The Rise (and Absence) of Beards in Sports

From the American sports landscape to the international athlete, the lineup of sportsmen with beards is a long and (bountifully) growing list globally – and for a variety of reasons.

Houston Rockets basketballer James Harden, American footballers Brett Keisel and Ryan Fitzpatrick, Canadian bobsledder Justin Kripps, and Scotland-based pro hockey player Tristan Cameron-Harper have each used their beards for personal branding purposes. Their beards have become as identifiable as their athletic heroics. And we would be remiss to not to mention the ever-present ‘playoff beard’, which has been a long-standing, superstitious tradition amongst professional athletes throughout many sports for decades.

Ryan Fitzpatrick, Photo Source Wikipedia

But whatever the reason may be for the influx of the facial fuzz in the professional (and amateur) sporting ranks, the bearded athlete is undoubtedly a prominent player between the lines of competition.

There is one clubhouse, however, where the gentlemen of the beard are conspicuously absent: The New York Yankees.

It is one of the most recognizable brands in the sports world with a loyal and passionate fan base. The Yankees brand even transcends the boundaries of the sports stratosphere into mainstream media, pop culture, fashion, music, and entertainment. The familiar, interlocking N-Y logo is an American symbol as recognizable as the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, the bald eagle, and the American Flag.  The Yankees are as American as – well – baseball itself.

The iconic Bronx baseball club has withstood the test of time through baseball’s evolution, adhering to strict personal conduct codes by incorporating a military-style of management. These tenets have also not wavered through the American cultural evolution of different fashion styles (some popular, others not as much), as the Yankees have barely made any alterations to its clean, proper, pinstripe uniform.

And the Yankees need look no further than late owner George Steinbrenner for the scrupulous personal style policies.

Steinbrenner purchased the team in 1973 and ran the organization as strict as the military academy he attended as a young man – including a stringent grooming policy. As such, conspicuously missing from the New York Yankees through the decades is the presence of the beardsman.

For Steinbrenner, whom the New York media mockingly nicknamed “The Boss” for his stern policies, gentlemen of the prestigious New York Yankees (including players, coaches, managers, and front office executives) were strictly prohibited from growing and germinating facial hair… save for a tidy mustache.

When Steinbrenner purchased the team in the 1970s during the height of cultural peace, love, civil rights, feminism, environmentalism, and (ahem) psychedelics, he was as staunchly opposed to long hair, sideburns, and (heaven forbid) beards – seemingly as much as the Hippie movement was against the War in Vietnam.

The strict grooming policy that Steinbrenner implemented in the Yankees clubhouse sparked some of the most entertaining off-the-field baseball news during his tenure as team owner – considering the Yankees suffered through a World Series Championship drought spanning from 1978 through 1996. From Hall of Fame pitcher Goose Gossage proclaiming that he grew his signature Fu Manchu to “piss (George) Steinbrenner off” in the 1980s to former All-Star first baseman Don Mattingly being benched for refusing to cut his mullet in the early 1990s, the Yankees grooming philosophies made more headlines than the play on the diamond.

But with the bearded renaissance of the 21st century, guys rediscovered pogonotrophy (that word is not what you think it is) and it crossed even further into the sports world. This bearded movement paved the way for eccentric outfielder Johnny Damon, who played for the Boston Red Sox – bitter rival to the New York Yankees. With his shoulder length hair and epic beard, Damon led the Red Sox to a series win over the Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship series, which led to the first World Series Championship for ‘Beantown’ in 85 years.

Following the 2005 season, however, the talented All-Star was one of the most sought after free agents in baseball and signed with – of all teams – the rival Yankees. Two days after signing with the Yankees, Damon’s long hair was gone and his face was a shorn as Justin Bieber’s mug.


But the sacrifice of Damon’s locks and beard for the New York baseball temptress did not have a Delilah-like effect on the club as the Yankees won the World Series in 2009, giving Steinbrenner one last championship before his death in 2010. And despite his passing, Steinbrenner’s military-style grooming mantra has remained in tact beyond the grave as the Yankees still endorse the ‘clean-cut’ look to this day.

Following the 2013 season, the Yankees were in the market for a relief pitcher for its bullpen. They targeted colorful pitcher Brian Wilson, whose jet-black, luxuriant beard became a branding icon for the flame-thrower, and the “Fear the Beard” marketing campaign evolved into a monstrous movement among fans and media.


Brian Wilson, Photo Source: Wikipedia

But as the free agent period commenced following the 2013 season, the quirky right-hander passionately refused to shave his beard to join the Yankees. In tandem, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman refused to sign Wilson so long as he still donned his distinctive beard, according to Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News:

So, the parties agreed to disagree and went their separate ways. Fittingly, before the offseason ‘Beard Gate’ rift between Wilson and the Yankees, the Red Sox were busy winning their third World Series Championship in nine years, rallying around the power of the beard. The Red Sox used beard bonding as a season-long camaraderie-building battle cry to hoist the hardware in the October Classic.

“It started in spring training,” Red Sox first baseman Mike Napoli told USA Today before the 2013 World Series. “Me, Jonny (Gomes) and (Dustin) Pedroia were just messing around, saying we were going to grow it out all year. And it just seemed like everyone jumped on.”

The bushy Boston baseballers spurned nicknames like the ‘Beantown Beardsmen’ and the hashtag #GetBeard was a top-trender across social media platforms as the Red Sox went from a last-place finisher in 2012 to the top team in America’s pastime in 2013.

Appropriately, the Red Sox World Series Championship rings were inscribed with an engraved image of a beard and the phrase “Bearded Brothers” on the inside of the rings, as Boston Globe reporter Matt Pepin described via Twitter:

So, whether it is a style or fashion preference, personal branding, or a rallying cry to promote unity like the 2013 Red Sox, the beardsman has taken his place in the starting lineup of the sports world.

Unless – of course – that lineup is for those Damn Yankees.

Top Photo: Rob Shenk

About the Author

Matt Natali is an award-winning sports journalist (and contest-winning beardsman). He is a member of the National Football Foundation, the Football Writers Association of America, and is a College Football Hall of Fame voter. Natali has been published by several major American sports publications online and also moonlights as a college football analyst on Saturdays in the fall over the airwaves, calling college football games on the radio in Ohio – the birthplace of American football. Twitter: @MattNatali


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