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Don Mattingly vs George Steinbrenner: The Battle of the Mullet

Every Friday I’ve been releasing ‘A Brief History’ podcast about the Yankees. It started as a way to stay sane during quarantine, but evolved into something that I look forward to researching each week.

The most recent episode was about the New York Yankees Appearance Policy. Like many of these history episodes, it once again started with George Steinbrenner, but also focused on one of the crazier sagas in Yankees history — Don Mattingly and the Battle of the Mullet.

Prelude to Battle (of the Mullet)

Mattingly was playing in the final year of his contract in 1990, and in April he threatened to sign elsewhere unless he received an extension. Steinbrenner, not liking to be strong-armed, acquiesced and gave Donnie Baseball a 5-year, $19.3 million deal which made him the highest paid player in the league.

The following spring training Mattingly was named team captain — largely because he was locked-up to a long term deal.

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In June of 1991, with the team below .500, Mattingly went to GM Stick Michael asking for a trade. This was done behind closed doors and was not publicly known until later in the year. But Mattingly wanted to play for a contender and the Yankees were on a 5-year rebuilding course, time Mattingly was unsure he had in him.

While everything seemed fine from the outside, it is important to know this background heading into August, when everything bubbled up to the surface.

Mattingly Benched

Mattingly was among four players that were asked to get a haircut — along with Steve Farr, Pascual Perez, and Matt Nokes. Mattingly refused.

On August 15 he was benched and fined $250, plus an additional $100 for each succeeding day he did not get a haircut. Mattingly got it cut the next day but the story blew up into a media frenzy.

Reporters and talk radio focused on it constantly. Phil Rizzuto, Bobby Murcer, and Tom Seaver mocked the policy on the WPIX pregame show, with Rizzuto playing the role of a barber sent to enforce the rule.

Harsh Words

Mattingly was obviously pissed off about the whole thing, and had some harsh comments.

If Stick wants the players to do exactly what he says, then he should be the pitching coach, batting coach and fielding coach. Then come down here and be a part of it. But take part of the blame, too.

When asked about his captaincy, Mattingly said:

They should take that away It doesn’t mean anything. Take it. It’s been stripped. I’ve been impeached.

He also said that maybe he doesn’t belong in the organization anymore and that this (the haircut saga) might make it easier for them to trade him since he obviously doesn’t fit in.

Michael said he does not want to trade Mattingly and they ended up settling their differences.

By this time it was known that Mattingly asked for a trade back in June. He wasn’t thrilled with the direction of the team, saying, “I felt like we weren’t going the way I wanted us to. The Yankees said they had a 5-year plan. I didn’t have 5 years.”

It’s funny because Stick and the Yankees nailed the 5-year plan. More importantly, if you’re Mattingly, why demand a long-term contract on a rebuilding team if you’re going to turn around a year later and ask for a trade because the team isn’t winning?

The haircut saga was clearly about more than hair. Mattingly was unhappy playing for a losing team — a losing team telling him to get a haircut. I get that. But he could have hit free agency after the ’90 season and signed with a contender if winning was that important to him.

It may sound like I’m bashing Mattingly and defending the appearance policy, and in this case I kind of am. While I don’t think having long hair or a beard is a big deal, Donnie turned this into a bigger issue than it needed to be because he was unhappy for other reasons.

The Mullet Goes Mainstream

The Mattingly saga got even weirder in February 1992 when The Simpsons episode “Homer at the Bat” aired.

Mr. Burns arranged for 9 major leaguers, including Mattingly, to join his power plant’s softball team only to see them fall victim to a series of misfortunes making it impossible to play. Ken Griffey Jr. had a grotesquely swollen jaw and Steve Sax had a run-in with police. Mattingly was actually able to play, but benched for having sideburns that were not to Mr. Burns’ liking…

The episode was reportedly written and recorded before Mattingly’s benching in August ’91, which honestly makes the story even weirder. The Simpsons have had some Nostradamus moments over the years, and you can add this one to the list.

A Brief History: New York Yankees Appearance Policy