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Why George Steinbrenner implemented the Yankees appearance policy

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. Up until recently I thought the policy had been in place from the beginning because I never saw pictures of Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle with long hair or a beard — obviously crew-cut and clean shaven was just the look in those days. But of course the policy was implemented by none other than George Steinbrenner.

New Boss in Town

Steinbrenner knew little about the Yankees when he bought the team in 1973. If you want to know more about how Big Stein went from minority owner to one of the most powerful owners in sports, I suggest you check out the history episode I did about that topic.

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The story goes, on Opening Day 1973, Steinbrenner was watching his team line up for the National Anthem and he noticed that some of the players had shaggy hair that covered parts of their jersey. He wrote down the numbers (because he didn’t yet know their names) of players he thought looked unprofessional on the back of an envelope and delivered it to manager Ralph Houk after the game.

Houk asked, “What is this?”

“Players who need a haircut,” was the reply.

Among the players’ numbers that Steinbrenner wrote down was Bobby Murcer, Thurman Munson, Fritz Peterson, Sparky Lyle and Roy White.

It led to the official implementation of an appearance policy, which states: “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.”

Players Push the Limits

Speculation over the years is that Steinbrenner borrowed the policy from his days in the US Air Force, where he was a second lieutenant. There is no doubt that George’s militaristic mentality was a way to gain control over a clubhouse that in a few years would be nicknamed the “Bronx Zoo.”

But throughout the 1970s, players pushed the limits. Team captain Thurman Munson grew a beard before the 1977 season but shaved, saying he didn’t want to get Billy Martin in trouble. There are many other occasions in which players broke the rules, and they’re usually documented on their Topps baseball cards.

In 1978 Steinbrenner explained to the New York Times:

I have nothing against long hair per se, 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. The players 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.

No player of prominence was ever shipped out of town for disobeying the policy, but the most infamous incident happened in 1991, with Don Mattingly’s mullet saga.

Throughout the late ’90s and 2000s there were no issues. Yes, David Wells and Roger Clemens often pitched with a 5 o’clock shadow, but nobody put up a stink. It’s easy to fall in line when you’re winning 95+ games a season and multiple championships.

The Policy Today

The organization upholds the policy to this day. Brian Cashman told the WSJ back in 2013 that he jokes with players if they need a shave, asking them if rotator cuff soreness is preventing them from getting the razor up to their cheek. It’s his casual way of saying, “clean it up.”

After Steinbrenner’s passing, Joe Girardi — another militaristic personality — said he likes the policy, and there is no evidence that the Yankees are changing anytime soon.

Opposing players have been critical of the policy. David Price and Brian Wilson went as far to say it would prevent them from signing in New York. Plenty of big name free agents came to the team and acquiesced with no problem — Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon are two of the most prominent. Gerrit Cole just signed the most lucrative pitcher contract in history and happily got a save, but what would have happened if he didn’t?

A Brief History: New York Yankees Appearance Policy