The mustache that ended a HOF career

In 1986, Rollie Fingers refused to shave for the Reds

February 21st, 2022

There are more than 250 players in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and for the most part, their careers all ended in the way you'd expect, with the player either choosing to call it a day or having the game make that choice for them. For a small handful, the end arrived due to injury, illness, or tragedy.

But only one, so far as we can tell, has had a career come to an end at least in part due to a mustache.

Rollie Fingers is one of those Hall of Famers, and for good reason, because he accomplished an incredible amount over parts of 17 seasons in the Majors. He was part of three World Series winners, throwing the final pitch in two of them; he made seven All-Star teams; he is one of a select few players to win Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards in the same season; he was elected to the Hall of Fame on his second try. He reached levels very, very few ever attain.

But let’s be honest with ourselves: That’s not why you remember him, is it? Not even close. Right?

Despite all of the achievements and accolades, the first thing you think of when you think “Rollie Fingers” is beautiful, glorious handlebar mustache. Whenever a list is made that shows the most interesting facial hair styles in baseball history, Fingers is bound to be on it. He is, basically, the man, the myth, the mustache. It’s difficult to imagine him without it. It's even immortalized on his Hall of Fame plaque.

You know all that. What you might not know is that when his career came to an end in the mid-1980s, it wasn’t entirely about his ability to get outs. It was about Fingers bypassing an opportunity with the Reds over Cincinnati's deeply square requirement that their players be clean-shaven. Fingers chose to keep his iconic ‘stache, and walked away with his head held high. Mustache 1, Reds 0.

But in order to explain how Fingers' mustache and the Cincinnati ban against it came into conflict, we need to explain how each of them got to that point. Though it probably seems now like Fingers was born with the duster already in full effect, he actually made it to the Major Leagues with the 1968 Oakland A’s without it, and appeared in 154 games over his first four seasons as a clean-shaven pitcher, one who barely resembles the follically-blessed icon he’d become.

He wasn’t alone; when he broke in, the Majors had been mostly facial hair free for a half-century. Though mustaches, beards, and Motörhead-before-Motörhead tributes were common in the game in the 19th century, it’s generally believed that catcher Wally Schang’s mustache in 1917 represented the final time a player would sport facial hair regularly for more than 50 years. (One description of it in a newspaper in April of that year referred to it as "alfalfa," which we are deeply in love with.)

There were, of course, small exceptions.

In 1934, bearded pitcher Allen Benson got into a pair of games for the Senators, though he expressed regret about his appearance. “I believe I could have made the grade with [Washington] but for these danged whiskers, I want to cut ’em off right now, but Mr. Cambria says they make me a drawing card – a sorta circus attraction – and that I’ve gotta wear ’em for the rest of the season,” Benson later said.

Two years later, Frenchy Bordagaray, who would play 11 years in the Majors, briefly played with facial hair after growing it out for a part in a movie. He tried it again in 1945, this time shaving only after having his life threatened – jokingly, we hope – by opposing catcher Al Lopez. (“If I kill you, your family will be notified,” Lopez said, after suggesting Bordagaray’s mustache might be a nice landing spot for a throw.)

Outside the AL and NL, Negro Leaguers like Satchel Paige occasionally had some facial hair, though he was asked to shave when he joined Cleveland in 1948, and of course the famously hirsute House of David barnstorming team brought hairy baseball across the land.

But that was it, for decades, until 1970, when Dick Allen showed up to Cardinals camp with mutton chops and a mustache, and A's teammates Felipe Alou and Reggie Jackson grew mustaches late in the season. Why? In part, baseball followed grooming trends of the times, as the period between roughly World War I and the mid-1960s represented a particularly conservative time in men’s facial fashion. (One study, with an understandably questionable methodology, looked at London between 1842 and 1972, and suggested that in 1887, less than 5% of men were clean-shaven, but by the 1960s, that number was north of 80%.)

The reasons are many, and more than we can go into here, though a good start seems to be that the military first required clean-shaven faces in WW1 (reportedly to help ensure gas mask fit) and it wasn’t until the late 1950s that beards began to regain a place in style.

In some circles, anyway. High-level baseball might have been clean shaven as the '50s turned into the '60s, but that was increasingly changing in other sports like basketball and football. Coaches who attempted to push back against the changing tides often found themselves with mutinies on their hands, particularly when white coaches attempted to legislate how their Black players presented themselves, as happened with the 1969 Oregon State football team fiasco.

Despite the fact that no baseball players actually had facial hair, in 1967, newly hired Reds GM Bob “Deacon” Howsam – so named because his stodgy, traditional nature was such that he may have considered plain milk too edgy – made a preemptive strike. He banned facial hair among his Cincinnati players, and was part of an unsuccessful attempt to have such a rule instituted league-wide. ("Howsam wanted his players to project a wholesome image that conservative Cincinnati could relate to," wrote the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1999.)

So serious was Howsam about his ban that in Cincinnati, it didn’t end on the field. Even beloved mascot Mr. Redlegs, who had been sporting a Fingers-esque ‘stache since his introduction in 1953, was replaced with a clean shaven alternative, Mr. Red, though far more recently the original look has returned. Twenty years before the idea of Fingers joining the Reds was ever conceived, the end of a Hall of Fame career had already been set into motion.

All of which brings us to the 1972 A’s, and Fingers, but really, to star outfielder Jackson and owner Charlie O. Finley. Jackson (and teammate Tommy Davis) arrived at Spring Training sporting facial hair. It was his teammates, not management, who didn’t approve, so they came up with a plan.

“We all started growing our own mustaches at Spring Training because of Reggie -- to get him to shave his off,” Fingers said in 2015. "We figured our manager, Dick Williams, would tell us all to shave them off and then Reggie would shave his off. It didn't quite work out that way."

Instead, Finley saw opportunity. He offered each player and coach an extra $300 if they grew out mustaches by April 15, Opening Day of the 1972 season. ("Three hundred bucks? That was a week's pay back then," Fingers remembered. "He came down to the clubhouse on Opening Day, gave us all our checks, we got 300 bucks out of Charlie, and that was all that mattered.")

On Father’s Day, June 18, Finley introduced “Mustache Day,” providing any fan with facial hair free admission, so long as they were with a paying fan. The A’s were in first place by this point, so most of the club stuck with what was working, right on up until the World Series, played, ironically in retrospect, against those clean-shaven Reds. It was billed as the “Hairs vs. Squares Series,” with Cincinnati manager Sparky Anderson channeling his best Helen Lovejoy by saying “millions of kids see our ball club on television. I want them to see neat, well-disciplined men.”

The Hairs won. Fingers got the final out against Pete Rose, who apparently had no problems growing a whole lot of look himself in the winter.

The next year, several of the A’s broke out the razor, but not Fingers. “I can’t take it off now,” he said in the middle of the 1973 World Series against the Mets. ”It would change my identity. Besides, my wife would shoot me. She loves it.”

It also marked a turning point in his career. Fingers would make his first All-Star team in 1973, and would be selected in five of the next six years. Just look at how his performance improved.

Without the mustache (1968-71)
3.53 ERA in 397 2/3 innings

With the mustache (1972-85)
2.71 ERA in 1,303 2/3 innings

You might argue that’s got more to do with things like “a young pitcher finding his way as he matured” and “a struggling sometimes starter moving to the bullpen permanently" than it is about the flavor saver on his upper lip. We disagree in the strongest possible terms. It was, clearly, all about mustache magic.

Fingers kept the mustache for his remaining four seasons in Oakland. He kept it during a bizarre three-day period in 1976 where he was traded to the Red Sox, donned their uniform, then was sent back to Oakland as the deal was overturned. He kept it during his four seasons with the Padres. He kept it when he joined the Brewers for the final four seasons of his career.

He kept it when he was a member of the Sun City Rays with the short-lived Senior Professional Baseball Association in the late 1980s. He kept it when he became an accomplished golfer following his playing days. He kept it in 2018 when he was named a special assistant to the president of the A’s. He’s kept it, so far as we can tell, to this very day.

Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, the ban persisted, even as the Big Red Machine was rolling on. (One need not look further than the 1976 World Series, where even the famously conservative Yankees were growing mustaches at that point, while the Reds were all clean-shaven.) It didn’t last without incident, though, perhaps none earlier than the trade of outfielder Bobby Tolan in 1973, who reportedly was told "shave or take off the uniform" after trying to wear a mustache in the final week of the season. He took the uniform off, was suspended, then traded.

Ironically, Rollie Fingers and Mr. Redlegs share very similar facial hair.

In the spring of 1982, the Reds traded for pitcher Jim Kern, who had perfected quite the shaggy look in his time with Texas. Kern, known as “the Amazing Emu,” then shaved as requested upon his arrival at camp, but by August he’d had enough, growing his beard back out. “If it means a fight, it'll be a fight,” he said to the New York Times. There was no fight; within two weeks, he was traded to the White Sox, where the beard returned.

That same spring, infielder Wayne Krenchicki arrived from the Orioles. He’d sported a mustache with Baltimore, which quickly disappeared upon joining the Reds. Yet so thorough was the ban that when he appeared in the 1982 Reds media guide, the team used his 1981 Orioles photo, retouched not only to change his cap and uniform, but to attempt to airbrush out the mustache. This wasn't even the first time such a thing had happened, because Dave Collins had run into the exact same problem in 1978.

And so, the ban was still alive and well in 1986, when Fingers was a free agent looking for work.

After a pair of very successful seasons with Milwaukee in 1981-82, he missed all of 1983 dealing with a torn muscle in his forearm. He returned in 1984 and was quite good (1.84 ERA) in the first half before missing the final two months with a back injury, but while he was able to return again in ‘85, he posted a career-worst 5.04 ERA, at 38 years old. The Brewers removed him from the roster in November.

On Feb. 6, 1986, it was reported that the Reds, now managed by Rose, had extended a non-roster invite to Fingers, pending acquisition of a razor.

“I don’t know how he feels about [shaving the mustache],” Reds GM Bill Bergesch, who had replaced Howsam (who had himself already left and then returned) in the position after the 1984 season, said to the Associated Press, “but it’s important to us.”

Two weeks later, the Reds opened camp in Plant City, Fla., just east of Tampa. Fingers wasn’t there. There was no mystery why.

“He didn’t feel like he wanted to cut off his mustache to play ball,” Bergesch said. “I told him we wish him well, but we have a policy. We have many players around here who have (shaved off beards or mustaches).”

''The mustache is my trademark, and it has been for 15 years,” said Fingers, at least as relayed by Bergesch. “I am not about to shave it off just to play baseball.''

No one else brought him into camp for 1986. Despite rumors that the Tigers would do so in 1987, that never panned out either. Fingers’ career was over, though obviously his age, run of recent injuries, and poor 1985 had something to say about it as well as the mustache dedication.

We assume that some portion of the Reds fan base at the time still agreed with the policy, and owner Marge Schott had reinforced her support of it in 1985. But we are all but obligated to run, in full, a letter to the editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer, one that appeared on Feb. 27, 1986.

Regarding Rollie [Fingers] and the Reds’ archaic facial-hair policy, I can’t believe it. The big “Schotts” really blew it this time. Right on, Rollie. I admire your decision. You didn’t lose, the Reds did. This is the 1980s, not the 1950s.” – Bob “Spider” Trine

But it was the 1980s, and it continued on into the 1990s. Here’s four-time All-Star reliever Jeff Reardon with his intimidating beard as a member of the Expos, Twins, and Red Sox, before a nearly unrecognizable stint, beard-free, with the 1993 Reds – before immediately growing back a mustache with the 1994 Yankees. (While the Yankees do ban beards, mustaches have long been allowed in pinstripes, as shown by Munson, Lyle, Gossage, Mattingly, Guidry, Giambi, and now, Cortes.)

Even Jack Morris wasn’t spared. Morris, long known for his intimidating upper lip while building a Hall of Fame career with four teams, tried to make the 1995 Reds, but retired before the end of camp. Maybe it was that he was 40 years old and had posted a 5.91 ERA the previous two years. Maybe it was that he was forced to shave. (“He wasn’t happy about it, but he went and shaved it off,” said Reds GM Jim Bowden.)

Eventually, in 1999, the curse was lifted. Howsam was long gone at this point, and Bowden had traded for the goateed Greg Vaughn, who had smashed 50 homers for the Padres the year before. When the deal went down on Feb. 2, Vaughn immediately called Reds shortstop Barry Larkin to ask about the policy.

"What facial hair policy? There wasn't one as far as I was concerned,” Vaughn said. “When they traded for me, they got the entire package."

Reports at the time indicated he might file a grievance with the union, but that ended up not being necessary. Two weeks later, Schott relented. Vaughn could keep his goatee. He hit 45 home runs and finished fourth in the MVP race, as the Reds won 96 games.

“Some people are real ugly without facial hair,” said outfielder Dmitri Young, who quickly went from baby-faced to bearded, ”and I’m one of them.”

In 2007, the mustachioed Mr. Redlegs returned, later joined by his clean-shaven counterpart, Mr. Red. Corky Miller, J.J. Hoover, and Eugenio Suarez are among the many Reds to don mustaches or beards over the last two decades, though there was a 2014 attempt to at least keep them in check. In 2020, José De León wore a Fingers-esque ‘stache, though with a lot more than that.

Fingers never did play for the Reds, of course. At that point in his career, maybe he wouldn’t have had much left to offer, anyway. Maybe he wouldn’t have even made the team, like Morris. But not only is he the owner of perhaps the most famous mustache in baseball history, he’s likely the only Hall of Famer who can say he turned down a job because of one. That, we think, is commitment.