The Secret Language of Baseball

The Devil's Snake Curve


After too many hours hunched at a table in the Giamatti Research Center at the Baseball Hall of Fame, I was falling asleep over my notebook. My eyes were dry and bloodshot, my fingers sore from writing. I lacked the focus to finish reading old scrapbooks and journals about long-ago games. But then, as I stretched and paced around the little room, I saw a package of fake mustaches affixed to an office window. The package described its contents as “Self-Adhesive Stylish Mustaches,” and as “a mustache for every day of the week!”

My fatigue vanished. My focus returned. The package in the Hall of Fame window had been altered, personalized. It was Tim Wiles’s office, and he was known for dressing up in a baseball uniform and reciting the poem “Casey at the Bat.”

The mustaches were labeled according to characters from the poem. There were mustaches for Mighty Casey; Cooney, the player who died at first; Barrows, who did the same; Flynn, who let drive a single; Blake, who tore the cover off the ball; and a gray mustache for the umpire who called Casey out on strikes.

On the package, a man wearing a fedora warned, “Don’t be caught in public with a naked upper lip!”


One day a man arrived at the Ruppert Brewery in New York and proposed a wager. The story has the tenor and significance of myth. It was 1896, nearly twenty years before Jacob Ruppert purchased the Yankees. The journeyman’s name was C. A. Sampson. He bet young Jacob Ruppert, then in his twenties, a hundred dollars he could break a set of heavy chains with nothing more than his own muscles.

To prove the strength of the chains before the challenge, Ruppert and Sampson called for a team of horses. The chains were attached to a wagon loaded with fifty barrels of beer. It weighed seven thousand pounds. The horses pulled the wagon up a hill. The chains held. They were real. Ruppert agreed to the bet. Sampson placed the chains around his arm, flexed, and snapped them. Ruppert lost the bet and donated the money to charity. He didn’t like to lose.

This is the origin of the Yankees’ long and storied opposition to hair.



John Titus was known for three things: playing right field for the Philadelphia Phillies, the toothpick in his mouth, and being the last man in baseball to wear a mustache before he retired in 1913.

It looked like a small brown bat had taken roost under his nose and stretched its wings, only to have them freeze in place. In the nineteenth century, it was common for ballplayers to grow mustaches and live rowdy, unruly lives. Players were not expected to have discipline, look clean, or be virtuous. Nobody cared as long as they could hit.

A couple years before Titus retired, taking the mustache out of the sport, the Gillette Safety Razor Company began using players to advertise their products. Honus Wagner was the best fielding shortstop in the game and a top hitter. John McGraw was arguably the smartest manager. They looked clean. Both were pitchmen for Gillette.

The mustache vanished from players’ faces for decades. Some teams even developed rules forbidding players from growing facial hair. Even today, the Yankees discourage it, allowing trimmed mustaches but not beards, as if bristles could devour dollars.



Hair turned baseball and money into an awkward threesome. Hair hinted of animals, of the nineteenth century, at the chaos of the Civil War, of the orangutan-like display on General Burnside’s face. Money is frightened by irrationality. Players depended on their physicality, their brute ability on the field wielding clubs, throwing balls, and running. Rules prohibiting facial hair suppressed and denied their animality. Their bodies were crudely on display, spitting, scratching, sweating, breaking, and bleeding. Forcing them to shave was like putting a collar on a dog.



Philadelphia hosted John Titus and was also home to the Athletics, one of the most hair-conscious teams in the history of the sport. Just as the World Series was beginning in 1930, a group of mug shots appeared in newspaper ads. They were the Philadelphia Athletics, every one of whom agreed to shave their faces with Probak Blades, a competitor with Gillette for the baseball player whisker market. Clean men: Jimmie Foxx, James Dykes, Joe Boley, Jack Quinn, Al Simmons, Mule Haas, Bing Miller, Mickey Cochrane, Max Bishop, Dib Williams, Cy Perkins, E. McNair, Bill Shores, Jim Moore, Kid Gleason, Lefty Grove, Rube Walberg, Wally Schang, Geo. Earnshaw, H. Summa, and Ed Rommel.

Their jowls, cheeks, and stubble belonged to the Auto Strop Safety Razor Company. Connie Mack’s club won a hundred and two games during the regular season and beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. The razor company proclaimed, “Here’s what every member of Connie Mack’s hard-slugging Athletics says about the revolutionary Probak blade: ‘Next to the crack of a clean four-bagger there’s nothing sweeter than the music of a Probak gliding through your beard.’”



Colonel Ruppert hired Joe McCarthy to manage the Yankees in 1931. McCarthy beat out Babe Ruth for the job. The new manager fit well with Ruppert’s system: he was a fanatic about hygiene, insisted his players wear clean uniforms, and when they were at their hotel before or after games they had to look sharp. Ed Barrow, the business manager, remembered what McCarthy said: “‘You’re supposed to be champions of the world,’ he growled. ‘Well, go out there and look like champions of the world—and act like champions.’”

Babe Ruth himself had been an anti-Yankee. He was the id for the entire team, the unruly spirit on a platoon of pawns in white woolen suits. Such a man could not be put in charge of others.



There was one team the razor companies never got near. They were the House of David, and were part of a religious group called the Christian Israelites. The House of David was based in Michigan and raised money by sending a team of ballplayers barnstorming around the country. They played against Negro league, major league, and minor league teams in the early- and mid-twentieth century. They reveled in spectacle. Members of the House of David traveling team were forbidden from cutting their hair or shaving their faces. They took the field with beards, mustaches, and long hair. It flowed in the breeze.



John Titus nearly lost the distinction of being the last man to wear facial hair on the field. In 1934, the paper reported: “One of Bill Terry’s Giants recently started a lip hedge, but a vigilance committee overpowered him and dispatched the adornment.” Titus’s crown of shame lasted two more seasons.

Frenchy Bordagaray broke the hair barrier in 1936. The young Brooklyn Dodger arrived at spring training with a “narrow streamline type” of mustache. There hadn’t been hair on a player’s face since 1913, and Bordagaray’s sprouts delighted the press. He had spent the winter in Hollywood, where he said, “The boys out my way wear ‘em—helps you get jobs as extras in the movies.” He had a bit role in the John Ford film The Prisoner of Shark Island. Frenchy said, “I did the best flag-waving since George M. Cohan in ‘Yankee Doodle’—it was a masterpiece in flag waving—and they cut it all out.”

The movie told the story of Dr. Samuel Mudd, a physician who treated John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg after Booth slaughtered President Lincoln. Mudd was convicted of conspiracy to murder the president and sentenced to life in prison. He was pardoned in 1869 by Andrew Johnson.

Bordagaray retained his bristles when the Dodgers traveled north to start the regular season in 1936. He wore them until a slump in May, when he was benched and his position with the club was jeopardized. If he’d hit .400, things might have been different. But the game remained bound by chaetophobia. It would be decades before players were able to wear mustaches and beards with pride.



Casey Stengel sits in the Yankees dugout. It’s the mid-fifties, and he’s nearing the end of his career. His face is wrinkled. He is uncomfortable, like a man who knows he’s being looked at. It’s a television commercial for Gillette razors. A disembodied male voice says the Yankee wizard figures all the angles.

The film cuts to Stengel in his office. He still wears his uniform, legs crossed. There are books on his shelves. Mel Allen, the famous baseball announcer, stands next to Stengel looking dapper, clean, smooth, safe. Like a pile of money.

Stengel says: “There’s something special about being a Yankee. We want our boys to be a credit to the club anywhere. Know what we tell ‘em? Especially the youngsters. To act and look like champions, to dress neat, and keep clean shaved.”



Widespread rumors that Fidel Castro once tried out for the Washington Senators or the New York Yankees are false, but it’s true he liked baseball. After he seized control of Cuba in 1959, Fidel played exhibition games with a team called Barbudos, which in English means “Bearded Ones.” It was almost as if he were challenging the norms of American baseball by flaunting his beard.

In January 1961, a Cuban employee at the American military base in Guantanamo Bay claimed the Americans there had tortured him. Fidel spoke at a rally for 30,000 people after the party’s paper, Revolution, ran the provocative headline: “Yankees Torture a Cuban Worker.”



The Yankees, with their emphasis on order, cleanliness, and the removal of whiskers, had a

natural opposite in the American League—the Kansas City Athletics, the little team whose stars they loved to poach.

The Athletics had evolved from their days as clean-shaven lads in Philadelphia. Charlie O. Finley, the Athletics’ eccentric owner, had a feeling for the game’s taboos and how to break them. Sheep grazed deep in the outfield at Kansas City Municipal Stadium. Finley wanted to draw more people to see his awful team. He also wanted short grass, and the sheep obliged.

In 1963 the Yankees opened their season in Kansas City. The A’s wore new gold and kelly green uniforms, and the sheep in the outfield wore gold and kelly green blankets. Finley discussed his strategy: “If we get enough gold and green color in the stands, the Yankees will be so dazzled they won’t have a chance.” The sheep were a popular attraction, though not universally. They baaahed, they pooped, they smelled like sheep. They made the team seem less serious than, say, the Yankees.

Legend has it that one day someone hit a long home run that arched high in the air and smacked a sheep in the head. The sheep died, and early in the 1965 season, Charlie O. Finley replaced the sheep with a mule. Its name was Charlie O. The mule traveled with the Athletics, but trouble ensued when they reached Chicago. The White Sox refused to let the mule into Comiskey, so Finley protested in the parking lot. A band played music, and six lovely models mingled near the mule wearing signs. They read:

1. Unfair to Charlie O., the Mule

2. Unfair to Charlie O., the Man

3. Unfair to Baseball

4. Unfair to Sox Fans

5. Unfair to Animals

6. Unfair to Muledom



Hank Aaron stands at the plate captured in black-and-white: a television commercial from the sixties. A disembodied white male narrates. Aaron is ready for the hit-and-run. He swings and the ball flies toward right field.

The commercial cuts, and the announcer stands against a wall in the locker room. Aaron walks in wearing a white T-shirt. His face and shoulders are reflected in a mirror. The announcer shifts from talking baseball to Hank Aaron’s slick, clean-feeling shave.

The frame cuts to Aaron’s face caked with shaving cream, a black man painted white. He pulls the Gillette razor across his cheek, removing hair and lather. Gillette—momentarily, publicly, unwittingly—whitened Henry Aaron to sell its razors.

He speaks, praising washing, lathering, and his Gillette Super Speed Razor.

The commercial shows fans mobbed outside a stadium, as if to imply what ought to be done with a black man who does not make himself white. There is a close-up of the Gillette razor as it sits on a shelf. Only one dollar, and if you buy it soon, it comes with a booklet, “The Secret Language of Baseball.”



Charlie O. Finley continued to be a trickster in Oakland after moving the A’s there from Kansas City for the 1968 season. As the team rambled west from Philadelphia to Kansas City to California it had worried less and less about propriety, but despite his fondness for fur-bearing mammals, Finley still enforced vestigial rules against facial hair. Or he tried to, until the great slugger Reggie Jackson challenged the owner’s power in 1972 by refusing to shave his vigorous mustache. Rather than risk losing a public showdown with Jackson, Finley decreed “Mustache Day” and offered his players bonuses if they grew one. He may have thought that by having the entire team look like Reggie Jackson it would tame the star’s spirit and make the group conform, but the opposite happened. The hirsute Oakland A’s of the early seventies, the hairiest bunch of baseball players in Major League history[1], dominated the game. They won five division titles and three World Series in a row, raising the question of whether testosterone levels rise when razors are left on shelves and facial hair is allowed to bloom. Frenchy Bordagaray would have been thrilled to play alongside Jackson, Catfish Hunter, and the other A’s.

Charlie Finley was eccentric in ways that make him seem alternately fool and genius. He seemed to understand the power of the animal locked within his players, though it was not an immediate discovery. The strange relationship between domesticated ballplayers, domesticated animals, and domesticated fans leaked into his ownership style. He was a secular priest, performing rituals to challenge taboos and gain power from their destruction. The curved mustache worn by Rollie Fingers made him look like Salvador Dalí. The A’s had one thing in common with the surrealists: by revealing normal routines imposed by society as bizarre, they challenged, weakened, and tried to destroy them in the hope that something better would arise. For the A’s, the “something better” was a baseball dynasty.



When George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees in 1973, he claimed he would not interfere with the day-to-day operations of the team. Then he noticed many Yankees had long hair. It bothered Steinbrenner, and he imposed grooming rules to retain order and control his club.

He later explained: “I feel very strongly that we have to set an example and I like self-discipline and neatness to be a part of that example. I believe it reflects in the way a team performs. I really do. . . . I’m not waging a one-man war against long hair. I’m just saying if you want to be a Yankee, this is the way it’s got to be.”



In the spring of 1973, Billy Martin, exiled from his Yankees, languished in Detroit. The Oakland Athletics had won the World Series the year before while wearing mustaches, and people were joking it had helped them win. The Tigers manager was unimpressed: “(Bleep) the A’s and Mr. Finley. . . . I left my mustache in my razor blade,” Martin said. It was an attitude he had internalized in New York.

“A lot of guys, including me, had big mustaches when we came to camp but they made us shave them off,” said Tiger Norm Cash.



During spring training in 1976, George Steinbrenner ordered his Yankees to cut their hair. Oscar Gamble had to cut his ten-inch afro before the team would issue him a uniform. Lou Piniella chopped his locks, but was asked to get a closer trim. The owner roamed the field gawking at scalps. Steinbrenner personally told Catfish Hunter to exert control over his follicles.

The Boss defended his edict:

I have nothing against long hair per se. . . . But I’m trying to instill a 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. . . . I like to see a player look neat. 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.

One by one, the players complied. They played shorn and clean. Later that summer, Yankees catcher Thurman Munson—a scruffy character in his own right—described The Boss: “George wants some kind of regimentation. He knows you need that in a business. He loves baseball and he wants to win in the worst way.”



In August 1991 George Steinbrenner was in the middle of a suspension and things were not going well for management or the players. The Yankees were on their way to a last-place finish when Steve Farr, Matt Nokes, Pascual Perez, and Don Mattingly were asked to get haircuts. Team captain Don Mattingly refused to cut his, which was “just above his collar.”

Stump Merrill issued the orders, but Mattingly blamed general manager Gene Michael. Mattingly was benched for refusing to submit to the scissors and missed a game against the Royals. He said of Gene “Stick” Michael: “It’s kind of silly to me, but we’re not winning and this is Stick’s club. . . . He wants an organization that will be puppets for him and do what he wants.” Mattingly noted his status as team captain meant little after the order. “They should take that away. It doesn’t mean anything. Take it. It’s been stripped. I’ve been impeached.”

The next day Mattingly was back in the lineup. Michael and Merrill had caved and let Mattingly play. Instead, both men had cut their own hair. Mattingly said, “This wasn’t any kind of stand for freedom, or anything. . . . It’s just that they put me into a corner, and I guess the competitive nature in me came out.”

Writer Ira Berkow understood:

The Mattingly controversy, like the [Oscar] Gamble case, had little to do with grooming, and much more to do with power. . . . Hair is an old sheargoat. Control someone’s hair and you control his mind, goes a theory. You manipulate him by sapping his psychological strength, his sense of identity. That seems the symbolism in the tale of the clipped Samson. In the same way, the first thing a private receives in the Army is a full hedge pruning. He goes into the barbershop a person and comes out a billiard ball. Meanwhile, the retaining of one’s locks has often been taken as rebellion.



When Johnny Damon left the Red Sox and joined the Yankees he knew he would have to cut his hair and shave his beard. Unlike Don Mattingly, Damon submitted willingly and even turned his haircut into a publicity stunt for Steinbrenner. The unruly Red Sock chose to submit to the Boss, the symbolic completion of the domestication of major league ballplayers.



One of the first things Joe Girardi did when he began his managerial career with the Florida Marlins was institute a shaving policy for the team. He had played under George Steinbrenner’s rules against hairiness, and when he began his brief sojourn with the Marlins Girardi told the press: “To me, the idea is to look professional. I understand it’s important to players to have their own style, and I don’t have a problem with that. But I want players to look neat and clean.”



The White Sox won the 2005 World Series and in the next season began enforcing their own rules against hair. In mid-April, Freddy Garcia and Neal Cotts, both pitchers, went to the clubhouse and found their orders.

Garcia said, “I don’t know what they want, but it will just be a little bit.”

Cotts said, “It’s part of the rules. It’s kind of vague what the rules are.”



There was a World Series at stake, so I sat at my kitchen table in 2011 and stared intently at the screen as little men in their tights and fancy shoes ran to and fro. A jug of Carlo Rossi’s finest vintage, Paisano, was my companion. The wine was a viewing-enhancement drug, and induced the passivity necessary to sit and watch, sit and watch, sit and watch. The game dragged. Someone was winning. It was the Cardinals, with Tony LaRussa at the helm. LaRussa was an indisputable genius of the sport, one of the winningest managers of all time. Though nobody mentioned it much anymore, he was also the manager at the helm during Oakland’s steroid-infused victories of the late eighties, and again with the Cardinals when Mark McGwire broke home run records. That his players used steroids does not take anything away from LaRussa’s intelligence—it was smart baseball to play dumb.

Innings passed. Millionaires threw balls, millionaires hit balls, millionaires ran. Millionaires in the dugout told millionaires on the field what to do. Millionaires in the executive suites put pressure on the managers. Millionaires fortunate enough to buy tickets to the game sat in the stands, drank beer, and talked on cell phones. Millionaires at the helm of giant corporations ran advertisements between innings and during pitching changes, and people excluded from the game watched passively at home.

An advertisement played on my little TV, which stood on my kitchen table amidst a clutter of empty mugs with tea bags stuck inside, old ATM receipts, coins for the laundry, stacks of unpaid phone, electric, gas, credit card, and student loan bills, crumpled drafts of résumés and cover letters, and a sickly jade plant growing horizontally toward the window blinds. The television commercial showed an extremely hairy baseball player sporting a dark black beard. An obscene bush, like an armpit from an old Buñuel film. I vaguely recognized the bearded player as Brian Wilson, the closing pitcher for the Giants, who won the World Series the previous year. Last season Wilson wore a Mohawk hairdo, the bushy black beard, and seemed to be proof of a real connection between hair, danger, and power. He also established college scholarships for the military.

In the ad, Wilson stands in a restaurant that serves a processed, frozen, reheated Americanized version of Mexican food to obese, diabetic, xenophobic Americans. The baseball player was using the power of his beard to sell something called chalupas.

As the commercial begins, Wilson sits in a chair while an alluring young woman grooms his beard with a long, golden comb. “Mmmm,” he says. His beard and his cap fill the frame. The camera pulls back to reveal an actor representing the commercial’s director, who says that the double XL chalupa is so big—when Brian Wilson stands and interrupts—“You need a closer to finish it.”

Wilson takes control, and the commercial veers into dark territory, relying on television’s strange ability to take what should disturb us, excise its meaning, and serve it back as humor. Wilson says: “New idea. Imagine this. I’m black ops. I’m gonna sneak up and finish these chalupas.” He bites the air like a hungry coyote. “Where I show up, nobody knows. ‘Cuz I’m black ops!” He crouches down and points at the chalupa. “But these monsters are stacked.” A walkie-talkie appears in his hand. “I need to call my inner deliciousness. Hello? And that double XL chalupa—never happened.”

The Paisanos were working inside me, clamoring for their say, and I wondered whether Wilson was talking about a chalupa, an immigrant pulled in by ICE, an Iraqi, an Afghani, or a nameless, faceless soul who had vanished into Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo.  I wondered why a player whose hackles seemed to signify that he was a man beyond corporate control had encouraged the public to literally and figuratively consume the military industrial complex. Next, I assumed, Gillette will pay dearly to remove his beard and have it displayed in a zoo, and Wilson will make his way across the continent to play for the New York Yankees.

But I was wrong. He turned down a million dollar offer from a razor company, and when Mariano Rivera retired last fall and the Yankees began looking for a closer, Wilson refused to submit to New York. It was a small act of defiance by man who was already rich, and—unlike most of us—had found a way to be insubordinate and socially acceptable at the same time. But as the season ended and the winter settled in, the memory of his defiance continued to make me smile.




• “Sampson’s Test of Strength,” New York Times, April 3, 1896.



• Arch Ward, “Talking it Over,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 19, 1934; Arch Ward, “In the Wake of the News,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 16, 1940.

• Terry Lefton, “Gillette’s Century of Close Shaves in Baseball,” Street and Smith’s Sports Business Journal, June 22, 2009,



• Advertisement in Minneapolis Tribune, October, 1930.



• Edward Grant Barrow and James M. Kahn, My Fifty Years in Baseball (New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1951).



• Arch Ward, “Talking it Over,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 19, 1934.

• Russell Wolinsky, “Frenchy Bordagaray: Mustache Man,” National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, accessed May 22, 2006,

• John Kieran, “The Man with the Mustache,” New York Times, March 27, 1936; John Kieran,“Hits, Runs, and Errors,” New York Times, April 14, 1936.



• Gillette television commercial, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum collection.



• Roberto González Echevarría, The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

• R. Hart Phillips, “Castro ‘Waiting’ to Get U.S. Base,” New York Times, January 14, 1961.



• “Athletics Hope to Dazzle Win from Yankees,” Chicago Daily Defender, April 9, 1963; Arthur Daley, “Sports of the Times,” New York Times, May 18, 1965.



• Gillette television commercial, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum collection.



• “Oakland to Spend Day in the Handlebar Era,” New York Times, May 28, 1972.

• Wolinsky, “Frenchy Bordagaray: Mustache Man.”

• Chris Jaffee, “40th Anniversary: Mustache Day,” Hardball Times, last modified June 18, 2012,; Bruce Markusen, “Thirty Years Ago……Birth of the Mustache Gang,” the Oakland Athletics Fan Coalition’s Historical Hot Stove, last modified March 14, 2002,



• Joe Donnelly, “Steinbrenner: The Yankees’ Dandy Doodler,” Los Angeles Times, July 4, 1976.



• George Minot, Jr., “Tigers Try Samson Approach,” Washington Post and Times Herald, March 25, 1973.



• Murray Chass, “Steinbrenner Rule on Hair Splits Yanks,” New York Times, March 23, 1976; “More Pride, Less Hair: Owner Bearding Yanks in their Den,” Los Angeles Times, March 24, 1976; Joe Donnelly, “Steinbrenner: The Yankees’ Dandy Doodler,” Los Angeles Times, July 4, 1976.



• Murray Chass, “Mattingly Flap: Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow?” New York Times, August 16, 1991; Jack Curry, “Mattingly Chooses Seat on Yanks Bench Over Barber’s Chair,” New York Times, August 16, 1991; Jack Curry, “No More Split Ends as Mattingly Rejoins Yanks,” New York Times, August 17, 1991; Ira Berkow, “The New Yankee Clippers Aren’t Very Sharp,” New York Times, August 18, 1991.



• Lee Jenkins, “Idiot is Not the Only Role Damon Knows How to Play,” New York Times, December 23, 2005.



• Joe Frisaro, “Girardi Sets Clean-Shave Policy; Manager Brings Yankee Influence to South Florida,” last modified January 27, 2006,



• Mark Gonzales, “Hair Police Strike Again: Garcia, Cotts Nabbed,” Chicago Tribune, April 19, 2006.



• The Taco Bell commercial is available on YouTube,

[1] Until the 2013 Red Sox weaponized their beards


“Secret Language of Baseball” is reprinted by permission from The Devil’s Snake Curve: A Fan’s Notes from Left Field (Coffee House Press, 2014). Copyright © 2014 by Josh Ostergaard.

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