees are in violation of this law. Will anything come of it? Probably not, but it’s funny that even former Yankees who have been put in positions of authority at other clubs don’t force their players to adhere to a similar rule. When Derek Jeter became the CEO of the Miami Marlins, he said, “You want people to look professional. I think if you look professional, you act professional.” But he refused to ban facial hair, noting, “[Athletes are] individuals, they have their personalities. You want them to be able to represent themselves and their families and the organization. But you want them to do that in a professional manner.” 

In the meantime, baseball fans will continue to be bewildered by the sight of formerly hirsute players signing up with the Yankees, only to reemerge as strangely baby-faced individuals. I’m not someone who automatically hates the Yankees, but their slavish adherence to a nearly-50-year-old policy — one instituted by a man dead for more than a decade — speaks to the arrogance of a club that’s hard to love. Baseball is supposed to be fun, but that team treats it like military service — the few, the proud, the overpaid stars of the New York Yankees. 

If anything needs to go, it’s not the beards but that antiquated way of thinking.