Lightning Round: Steinbrenner and the Yankees Beard Ban

The P&P Lightning Round is an exercise in crowdsourcing and fast writing. Twitter suggests a topic. We spend 45 minutes writing about it. Then we post the results.

New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon is barely hanging on. In pictures he looks a broken man, shoulders sagging, face weathered in new and unkind ways. In interviews he gives the desperate impression of somebody defeated, a man trying desperately to maintain some semblance of control. But Wilpon will not maintain control. A look at the recent history of the Mets indicates that he likely never truly had control. Fred Wilpon is already ruined.

George Steinbrenner, even in death, is not ruined. His post-mortem legacy maintains a tighter grip on the Yankees than a living breathing Wilpon ever could on the Mets. The years of cycling through managers and front office officials still remain fresh in the baseball consciousness. The boastful and ill-conceived statements to the media have only been further-perfected by his son Hank. The silly rules that Steinbrenner used to establish himself as unquestioned boss of the New York Yankees remain in place today.

The silliest of those rules, of course, are those applying to facial hair. And not just because facial hair is a silly thing to regulate, but because there were never actually any rules. Steinbrenner’s facial hair policy was subjective. If he felt a mustache was too long, a mustache was indeed too long. The Simpsons of course parodied this with Mr. Burns questioning the length of Don Mattingly’s sideburns to the point of absurdity.

Funny. Even funnier when Mattingly was actually suspended the next season for refusing to cut his hair. (I love the image of Mattingly as rebel. Someday I will write something about Mattingly and John Cougar Mellencamp as dual Indiana idols who seem different but are actually surprisingly similar.)

The thing about Mattingly though, is that he was Mattingly. He could afford to protest. He was a beloved figure. Steinbrenner had him suspended, but then the issue was resolved quickly. Everything went back to normal. Could you imagine a lesser player attempting something similar? Luis Sojo?

I once worked at a restaurant that required clean-shaven faces from its male staff. There was an open kitchen, so even the back-house guys had to shave. Once, I showed up with about a day’s worth of shadow – maybe even slightly less – and was scolded by a manager for it. I’m not what you would call a regular shaver, and I thought it was a stupid rule, but the job paid really, really well. I picked my battles.

In retrospect, I’m sure my manager didn’t care about my beard. It was a power-play. Steinbrenner was likely the same way. It’s hard to imagine him with strong feelings about the aesthetic value facial hair. It’s easy to imagine him maneuvering in a Machiavellian way to cement his status atop the franchise. Reds owner Marge Schott, a similar if more evil strong-armer, also had a no-beard rule.

For Steinbrenner and his imitators (Willie Randolph and Joe Girardi instituted no-beard policies with the Mets and Yankees respectively – though tellingly, Mattingly hasn’t with the Dodgers), rules can exist solely as a manifestation of power – and a reminder of who’s boss. When Danny Tartabull and Paul O’Neil shaved in the morning, they thought of George Steinbrenner. They remembered their place in the world. They remembered who was boss. It’s hard to imagine a New York Met player having a similar thought.

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